Leaks from Centrelink whistleblowers indicates that the official channels for public servants to make complaints have failed and informants should not be punished for this, says an expert in transparency and governance.
Human Services staff have dumped on their employer in a series of recent public leaks to online social activism website Get Up! and the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), which have both posted the criticisms online, since the government’s automated debt recovery scheme blew up in its face in January.
AJ Brown, Professor of Public Policy and Law at Griffith University’s Public Integrity and Anti-Corruption in the Centre for Governance, said the public revelations, which have included officers alleging they were given debt collection quotas, asked to pursue debts they knew to be wrong and ordered to refrain from correcting errors, are a strong indication that public servants are not getting through to those higher up the chain.
“Most of the time, when these things leak out in the public domain it is because there’s a problem that isn’t being dealt with in the internal or official channels,” Prof Brown said.
“There may be a maverick public servant looking for destabilisation [for political reasons] but it is very rare.”
Human Services is understood to have threatened leakers with disciplinary action or prosecution, insisting that the public interest defence under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2014 is unlikely to hold water.
Prof Brown said it was generally assumed whistleblowers should initially lodge a complaint to their department or agency or go to the Commonwealth Ombudsman in cases of a perceived conflict of interest or possibility of reprisals if reported to an agency.
Only after an investigation has gone on for more than 90 days, or if a whistleblower has “reasonable grounds” to consider the results of an investigation to be inadequate, could they then go public safely.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman, which is currently conducting an inquiry into the Human Service’s Online Compliance Intervention debt clawback program, said a public interest defence must relate to instances where there is maladministration, corruption, a waste of public money or property or an abuse of public trust.
Although complainants are allowed to contribute anonymous tip offs, the Ombudsman said it will make them “difficult, or even impracticable for the agency to investigate your disclosure”.
Prof Brown said employing the public interest defence would depend on what other channels a whistleblowing public servant had gone through first, unless they could prove that there were ‘life threatening’ reasons why they had gone public straight away.
There could be some defence under this provision for Human Services’ whistleblowers. Some Centrelink clients have said they have contemplated suicide after receiving a debt recovery notice.
Centrelink staff have also told of their stress when dealing with distressed and vulnerable people, some of which they consider have been treated unfairly, and allegedly told not to help them.
But DHS spokesperson Hank Jorgen has stated that public interest disclosure cannot be used when an individual merely disagrees with a policy or process, which he has hinted is behind some of the declarations from Human Services’ staff.
Prof Brown said that punishing leakers would be a knee-jerk reaction from Human Services as it tried to preserve confidentiality and discipline.
“It’s a normal human reaction to try to find out the place the leak is coming from. They [Human Service] would have a better idea whether the leaks are justified. The head of the agency needs to sit back and say … rather than shooting the messenger, let’s deal with the problems.”
He said it would be unwise for the behemoth department, which has 36,000 employees, to try and make an example of individuals, “What they need to be focused on is trying to create an environment where people don’t need to leak in the first place.”
Whistleblowers forced to go public
Whistleblowers have said they tried to escalate problems via traditional channels but they were ignored and they felt compelled to speak out.
A number of the most explosive claims were contained in a letter by a Centrelink claims officer to social campaign website Get Up!
In it, the compliance officer alleged that Centrelink staff were told to ignore incorrect debts and not to correct them. He said they were given only 18 minutes to study each case “because staff should not be checking for errors when they are not permitted to correct them anyway”.
“When we report errors it falls on deaf ears or we are told that the issue is already known and we must not make any attempt to fix the error or our work will be returned as wrong,” the letter said.
“Every single one of these issues is known to the department”.
He said officers were “struggling daily with our consciences and pushing back against our leaders every single day”, and added “I can no longer live with what we are doing”.
“I am horrified at what I’m being directed to do. I am risking my job sending this information in the desperate hope that exposing such a corrupt and unjust system might just make a difference. Please help.”
Other Centrelink employers maintain they have been forcibly silenced by the Department.
One told the CPSU: “The LNP government and DHS management are guilty of culpable negligence for not only conceiving of such an obviously defective and immoral system but to implement it against the advice of staff.
“Then to intimidate and threaten staff in order to gag them from speaking out is nothing less than blatant and wilful malice!”
Prof Brown said the public interest disclosure act, which is currently the subject of a Senate inquiry, needed to be clearer and simpler.
Official complaint channels need to be made clear to staff and employees needed to have confidence that action would be taken, he said.
The senate inquiry into whistleblower protections in the corporate, public and not-for-profit sectors can be found here. Submissions close on Friday February 10.
Meanwhile, Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support workers will commence six days of targeted industrial action on February 13th, 15th, 17th, 20th, 22nd and 24th in protest at the robo-debt crisis and the stalled Australian Public Service enterprise bargaining process.
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