16 August 2022

Royal Commission findings have lessons across public service

| Ian Bushnell
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Australian troops in Afghanistan

Veterans, including those from the protracted conflict in Afghanistan, have struggled with an inadequate bureaucracy. Photo: ADF.

The exceptionalism Australians apply to serving military and veterans should not stop them or the government from extending the recommendations of the Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide to other areas of the public service and the people it serves.

It’s a damning report and an indictment of the previous government’s approach to public administration in general.

It highlights a system of built-in inefficiencies incapable of responding to need and an unjustified faith in technology to deal with what is essentially a people problem.

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The report blamed the much-maligned APS staffing cap, which Labor has promised to scrap for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Put simply, claims from veterans are surging, yet the number of DVA staff has not increased.

It was inevitable that with staff churn, temporary contracts and a lack of continuity of case management that veterans would find themselves at their wits’ end trying to navigate the claims system and facing agonising delays.

The report also highlighted the limits of automated claims processes.

Technology might be able to provide more efficient and faster ways to pay a bill, but when it comes to complex and nuanced issues involving vulnerable people, it can’t replace person-to-person communications that can understand and resolve issues.

Those having to deal with Human Services, especially Centrelink, know exactly what this can mean.

There is no doubt that the digitisation of public services has and will continue to revolutionise the way government administers its programs and how the community accesses them.

Indeed, IT will be strengthened at Veterans’ Affairs to beef up its administration of the claims system, as recommended.

But the situation at Veterans’ Affairs and other agencies also points to false economies if the human factor is overlooked.

Technology should free up human resources, not just replace them, so the kinds of tragedies that inquiries such as the Royal Commission continue to report do not occur.

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The public service should still be smarting about the Robodebt scandal where automated debt generation was not only found to be illegal but ended up costing the taxpayer instead of potentially saving money, let alone the human cost.

The Interim Report should have lessons for the wider public service on staffing, the use of contractors and the need to retain skills and knowledge.

In areas where the lives of real people are at stake, there are real-world consequences.

The Albanese Government came into office committed to reforming the public service, restoring respect for public servants and rebuilding its capacity to deliver advice and services.

These findings should only bolster its intentions and serve as a line in the sand between this government and its predecessor.

They should also be a reminder to public service leaders that they have a duty to ensure government is fully aware of the consequences of its decisions.

Veterans deserve to be treated with respect and their claims processed quickly, efficiently and fairly.

So do the jobless, pensioners, the homeless, students, medical and compensation claimants and others who have to deal with government.

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This isn’t a message for the public service, it’s a message for the government. It’s the government that thinks it can deliver services without staff, and politicians are happy to pretend they’re not responsible and the public service is somehow independent of their decisions.

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