Stark implications for Australian Public Service in wake of Robodebt report

By on 23/07/2023 | Updated on 24/07/2023
A photo of Centrelink offices, which provides for Services Australia executive agency that comes under the purview of the Department for Social Service
A photo of Centrelink offices, which provides for Services Australia executive agency that comes under the purview of the Department for Social Service. Image: David Jackmanson/flickr

The release of the Royal Commission report into the Robodebt scheme has exploded a hand grenade under Australian politics and government, identifying problems across the Australian Public Service that will need to be addressed

The report of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme, published on 7 July 2023, has found significant failings across the Australian Public Service (APS), and by leading politicians, that allowed the initiative to be delivered and remain operational for over four years.

The report’s author Catherine Holmes stated that the commission brought into the open “an extraordinary saga” that illustrates “a myriad of ways that things can go wrong through venality, incompetence and cowardice”.

The Robodebt system was implemented by the Department of Human Services (DHS) and Department of Social Service (DSS) in 2015 under the Liberal-National government led by prime minister Tony Abbot. It was designed to recover overpayments in welfare benefits going back to 2010-11. The system relied upon an automated process called ‘income averaging’, which assessed people’s income over short periods and assumed that their earnings remained steady throughout the year.

This lead the government to unlawfully demand that the most vulnerable in Australian society pay back non-existent or inflated debts – causing significant hardship and possibly contributing to cases of suicide.

Read more: Australian government to refund 470,000 unlawful welfare debts

Professor Paul Maginn, the director of the University of Western Australia’s Public Policy Institute told Global Government Forum that Robodebt “has brought to light the severity and complexity of problems within a particular area of the APS”.

He added that the commission’s finding are particularly hard hitting because “the domain of welfare has always been a very highly charged policy and political portfolio”.

The shortcomings noted in the Robodebt report included the political environment under which the scheme was developed. Pressure placed on officials in the DHS and DSS by the government – especially by then minister for social security Scott Morrison (who served in the role from December 2014 to September 2015) – to accelerate plans for debt recovery.

Morrison, who went on to serve as prime minister from August 2018 to May 2022, is mentioned hundreds of times in the report, emphasising his role pushing a policy focused on achieving savings in the welfare budget and pressuring public servants to “get on and deliver it”. Morrison has refuted the findings of the commission that relate to him.

The report stated that these conditions also included “repeated failures by members of the APS to discharge their professional obligations and to adhere to the values and standards that applied to their roles”.

Read more: ‘We want to make evaluation a fundamental part of what government does’: the inside story of setting up the Australian Centre for Evaluation

‘Ill-conceived, embryonic idea rushed to cabinet’

It blames structural features of the APS as contributing to the failures that led to the creation and maintenance of Robodebt. It listed them as, firstly, the separation of responsibilities between agencies relating to the development and maintenance of government programmes and a lack of clear definition of those responsibilities.

The report said there was a “chasm” between the DHS and DSS. The DHS has since been replaced by the Services Australia executive agency that comes under the purview of the DSS.

Secondly the report cited a lack of independence on the part of secretaries; thirdly woefully inadequate recordkeeping practices; and fourthly a lack of understanding on the part of some of those involved of the APS’ role, principles and values.

As a result the report states that the scheme “was put together on an ill-conceived, embryonic idea and rushed to cabinet”.

It also details the way in which concerns about Robodebt were ignored or overridden at the senior official and political level. When concerns were raised about its performance they were ignored and even questions about legality were not addressed.

A confidential chapter of the report has made referrals for information about a number of unnamed individuals to four different authorities for further action that could result in criminal proceedings.

Of the 57 recommendations made in the report, eight are related to improving the APS. It calls on an immediate and full review to examine the structure of the social services portfolio; clearer training and guidance on the obligations of public servants; and a fresh focus on customer service with testing and mechanisms to ensure recipients are “at the forefront” of new initiatives.

It wants the Administrative Review Council to provide training and develop resources for the APS relating to Commonwealth Administrative Law; the establishment of an internal college within Services Australia to provide training and development; and placements so senior executive service staff at Services Australia spend time in frontline delivery roles.

