11 September 2023

Services Australia staff finally get an apology for what they had to endure with Robodebt

| Chris Johnson
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Rebecca Skinner

Services Australia CEO Rebecca Skinner has apologised to staff for Robodebt. Photo: Services Australia.

Staff at Services Australia have welcomed an apology from their boss Rebecca Skinner for the “heavy burden” of Robodebt, which continues to negatively impact many in the agency.

The chief executive officer talked to all staff via an internal video message on Friday (8 September) and acknowledged how difficult the rollout of the illegal scheme had been for some and how the fallout had affected many more.

Ms Skinner told staff they deserved an apology from their agency.

“I am sincerely sorry for the position this placed you in, and extend this apology to former colleagues who have since left,” she said.

“From the distressing conversations had at the time with vulnerable customers, to the way it has coloured many customer interactions since then, resulting in frustration and a loss of trust.”

Services Australia staff were at the frontline of the scheme’s rollout and had to deal with thousands of distressed Australians who had received false and illegal Centrelink debts.

A number of those staff gave evidence at the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme, recounting examples of the stress the work placed on them.

The Royal Commission also heard how some staff had alerted the agency’s hierarchy to serious issues with the scheme, including legal concerns, but were ignored or overruled.

READ ALSO The APS has a problem with integrity, just ask the Auditor-General

Staff had also spoken about threats being made to their jobs and careers if they appeared before the Royal Commission.

Robodebt was controversially rolled out between 2016 and 2019.

Ms Skinner, who was appointed CEO in 2020, praised the staff who had worked directly on the scheme at the direction of senior officials.

“I know you acted in good faith, under assurances from senior management. Your integrity remains intact. Your character is not in question,” she said in the video message.

“Robodebt has taken an unfair toll on you collectively and as individuals. You deserve an apology from your agency.

“To all of you, I am deeply sorry.”

Ms Skinner began her message, however, acknowledging the ongoing impact of the scheme across the entire agency.

The Royal Commission’s report was scathing of the agency and its senior leadership at the time of the rollout.

“I know Robodebt and the fallout from the scheme has been difficult for you all to navigate,” she said.

“I want to apologise to all of you for Robodebt. Robodebt is a heavy burden that many of you still carry.

“I’m also aware this has affected you in different ways.”

The CEO said the agency was working through issues raised in the Royal Commission’s report as a top priority and was learning from the mistakes made.

She told staff they were the backbone of the organisation and she could “not be more proud” to lead them.

READ ALSO 16 public servants referred for code of conduct investigations over Robodebt

“I want you to know that your leaders and I are listening to you,” Ms Skinner said.

“Everyone should feel safe to raise issues to keep our customers at the heart of every decision we make.

“It’s my job now to make sure that we are listening.”

Services Australia employees have generally greeted the apology video well, with some seeing it as a helpful gesture.

Others, however, would like to hear similar apologies from the Coalition government ministers of the day and those senior managers who were responsible for the scheme.

Kathryn Campbell, who was the secretary of the Department of Human Services (Services Australia’s predecessor) and played a key role in Robodebt, refused to acknowledge the devastating impact it had on victims.

The Royal Commission was scathing of Ms Campbell, accusing her of intentionally misleading cabinet and of trying to cover up any suggestion the scheme was illegal.

Ms Campbell was stood down in July from a subsequent Australian Public Service role – as a $900,000 per annum AUKUS advisor – in the wake of the Royal Commission’s report.

A total of 16 current and former APS employees have been referred to Australian Public Service Commissioner Gordon de Brouwer for code of conduct scrutiny over the illegal Robodebt scheme.

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