Podger Robodebt review calls for empowerment of middle managers

The Australian Public Service Commissioner should play a lead role in advising on the appointment and sacking of departmental secretaries, a report by former APS Commissioner Andrew Podger says.

Professor Andrew Podger

Professor Podger also says in his report to the Robodebt Royal Commission that he wants to see middle managers more empowered, as well as a review of the number of Band 3 SES executives.

The royal commission in February engaged Professor Podger to provide an expert report on a range of issues including the role of the APS, the relationship between APS leaders and minsters, and APS capability during the illegal welfare debt recovery scheme.

The report identifies many failures and makes recommendations for changes, which Professor Podget says “would greatly limit the risk of a future Robodebt-type failure and substantially improve Commonwealth public administration”.

Recognising independence of APS

Professor Podger says the APS plays a critical role in serving the elected government and its independence must be recognised. Secretaries also need assurance that they won’t jeopardise their tenure by providing ‘frank and fearless’ advice.

Failure to do this undermines the role of the APS in serving the Parliament and the Australian public as well as the Government, he says.

 “I consider there has been such a failure over at least the last two decades and most particularly (during) the Robodebt scheme, and that this systemic problem may well have contributed to the ‘fiasco’,” Professor Podger says.

The best course of action would be for the Prime Minister to request the APS Commission to inquire into the alleged breaches.

Professor Andrew Podger

He recommends the APS Commissioner be recognised in law as the professional head of the APS, and the Secretary of PM&C as the ‘operational head’.

He recommends that the commissioner should play a lead role in appointing, reviewing and sacking secretaries, and that the prime minister should consult the leader of the opposition on the appointment of the APS Commissioner.

“In the event the royal commission recommends that there should be an investigation into whether any current or former secretaries or APS employees have breached the APS Code of Conduct, I believe the best course of action would be for the prime minister to request the APS Commissioner to inquire into the alleged breaches,” Professor Podger adds.

He also says more needs to be done to ensure secretaries, the SES and EL officers focus on their statutory responsibilities, rather than serving ministers, and recommends ethics training for all APS staff, including newly promoted employees.

Capability building

Professor Podger says despite repeated inquiries and reports there is still a long way to go to rebuild APS capability in areas like strategic policy advice, and data and technology.

He says evidence to the royal commission so far has shown “a number of serious cultural issues in DHS and DSS” during Robodebt.

“These include that DHS in particular operated with a firm hierarchical culture that disempowered non-SES staff (and some SES), that both agencies exhibited a `defensive’ culture that reinforced `silos’ and constrained collaboration both within each agency and between the two.”

The report recommends empowering middle managers and says there should be a review of the number of Band 3 SES managers and a strenghthening of the role of EL and other SES officers, including regional office managers, call centre managers an compliance managers.

The government’s inhouse lawyers came up for a special mention in the report, with Mr Podger criticising their “passive approach” to legal advice.

The strict hierarchical control in DHS seems to have presented serious obstacles to the provision of independent legal advice, and even the less hierarchical structure in DSS seems also to have inhibited such advice.

Professor Andrew Podger

“The strict hierarchical control in DHS seems to have presented serious obstacles to the provision of independent legal advice, and even the less hierarchical structure in DSS seems also to have inhibited such advice,” he says.

“An appropriate level of independence might be achieved by requiring an agency’s senior in-house counsel to be a seconded lawyer from AGD or by having some other form of accountability of in-house lawyers separate from that to the agency head.”

He recommends that Services Australia be established as a statutory authority within the social services portfolio, and that DSS and SA SES be required to spend some time in front-line service delivery.

The Robodebt Royal Commission is inquiring into the fairness, legality and policy considerations of the failed debt recovery scheme, which unlawfully claimed almost $2 billion from 450,000 people.

 The latest round of hearings will run until March 10 in Brisbane.

Commissioner Catherine Holmes SC will hand down her final report by April 2023.

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