12 July 2023

Services Australia boss tells staff to be strong while rebuilding public trust

| Chris Johnson
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Rebecca Skinner

Services Australia CEO Rebecca Skinner told Services Australia staff that Robodebt is “one of the most challenging issues we’ve faced”. Photo: Services Australia.

Services Australia staff have been told there is much work ahead if the trust of the Australian people is to be regained following the tragedy of Robodebt.

The agency’s CEO Rebecca Skinner issued an email to all 7000+ employees on the day the Royal Commission into the illegal scheme delivered its final report.

Services Australia and its predecessor the Department of Human Services were a huge focus of the royal commission, with numerous staff and bosses called to give evidence.

It is expected that some could face further legal scrutiny over their roles in the automated debt recovery scheme that issued almost half a million false debt notices.

Former human services secretary Kathryn Campbell was a particular focus of the inquiry.

About 20 names of public service and political figures involved in creating and implementing the illegal scheme have been referred, in a sealed section of the royal commission’s report, for potential civil and criminal prosecution.

READ ALSO Senior public servants named in Robodebt report presenting a headache for the government

Ms Skinner urged her staff to be courageous in the months ahead as the agency rebuilds.

“Sticking to our principles, and tackling our challenges head-on, will hold us in good stead as we move forward,” she wrote.

“Now, more than ever, we need to ask ourselves if what we are doing is simple, helpful, respectful and transparent.”

Ms Skinner told staff there would be continued scrutiny of the agency and that they must be “agile” in the face of it.

There would be more due process in the wake of the royal commission’s report as the government responds to adverse findings involving the agency and some employees.

Those employees who were involved with the royal commission would receive wellbeing checks and the offer of confidential mentor support.

“Robodebt is one of the most challenging issues we’ve faced,” she said.

“I acknowledge the hurt it caused customers and our own staff. I’m aware the report may cause further distress for many of you…

“I know that you take great pride in serving Australia and making a difference in the community for those who need our support.

“The royal commission heard accounts from people who had poor experiences and we’ll now be working hard to restore their confidence.”

Commissioner Catherine Holmes made special mention in her report of Services Australia’s use of the term “customers” to describe Centrelink clients.

She refused to use the term herself, saying what the agency did was the opposite of customer service.

Among the royal commission’s list of recommendations is one calling for a more ethical debt recovery approach where all recipients of benefits are treated with respect and dignity.

READ ALSO Let’s get frank and fearless back in the APS building

Commissioner Holmes said public servants should be required to take everyone’s personal circumstances into account before embarking on debt recovery.

Robodebt’s automated debt assessment and recovery program for Centrelink compliance was piloted in 2015 before launching in earnest in 2016 until it was scrapped in 2020.

It became hugely controversial due to its incorrect calculations and threat to issue illegal notices to welfare recipients.

It was the subject of numerous inquiries and was finally ruled by the Federal Court as unlawful. The former Coalition government promised to repay 470,000 wrongly issued debts.

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

The Royal Commission has been scathing of the way former Coalition ministers and senior public servants ignored warnings of the scheme’s illegality and pushed ahead with the ruthless program at all costs.

The Federal Government is now taking legal advice about revealing the names of those listed in the inquiry’s final report, and is considering its response to the Royal Commission’s 57 recommendations.

It has established an APS taskforce to determine how individual agencies should react to the Royal Commission’s adverse findings.

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Peter Graves5:22 pm 13 Jul 23

On The MANDARIN today
“As robodebt imploded, Services Australia mandated ‘Roboto’ as its primary brand typeface.
But it used a typeface that even a twist in an episode of Utopia or The Thick of It couldn’t make up: the mandated corporate font for the very agency that created robodebt is ‘Roboto’.”

Message could have been simple. Do not be spineless toadies or criminals.

I wish they would change their emphasis. Recipients are not customers! Change the label; change the attitude; change the behaviour!

My understanding is that Commissioner Holmes was scathing of some senior public servants, noting the courage of staff to bring the vagaries of the Robodebt scheme to the attention of senior management.
For Ms Skinner go say, “Now, more than ever, we need to ask ourselves if what we are doing is simple, helpful, respectful and transparent”, is, in the light of the Commission’s findings, an exaltation not to be directed at staff but at senior management, possibly while looking in a mirror.

Ms Skinner told staff there would be continued scrutiny of the agency and that they must be “agile” in the face of it. Oh please. The most agile part of the APS is the SES officers and how they bend to conform to the Minister’s and his advisers wants ethical and otherwise. These people seem to slide away in the dark recesses of the APS when they are caught out with little or no consequence to their career. Kathryn Campbell anyone? Gardening? Any one see her?

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