30 April 2023

Commonwealth responds dismissively to Podger over APS culture report

| Chris Johnson
Join the conversation
Andrew Podger

Professor Andrew Podger. Photo: ANU.

The Australian Public Service has hit back over sharp criticisms of its culture published in a high-level independent report from a former APS commissioner.

Andrew Podger was commissioned to investigate the APS and report to the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme in February.

But Professor Podger’s comments went beyond the Robodebt era and challenged the current state of the public service.

His dire assessment and blunt remarks appear to have rankled the APS hierarchy, which is bracing for much higher condemnation once the royal commission itself reports to the Governor-General in June.

In his report, Professor Podger called for greater protection for senior bureaucrats who speak truth to power to bolster the credibility of the public service.

He highlighted a culture in the APS where too many department bosses were afraid to give quality advice they feared their ministers didn’t want to hear.

Professor Podger described a culture where bureaucrats fear losing their jobs, allowing an illegal program such as Robodebt to continue.

READ ALSO Complete reshuffle of Education Department executives as part of sector revamp

He called for secretaries and other senior public servants to be protected from bullying ministerial staff running interference for political masters.

Professor Podger went as far as suggesting the very independence of the APS was being eroded, leading to sugar-coated advice being delivered and poor decisions being made.

“If this systemic problem is to be lessened significantly, secretaries need some assurance that providing ‘frank and fearless’ advice will not jeopardise their tenure,” he said in his report.

“Such assurance is only possible if they know that when facing a particularly difficult situation, they can seek support from the APS commissioner and if the commissioner has the necessary powers and independence to provide some protection.”

But the Government’s response to the report, prepared by counsel for the APS, dismisses much of the former commissioner’s recommendations and even suggests the professor went off topic in his investigation.

“Professor Podger, while making a range of recommendations, did not respond directly to the questions asked,” it states.

The response downplays the significance of Professor Podger’s remarks, suggesting it should be viewed more like a submission to the royal commission rather than an expert investigation with any legal clout.

The Government’s counsel also throws a barb at Professor Podger by suggesting he “did not express the process of reasoning underpinning his recommendations” and “did not have the benefit of the detailed witness statements” from the current leaders of the Department of Social Services and Services Australia.

The response claims the professor gave scant attention or credit to the APS Reform agenda already underway.

READ ALSO Public servants think they work better at home, survey reveals

Professor Podger is reportedly surprised by the counsel’s remarks, but remains confident the royal commission will take his report seriously and the Government will act quickly.

Robodebt was an illegal automated debt assessment and recovery program employed by the Department of Human Services and its successor, Services Australia, for Centrelink compliance.

It began in 2016 and became hugely controversial due to its incorrect calculations and threat to issue illegal notices to welfare recipients.

The Coalition government scrapped the scheme in 2020, promising to repay 470,000 wrongly issued debts.

Following Labor’s election victory last year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese established the royal commission into the matter.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

The public service has become extensions of their ministers’ offices. I saw this working on the top floor of PM&C in the mid nought-teens. The advice being given to the PM from there read like something from his own closest advisors.

We’ve lost what we had and we’re never getting it back.

Peter Graves12:56 pm 01 May 23

It would be very unwise to “dismiss” Andrew Podger’s excellent analysis of the state of the APS today. He has his entire career in the APS under various management reforms and was Secretary of several Departments, ending up as the Public Service Commissioner.

His subsequent career at the ANU has been well spent in analysing both theory and practice of APS public administration, as it has devolved over the past four decades. Not all for the better.

As has now been demonstrated by Dr Andrew Leigh the Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, finally beginning to implement an Evaluator-General in Treasury and put some substance into the Department of Finance’s Resource Management Guide 130.

It will take this reform to demonstrate how effective the APS is, or should be, as yet another “managing for results” reform.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.