Australian Public Service Commissioner Gordon de Brouwer will be given new powers to instigate investigations into current and former APS employees, including departmental heads, without first receiving referrals.
The strengthened role will enable the commissioner to conduct reviews and inquiries into code of conduct breaches when he believes they are warranted.
He will not have to wait for matters to be referred to him by ministers or wider inquiries such as royal commissions.
Revealing the next phase of the Federal Government’s APS reform agenda, Public Service Minister Katy Gallagher described the ‘own motion powers’ the commissioner will be granted to initiate the reviews.
Safeguards will also be built into the appointment process of future commissioners to complement the expansion of their ‘own motion’ and inquiry powers.
“In a nutshell, what we will try and do is empower the APS Commissioner – empower that role,” Senator Gallagher told reporters.
“Lift it and have it at the beating heart of the Australian Public Service.
“I want to see the APSC’s role and respect in the APS lifted. Part of that is making sure that the APS Commissioner actually has the powers to do the job that we’re asking them to do.
“When I was a union organiser a long time ago, the APSC set the standard for the public service. That’s where you went for your advice. That’s the place that sets the guidance out to agencies.
“That was not the APSC I inherited when I became minister and we’re trying to change that and get it back to that former role.”
Senator Gallagher delivered her annual statement on APS Reform at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy on Wednesday (1 November).
She noted the rough time the APS was enduring and said the first priority area for the government was an APS that embodies integrity in everything it does.
“The government recognises the Public Service has come under heavy scrutiny over the past 15 months, with the Robodebt Royal Commission, various code of conduct inquiries, audit reports, ombudsman’s inquiries, the PWC scandal and the associated focus on contracting across the APS,” she said.
“These reports and various recommendations show that there is more work to do to strengthen the trust, integrity, independence and capability across the APS.
“I don’t make these comments to apportion blame or shift the focus, but I do believe that honest assessments help drive the improvements and accountability needed going forward.”
The expectations of senior executives in the APS have been made clearer and stronger, she said.
The government has already announced the intention to include behaviours as well as outcomes in Senior Executive Service performance reviews, with a framework recently signed off by department secretaries.
The minister said the framework will ensure that the most senior APS leaders serve by example.
“We recognise after years of attacks on the APS, where small government resulted in a diminished service, where jobs were outsourced, where deep history and knowledge were ignored or eroded, that we needed to do things differently,” Senator Gallagher said.
“Now, there have been a lot of opinion pieces and calls for faster change and a focus on permanently enshrining more reform elements in a legislative reform package.
“I’ve read those pieces. And I always, always listen to those voices with respect.
“There is always more that can be done. But not everything can be done at once, and it is equally important to do things well and to deliver on the promises we’ve made.”
The next phase of APS reforms will also include requirements for the commissioner and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary to conduct merit-based appointment processes for secretary roles to build ‘rigour into the advice’ provided to the Prime Minister on candidates.
A secretary’s performance framework and process will be published that will put in place ‘better handling of sustained underperformance of secretaries’ and include ‘appropriate consequences’.
“As well as this, we will improve transparency and consistency in how agency head appointments, performance and suspension for executive, statutory and non-statutory agencies are conducted,” she said, “including having merit-based appointment processes and creating a power to suspend agency heads, including without pay – and applying sanctions following breaches of the code of conduct by agency heads for executive, statutory and non-statutory agencies.”