Gordon de Brouwer has used his new role as the Federal Government’s Secretary for Public Sector Reform to declare that the APS had lost its soul during much of the rollout of Robodebt.
Speaking at a recent Institute of Public Administration Australia podcast, Dr de Brouwer expressed his sorrow for the hurt the unlawful scheme had caused so many Australians and said it has caused the Australian Public Service to examine itself like never before.
“I’m personally deeply sorry for what the public service did to them,” Dr de Brouwer said.
“I think what we can see is that to some degree, the service, parts of the service at times have lost its soul, lost its focus on people, its empathy for people … We’ll need to examine and act to strengthen our systems, including training and performance management across the service, to ensure that what we’ve seen so far, isn’t repeated.”
The secretary, who had had a long career in the APS and was formerly the secretary of the Department of Environment and Energy, said most government ministers appreciated being given frank advice even if it wasn’t what they wanted to hear.
“They do want it in private, and they don’t want you … advertising your differences or disagreements,” he said.
“So that’s where some of the concerns and fears around FOI periodically come up.
“But they do want it … If your advice isn’t in writing, then actually, when it comes down to the crunch, it’s arguable to say that it never really existed.”
Dr de Brouwer noted that these were areas where some things went terribly wrong with Robodebt, with public sector leaders telling ministerial bosses what they thought they wanted to hear – or not giving advice in writing.
The government is waiting for the final report from the Robodebt Royal Commission, which heard damning evidence of how it failed Australians.
Over 400,000 people were sent false automated debt notices before the scheme was finally ruled illegal.
But when asked what the process had taught the public service about maintaining integrity, Dr de Brouwer said it wasn’t that hard to keep your integrity while being responsive to your minister.
“I’m really thinking of that [Old El Paso] ad that says, ‘¿Porque no los dos?’ (Spanish for ‘why not both?’).
“You can do both. You know, it’s not that hard,” he said.
“The only way you can sustain delivery is if you’ve actually got the right behaviours underpinning it.
“That way, you can sustain that delivery over time.
“When it comes to things like integrity, it’s not a woke concept. It’s actually just the law.
“It’s just a basic legal requirement on you doing your job.”
Dr de Brouwer is tasked with implementing the Federal Government’s APS reform agenda.
The role was created following Labor’s election in May last year and Dr de Brouwer was appointed in June for a two-year term.