The final two recommendations relate to accountability. These are: amending the Public Service Act to allow the Australian public service commissioner to inquire into the conduct of former agency heads and allow disciplinary action to be taken; and for the Australian Public Service Commission to develop standards for documenting important decisions and discussions.

These build on the Thodey Review published in 2019 that made a series of recommendations to improve the APS, some of which are being implemented by the new Labor government under prime minister Anthony Albanese. It had already identified some of the issues raised in the Robodebt report and wants to reinforce the central role of the APS as providing “robust and evidence-based advice to ministers, frankly and freely”.

Maginn said that the Robodebt commission looked at the Thodey Review for evidence and information to inform its recommendations. “Both reports are interdependent and co-relational and the Robodebt report adds currency to the Thodey Review,” he said, adding that this would make it harder for the government to resist implementing the recommendations.

However, although the Robodebt report acknowledges the Albanese government’s intention to implement Thodey Review recommendations, it stated that “it is not clear to what extent any formal organisational review is underway”.

Read more: ‘Radical incrementalism’: new APS commissioner details 10-year reform agenda

Senior officials ‘excessively responsive to government’

Of particular concern for the senior executive service is the report’s overview of the role of departmental secretaries and deputy secretaries and their impartiality. The report stated that evidence from secretaries and other senior leaders were “excessively responsive to government, undermining the concept of impartiality and frank and fearless advice”.

A screengrab of Kathryn Campbell, secretary of the Department Human Service, addressing the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme
A screengrab of Kathryn Campbell, former secretary of the Department Human Services, addressing the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme

It highlighted that Kathryn Campbell, then secretary of the DHS, failed to correct misleading information during the development of the Robodebt scheme when it was a new policy proposal before the Expenditure Review Committee in 2015. It was reported last week that she had been suspended without pay from her new role at the Department of Defence following the findings of the report, and announced today (24 July) that she had quit.

“The speed at which the decision was taken to suspend her is an indication of the synergies that are happening between the Thodey Review and the Robodebt commission,” Maginn said. “I think Robodebt is going to be quite catalytic looking through the function and role of the APS. Through the APS Reform Agenda, they are going through a process of cultural learning in terms of who they are, what they are and how they do things.”

The amount of political pressure placed on secretaries and the senior executive service has been increasing over the years because of the control that a prime minister has over the appointment and tenure of secretaries. The result is that APS leaders become more agreeable instead of being challenging and debating issues.

Report reveals ‘political capture of public administration’

Maginn said the issue of the lack of independence of the secretaries and deputy secretaries strikes at the central issue: “It is the political capture of public administration”.

He explained: “There are concerns about senior positions: who has been appointed and why – is that on merit or for political reasons? Decisions about who makes appointments are very blurred. Someone who is politically appointed is beholden to the minister, whereas if they are appointed on merit and have tenure in their position, they have some independence from the political apparatus.”

Although the Thodey Review addresses issues around senior executive service appointments and performance management, the Royal Commission said it “does not go far enough” and wants some of the Thodey Review recommendations to be revisited.

In particular, it called for the prime minister and cabinet secretary and the APS commissioner to publish a policy on processes to support advice to the prime minister on appointments of secretaries and the APS commissioner; undertake robust performance management of secretaries; publish a framework to manage the performance of secretaries; and ensure proper processes are in place to govern the termination of secretaries’ appointments.

“The extent to which these recommendations have been endorsed by government is unclear,” the commission noted.

But Maginn warned that cultural reform of the APS will not happen “over a weekend”. He explained that whilst the DHS and DSS will “face the most scrutiny” the APS is a huge, complex and diverse organisation where change, even when pushed from the top, takes time.

“There are some cross-cutting reforms that will have implications for the APS system in general,” he said. “Reforming the [Public Service] Act to give a notion of independence and give greater oversight for the APS commissioner are relatively easy steps to take, but culture is another thing.” He continued: “As messaging filters down through an organisation it is prone to misinterpretation. Different departments and units won’t all hear the exact same thing – you are working with individuals who are been practicing things for a fairly long time a certain way, therefore they will respond differently.”

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About Tim Fish

Tim Fish is a government and defence journalist with experience in politics and global travel. With a MA degree in War Studies and work as reporter on public service publications, Tim has expertise and has written extensively on government and international security.

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