The problem for commentators in the so called “mainstream media”

Aug 10, 2023
Newspaper headlines roll shown daily newspapers.

They rely significantly on feeds of material that’s not otherwise readily available. As they’re in the news business, they need something new to keep in the hunt.

It’s a hazardous business. Those “in the know” are only too ready to provide snippets of information often slanted to show them in a light bright enough to out-shine any “downsides”. Journos lucky enough to fed “intelligence”, as it were, well know that if they’re ungrateful enough to be critical of their feeders then the supplies are likely to be cut off.

This unfortunate mix of incentives can deflect the need for critical commentary, a primary function of journalism, into the realms of cheer leading, one the trade’s least useful and unappealing products.

Last week in the Australian Financial Review, its “Government Editor”, Tom Burton, had a longish entry headlined “Robo-debt crackdown is just the start, public service chief warns.” That sounded good.

Burton had been fed by the Public Service Commissioner, Gordon de Brouwer, who claims that disciplinary and other action against public servants referred to authorities by the Robodebt Royal Commission “are just the first instalment of a major overhaul of public sector practices that aims to ensure such a debacle cannot be repeated.”

But how credible is de Brouwer’s claim? Burton doesn’t pursue that.

Nor does he say that the Public Service Amendment Bill now in the Parliament, ostensibly developed by de Brouwer when he was Secretary of Public Service Reform in the Prime Minister’s Department under the leadership of Dr Glyn Davis, doesn’t anticipate any of the Royal Commission’s recommendations. And the likelihood this Bill been law ten years ago, it would not have impeded the Robodebt by one inch is not a speculation that occurs to Burton.

This Bill is so inconsequential and flawed that it should be withdrawn and converted into something that will deal properly with the many ills now convulsing the Australian Public Service. Why, it doesn’t contain a single word that would provide a legislative bulwark against the damage now being done by over-reliance on consultants and contract labour. That is to say, without legislation the Government’s desire to clean this problem up will depend largely on the public service leadership that did much to cause it.

Burton says that “In part a response to the widespread professional shock from the robo-debt failures, a reform bill Dr de Brouwer is jointly sponsoring creates a new statutory requirement for all public servants to be ‘stewards’ for the Australian Public Service”. If this is the best that can be brought forth then the public service is in an even worse state than might be feared.

de Brouwer says “It’s not just an airy-fairy remote principle”. Well, that’s exactly what it is in the Public Service Amendment Bill – airy-fairy waffle. The Bill defines stewardship as “The APS builds its capability and institutional knowledge and supports the public interest now and into the future by understanding the long term impacts of what it does.”

How airy-fairy can you get? The APS “builds its capability and institutional knowledge” in all sorts of ways but principally by Ministers and senior officials ensuring it is appropriately resourced and has proper laws, procedures and structures.

But even in its own terms the stewardship definition is a flop. Hey, how about short and medium term “impacts” too? A concentration on long term ones would likely not have tripped up the Robodebt and its “impacts” were immediate and short term – just ask those who copped it in the neck.

Further, making stewardship a “value” in the Public Service Act exposes all staff to disciplinary action if they are found not to have taken into account the “long term impacts” of what they do. That is to say, they can be taken to the disciplinary cleaners over for something that essentially cannot be assessed and measured and for stewardship failings over which junior and middle ranking staff have little or no control. And this from a Government that pretends to be a friend of its workers and a “model employer”. Incredibly, the main public service union, the CPSU has sold its members out by going along with this tosh.

de Brouwer says that stewardship in practice could include “keeping good records”. That is, public servants just doing their jobs. So conceived, stewardship means everything and therefore nothing. And only taking into account “long term impacts” may well have no effect on the quality of record keeping as, for the most part, it will be impossible for staff in the present reasonably to know what the “long term impacts” will be.

By all means make Ministers and senior officials responsible for stewardship but define it meaningfully and don’t, in the worst traditions of management, try to delegate that to junior staff who have no effective say in it.

Burton presses on to report de Brouwer breathlessly saying that “the secretaries board [a shadowy, unaccountable institution] had endorsed new performance criteria for senior executives that included delivery [read results] and behaviour”. Wow! But this ain’t new. It’s nothing to gush about. It’s always been a feature of performance management schemes in the public service. It’s a commonplace, and as with much of the Secretaries Board’s efforts, it adds nothing.

Finally, Burton is pleased to report de Brouwer saying that the Amendment Bill’s provision making “capability reviews” mandatory for about 20% of public service agencies is “going to be a key way of driving and being accountable for changes that are going to be in progress.” That may be so, whatever it means. But it’s magical thinking to believe that capability reviews will do much to avoid another Robodebt which was conceived near to when an earlier round of capability reviews was being phased out. Indeed, a capability review of the Department of Human Services was conducted in 2012. It said that one of the things it had going for it was “a highly capable Secretary who is widely respected and well skilled to lead the department into a challenging future.” That Secretary was Kathryn Campbell.

Burton’s report on what the Government is doing in the light of the Robodebt Royal Commission covers important territory. It would have been more convincing and useful however, if he had taken his critical faculties from his back pocket and attempted to offer an assessment of what the Public Service Commissioner told him. As it is, de Brouwer has cast his burley across the waters and caught the Financial Review Government Editor hook, line and sinker.

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