2 March 2023

Robodebt shows just how far APS independence has been eroded, says Podger

| Chris Johnson
Join the conversation
Australian Government building

Andrew Podger says the Australian Public Service Commission needs to be strengthened to protect senior staff. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Andrew Podger has called for greater protection for senior bureaucrats who speak truth to power to bolster the credibility of the public service.

In his report to the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme, the former Australian Public Service commissioner 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.

It is a culture where bureaucrats fear losing their jobs and an illegal program like Robodebt was allowed to continue.

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

Professor Podger suggested that the very independence of the APS was being eroded, leading to sugar-coated advice being delivered and poor decisions being made.

READ ALSO Minister vowed to double down on Robodebt even when told it was illegal, royal commission hears

“I believe the APS must be regarded as a significant institution in its own right as part of responsible government under the Constitution,” he says in his report.

“It plays a critical democratic role in serving the elected government and administering its policies and programs.

“The partnership between secretaries and agency ministers is therefore critical: it requires trust and mutual respect, and confidence in the confidentiality of communications between the two.

“Equally, the degree of independence of the APS, and hence of secretaries, must be recognised. The relationship should be along the lines of trustees, each respecting the other’s role and responsibilities; not quite equals (as the APS does ‘serve the government’) but not the ‘principal-agent’ relationship which has emerged since the 1980s let alone the ‘master-servant’ relationship which I have detected in more recent times.

“Failure to appreciate this degree of independence may inhibit the provision of ‘frank and fearless’ advice, endanger perceptions (or the reality) of non-partisanship and impartiality, and undermine the role of the APS in serving the Parliament and the Australian public as well as the government.”

Andrew Podger

Professor Andrew Podger: the relationship between the government and the APS has been in decline for decades. Photo: ANU.

Professor Podger said there had been a decline of such independence over at least the last two decades, but most notably a failure over the period Robodebt was introduced and administered.

“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.

“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.

“Relying on the Secretary of PM&C would be insufficient, particularly given the common practice over recent decades of prime ministers ensuring that the secretary of their own department is someone they have had a personal connection with (on occasion raising questions of partisanship).”

READ ALSO Public service actions getting even more scrutiny over Robodebt

Professor Podger said the APS commissioner’s role needed to be strengthened if adequate protection was to be provided to secretaries. But there must be some limit to the protection the commissioner can provide, he added.

“In the event a secretary and minister are unable to form the partnership required, notwithstanding the efforts of the commissioner, it is the secretary who must be moved,” he said.

“But the commissioner should have considerable influence in finding an alternative suitable role for the secretary affected.

“I also consider it essential to revisit the APS Values and Employment Principles to make much more clear the unique role of the APS reflecting Westminster principles.”

Robodebt was an 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.

It became the subject of numerous inquiries, leading to the Coalition government scrapping the scheme in 2020 and promising to repay 470,000 wrongly issued debts.

In 2021, Federal Court Justice Bernard Murphy ruled the scheme unlawful.

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

Former DHS secretary Renée Leon told the royal commission on Tuesday that her then Coalition minister Stuart Robert disregarded advice she was passing on that Robodebt was illegal.

The hearings continue.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments
Peter Graves10:44 am 02 Mar 23

Andrew Podger’s excellent work canvassed the long-standing “management” issues that the APS has suffered. It stands as a great summary of where the APS is today (unfortunately).

Of particular relevance to the professionalism of the APS is how tenuous and day-to-day is the position of the Secretary (having given up permanency years ago). And how this must shape a Secretary’s advice to the Minister, who has that job and its continuation in the palm of her/his hand.

Paul Barrett found that out, when he was sacked from Defence Secretary in 1999 and found he had no rights of redress. The long-term implications (now found to be prescient) were analysed by Monash University in 2004, in its Working Paper 32/04: DISMISSING A DEPARTMENTAL SECRETARY: AN OVERT EXERCISE OF POWER IN PUBLIC EMPLOYMENT.

However, a more subtle “cloning” process in the senior APS levels is how Secretaries generally select their acolytes for the SES2 and SES3 positions.

As Ms Leon – to her great credit – has now confirmed: “Ministers would tell secretaries to move deputy secretaries to other roles if they were perceived to be unhelpful, even though the minister is supposed to have no say. “So, it wasn’t popular to give the government advice that what they were doing was wrong.”

Many Reports have analysed these issues over the past 40 years and made appropriate Recommendations. With subsequent agreement that these will be implemented. In the APS, there is a great gap between Secretaries asserting a “reform” has been “implemented” (usually only starting the change required) and “embedded” (where that change has been made permanent).

The greatest challenge is to embed such reforms – once and for all – so that the “reform” becomes permanent practice by all APS staff. And does not need to be started (yet again) some 25 years later.

As appears now to be needed, for Andrew Podger’s analysis to become embedded.

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.