Report finds ‘pervasive politicisation’ of Victorian public service

Victoria’s public service is subject to creeping and pervasive politicisation, an investigation by the state’s Ombudsman has found.

Deborah Glass

“Creeping politicisation is a reality in Victoria, and requires urgent attention,” ombudsman Deborah Glass says in a report tabled on December 6.

Ms Glass investigated a range of issues including an allegation that the VPS had been improperly stacked with ALP operatives.

“The investigation did not find this,” Ms Glass said.

“But it did find a public sector that has been politicised in other, equally pervasive ways.”

Politicising the government’s administrative arm doesn’t just mean hiring people with political affiliations, the report notes. It can take more insidious and harder to pin-down forms, such as closing down or marginalising independent voices.

Merit-based recruitment side-stepped

The investigation involved interviews of 45 senior public officials  and a review of millions of records across more than a dozen agencies.

The investigation found frequent examples where agencies sidestepped merit-based recruitment, with 11 of 16 hiring decisions examined involving direct appointments.

Candidates were often hand-picked without open recruiting processes and “slotted into new roles”.

Sometimes those new positions didn’t have job descriptions, defined duties or even a clearly documented business case, Ms Glass said.

The investigation also found “frequent direct appointments of former Ministerial staffers, rushed and shoddy recruitment practices, poor record-keeping and opaque selection methods”.

Culture of fear

She said many Victorian officers felt under increasing political pressure with regards to their work, with some describing a “culture of fear”.

The report considers specific examples of dubious decision making including the Suburban Rail Loop and planning for the Commonwealth Games, finding excessive secrecy and use of consultants in both cases.

It also says the influence of the Premier’s Private Office is of concern because it represents a “worrying concentration of decision-making” outside of individual departments.

The report makes eight recommendations including establishing a public service Head to replace the premier as the employer of department secretaries and executive positions.

The proposed new Head should have a voice in the selection process and have the power to review hiring processes and decisions on their own initiative, the report says.

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