Lessons from Robodebt

Whatever specific findings the Robodebt Royal Commission makes, the main outlines of the story are now clear. Between 2015 and 2019, the Coalition government, keen to make savings, undertook a data matching exercise with the Tax Office and Centrelink, designed to flush out welfare fraud. The government was convinced many welfare recipients were under-declaring, or not declaring, income they had earned, which would have reduced their entitlements. Scott Morrison, Minister for Social Services at a crucial point in the saga, repeatedly urged that a strong ‘welfare cop’ was needed.

Unfortunately, rather than continuing to rely on experienced officers to conduct investigations, the then government authorised a method of automated debt calculation based on income averaging, which resulted in some 20,000 debt notices being illegally issued to income support recipients. Many were understandably traumatised by their experience, and there were a number of suicides. By the time the scheme was finally terminated, the Commonwealth was ordered to restore the money wrongly taken, and to pay compensation.

Many factors contributed to this debacle. But the key problem is the one virtually nobody, over the years, has been willing to talk about: politicisation of the Australian Public Service. Politicisation is a term with a number of dimensions to it. One is that public servants are appointed to their positions because of their political sympathies. Although, over the years, this has certainly happened, it is not the primary cause of concern. Rather, politicisation refers to a general atmosphere in the Service of not only giving advice the Minister wants to hear, but facilitating whatever the Minister, or more often the political staffers in the Minister’s office, may want to do. Often confused with responsiveness, this culture, which has been endemic for many years, has now reached a point where even legality may be sacrificed.

Politicians on both sides must bear some of the blame for this state of affairs. Since the days of the legendary Mandarins, many members have understandably resented being patronised by over-mighty public servants, protected by tenure. In removing tenure, however, they introduced a risk to themselves which the Robodebt affair has highlighted only too well. An overly compliant public service won’t tell you what you need to know.

It is difficult to see tenure being reinstated. But all Ministers need to make it clear that public servants are there to help them make the best decisions possible. And acting in accordance with law is fundamental.

It must be acknowledged, though, that the Australian Public Service, particularly those at the most senior levels, could – and should – have performed better. For those watching the Royal Commission’s public hearings, many of the officials who appeared seemed evasive, helpless, or hapless. One senior figure in particular seemed to lack both professionalism and compassion. Whatever the fate of those who testified, what it means to be a servant of the public in these kinds of circumstances, needs further elucidation.

There are lessons relating to public service structure, process and procedure as well. The key issues in public administration often lie at the nexus between policy and implementation – Robodebt is a clear case in point. The specific circumstances of the social services portfolio as it has evolved over the past 20 years, demonstrate the hazards of separating policy (in this case the legal parts of policy) which resides with the department of Social Services, from Human Services (now Services Australia), which also includes Centrelink, where programs are implemented.

Had Human Services remained an integrated part of Social Services, it is much less likely that the manipulation of advice to the Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet, in which the previously-advised need for legislation was mysteriously omitted, would have occurred. Disarticulation of policy from implementation was a flaw in the logic of new public management that was pointed out from the outset by academics, but (as is often the case) not taken seriously by practitioners.

It is not as if the Department of Human Services lacked legal advice, but the giving and receipt of such advice was so muddied by the constant change of personnel and priorities within the agency that no clear line seems to have emerged. Structural problems with information flows played a part as well. It is easier to skip crucial steps when processes are unclear, decision points are muddled or not properly recorded, people are constantly coming and going and, as the endless emails and attachments brought before the Royal Commission show, many are not quite sure what is going on. This confusion was particularly evident in the 2018-19 period, when the full extent of the debacle was becoming apparent, and panic began to set in.

Modern public administration is inevitably highly political, which means, paradoxically, that routine becomes more, rather than less important. The same goes for ethics. There have been many attempts to codify public service ethics, but none are proofed against the dangers of politicisation. It is only when – as clearly happened with the Liberals in government – the pursuit of political advantage overtakes everything else, that the ultimate accountability – electoral defeat – is exacted.

The public service must now think about its own accountabilities. The program of change outlined by the new Public Service Commissioner, which stresses ethics training, is welcome, but should be complemented by a long-overdue discussion of public service professionalism. Structures and the expression of values are closely related. Dismembering Social Security as an integrated department meant that standards of conduct had to be better, not worse, than before. As New Zealand academics Gregory and Hicks observed in 1999

It is not enough to ensure that people who work for government are efficient and accountable. They must also be responsible, and responsibly accountable.

The APS must now devote substantial energy, at the highest levels, to working out what this means in practice. It is an issue that will need to be addressed with clarity, courage and promptness.

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