11 April 2023

Public service had lost its soul at times, says reform secretary

| Chris Johnson
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Dr Gordon de Brouwer

Dr Gordon de Brouwer is now Secretary for Public Sector Reform. Photo: ANU.

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.”

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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.

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“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.

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brucewantstobecool11:31 pm 12 Apr 23

My concern with this notion of frank and fearless advice being out of date is that it does presume such advice is never provided. Yes, there are issues like Robodebt, but frank and fearless advice is still provided. The change is that the public service’s advice is contested, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Oh, and Ministers have always had the final say on policy as representatives of the elected government; the benevolent technocrats of the past who bullied ministers into submission are where they belong, in the past.

Peter Graves12:06 pm 13 Apr 23

You might like to check for more recent reactions by the government to advice that was unwelcome. From Renee Leon:

Former Human Services secretary Professor Renee Leon lost her job when she was forced to wind up the robo-debt scheme after then-government services minister Stuart Robert had resisted solicitor-general’s advice that the scheme was unlawful.

HiddenDragon7:18 pm 12 Apr 23

“…… the service, parts of the service at times have lost its soul…”

Having eventually regained it after this episode? –


Some awful, shameful things happened in the name of “Robodebt” but it would be a very big mistake to treat it as unique or unprecedented in essence (even if it is thus far, one of the more publicly spectacular failures of public administration in Australia), or to assume such things only ever go badly wrong under one side of politics – the latter view being particularly tempting in the early days after regime change.

They need a review of what powers political staffers have. At the moment, any staffer seems to have the authority to direct public servants to do whatever the immediate whim is, regardless of legislation, regulations or contractual obligations.

But as my APS friends tell me, it’s usually shrouded in terms like “The minister wants …” – and it would be a brave public servant who responded “Well if the minister wants that, you have them call me themselves.”

de Brouwer is out of date. Morrison explicitly stated that the APS was only there to deliver what ministers and local MPs wanted, an attitude dating back decades. Public interest and legality are so last century. Ask the children overboard sailors, tax whistleblowers, Robodebt counter staff, sports commission etc.

Yes, but Brian, isn’t it good to reminisce about the good ol’ days of ‘frank and fearless advice’

Reminds me of the ‘In the beginning was the plan’ joke.

Peter Graves2:33 pm 11 Apr 23

I do hope that Secretary de Brouwer will be recommending permanency for Secretaries, to ensure that they do provide their frank and fearless advice without being fired for giving it. And that the SES will also act accordingly.

Remember the earlier firing of Paul Barrett as Secretary of Defence. On 21 July 1999, the Secretary of PM&C Moore-Wilton advised Barratt that he was being terminated, through advice to the Prime Minister and the Governor-General. This termination was held to be because of the breakdown in the relationship between Moore and Barratt and did not relate to his competence or any misconduct. Barratt appealed to the Federal Court on the grounds that the Minister had provided no reasons for this action and also for lack of due process (having been given no opportunity first to rebut any of the Minister’s conclusions).

Despite an initial temporary decision upholding Barratt, the Court eventually held that Barratt had no right to be so advised and that neither the Prime Minister (nor the Secretary of PM&C) was obliged to consider whether the Defence Minister’s loss of trust and confidence was well-founded. No requirements for procedural fairness or natural justice in connection with their termination existed for Secretaries.

Thus the various sackings of Secretaries over the years since. Sending signals of compliance throughout the SES and APS, more generally. I suggest.

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