16 August 2021

Study says APS staff unwilling to report corruption but academic believes contractors are a greater risk

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Andrew Podger

Professor Andrew Podger says external contractors are a significant corruption risk. Photo: ANU.

An award-winning research paper pointing to the dangers of nepotism and cronyism within the Australian Public Service has reinforced calls for a federal anti-corruption commission.

Associate Professor Jeanette Taylor’s paper was published in the Australian Journal of Public Administration in 2019 and has just won the Sam Richardson Award for the journal’s most influential article.

Her research at the University of Western Australia investigated what workplace factors encouraged APS employees to report cases of workplace corruption.

She found that only one third of APS staff who had witnessed corruption reported it, but while most were willing to identify behaviour that was clearly fraudulent or illegal, workers were much less likely to call out nepotism and cronyism.Professor Taylor’s study used data from the APS Employee Census with many respondents admitting to staying silent despite having observed cases of cronyism and nepotism in their agency.

“If we think that preferential treatment of friends and family members are largely confined to developing countries, then think again,” Professor Taylor said.

“Several reports by anti-corruption bodies in Australian states suggest these cases are harder to investigate and monitor. It is often difficult to get access to direct evidence of such an issue.

“There is also a low level of trust in the management to tackle the issue, not to mention concerns of retaliation.”

Associate Professor Jeanette Taylor

Associate Professor Jeanette Taylor. Photo: University of Western Australia.

Former Public Service Commissioner Andrew Podger AO, now a Professor in the School of Sociology at the ANU’s College of Arts & Social Sciences, has lauded Professor Taylor’s work in the field as a major contribution.

However, he says there are further corruption risks arising from a lack of control over the government’s externally contracted projects.

Professor Podger gave evidence on these risks to a Senate committee last week, flagging concerns that while internal mitigations exist within the APS, no such measures can be imposed on service providers.

“The area that worries me most is the extent to which the APS is contracting out and using labour hire,” he told Region Media.

“There is no provision to stop nepotism when a company handles its own staffing, beyond the capacity of the APS to manage the situation. The massive increase in contracting raises serious questions about how confident we can be about those risks.”

APS sources say that if there’s no evidence of obvious illegality, staff may feel that the price of reporting dubious behaviour is not worth the benefits, especially if workplace relationships and promotions are at risk.

Legislative provisions prevent management from taking direct action following a complaint and the APS allows for appeals around promotions, but sources say that unease remains in some quarters about upsetting the apple cart if there’s no direct evidence of criminal behaviour.

Professor Podger said that the APS Employee Census meant it was possible to get down to agency level and within agencies to detect things like employee motivation and morale.

“That will allow you to look at problem areas and the data becomes much more useful for addressing management issues.

“But the limit is that this data necessarily only deals with public servants, when there is an increasingly large number of people who are working for the government but are not government employees.”

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Cronyism and nepotism are more rife than even the most cynical can imagine. I’ve held positions where the manager above me has demanded that I get their friend’s relative into a permanent promotion, and as a result,
I had to falsify written documentation to ensure it happened. And in that way, my ‘boss’ could then simply approve my decision.

(and yes, his mate’s brother was not competently qualified to hold the position)

cockneyreject9:11 am 15 Aug 21

I look forward to Andrew Podger expanding on his point. There are a couple of situations. The first is where the APS hires a particular individual from a labour hire firm or consultancy to fill in or do a job for say six months. The second is where the APS hires a company to do something. In each case you’d think that the appointment would be off a pre-qualified panel and request for quote process, or be the result of a fully-fledged tender, although I don’t know myself. You would also think that, in each case, the company would have a massive incentive not to allocate on the basis of nepotism given the livelihood of the company depends on it performing. But maybe I’m naive.

Plenty of dodgy things going on in the Public Service and failing projects that are money sinks but portrayed as successes.

But contractors won’t say anything as they want to be renewed.

And both contractors and public servants are unlikely to say much as many of them require security vetting for their jobs. Blabbing about bad things in the public service is probably a good way to fail your next security review.

Professor Podger would know, we can presume, of what he speaks given he now works for such a Federal Government Agency, the ANU, where allegations of nepotism and corruption are hardly un heard of And, lest we forget, he was also the author of an ‘independent and external’ Review into the ANU School of Music in 2016 which, it was only later acknowledged, was in fact neither independent or external. The biggest impediment to stamping out corruption in all our public institutions is the lack of truly independent and fearless individuals and organisations to whom we can report it when we see it, and who will indeed investigate it independently and fearlessly.

Stephen Saunders11:01 am 14 Aug 21

While I support all this, I’m more concerned by the increasing cancer of unethical or illegal behaviours right at the top.

Morrison expects “tribal” loyalty from agency heads, and has protected or promoted those who do toe the line.

If he wins the election, don’t be surprised if he directly punishes or removes agency heads who don’t toe the line.

Jenny Graves6:10 pm 14 Aug 21

The Coalition are well known for doing this. Remember the Tampa ‘children overboard’? A tissue of lies supported by someone who went on to be well-rewarded by Howard!

Tampa was not ‘children overboard’. If you want to be critical of the political decisions and the processes (or not) that lead to them, please use facts and information – not made-up fantasies.

The Tampa (later also a drug smuggling vessel) was a Norwegian cargo ship that picked up Afghans from a sinking boat in international waters.

Following international law, survivors of a shipwreck were to be taken to the closest suitable port for medical treatment.
That port was in Indonesia but the Afghans didn’t want to to there. So they intimidated (essentially an act of piracy) the Tampa’s captain forcing him to sail to Christmas Island.

One of the great ironies of the Tampa affair is that at the time, Norway (remember the Tampa was a Norwegian vessel) had an policy which would not accept asylum seekers if they had stopped off at any other country between their place of origin and Norway, meaning that if Australia had been operating under Norwegian law, the Afghans (and almost all asylum seekers we have accepted) would not be eligible to settle here.

Indeed, and one of the rewarded held a Secretary role throughout Howard’s tenure, and beyond!

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