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The post-Robodebt APS: boosting pro-integrity cultures and focusing on stewardship

26 July 2023

News and media


In this article, which first appeared in The Mandarin, ANZSOG Dean and CEO Adam Fennessy PSM reflects on the Robodebt Royal Commission’s finding and their impact on the future of the public sector.

By Adam Fennessy PSM


For someone who believes in the power of the public service to change lives for the better, the last week has been sobering, to say the least.

To hear a Royal Commission describe the administration of Robodebt as marked by ‘venality, incompetence and cowardice’ is confronting for me and many dedicated, values-driven public servants across Australia.

The findings – and the potential civil or criminal prosecution of senior public servants – must be a catalyst for reflection and improvement. This issue will have wide ripples across the public service; even at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) we are aware that a former ANZSOG board member, Kathryn Campbell AO, has been singled out for criticism in the Royal Commission’s report.

Across the range of commentary over the last few days, what has struck me the most is the importance of maintaining a focus on the stewardship role of the public service, as well as its integrity.

These are not new ideas. Indeed, a focus on stewardship and building organisational capabilities was central to the 2019 Independent Review of the Australian Public Service (APS), led by David Thodey AO. ANZSOG played a significant role in that review by producing six research papers on key issues for the APS Review, including on integrity, to inform the Thodey Review’s deliberations.

One of these papers, by Dr Nikolas Kirby and Simone Webbe, called for an APS that specifically promoted ‘institutional integrity’ based on four institutional qualities: purpose, legitimacy, fulfilling commitments and robustness. Each of these qualities has been shown to drive trust in public institutions. Their paper recommended bolstering the current APS Values and Code of Conduct by adding the new value of stewardship.

We also heard strong advocacy, in the lead up to and following the release of the Robodebt findings, of the importance of stewardship and integrity from APS leaders including Professor Glyn Davis AC, Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Dr Gordon de Brouwer PSM, the Australian Public Service Commissioner, as well as his predecessor Peter Woolcott AO.

Like all organisations with a focus the public sector, ANZSOG will continue to work with our owner governments across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand on integrity. We are reviewing in detail the Royal Commission’s findings to identify how we evolve and transform our public sector leadership and management programs to meet these needs in tangible and practical ways that incorporate a renewed focus on integrity.

Part of the stewardship function involves public sector leaders making sure their departmental staff have the core skills they need, and investing in core public service capabilities and competencies. This involves both boosting pro-integrity cultures and investing in professional development of staff.

Agencies need to have that core knowledge to provide independent, fearless and frank advice to governments, even in an environment where that advice may be contested and their monopoly on providing advice has long disappeared.

The recommendation from the Royal Commission that describing documents, including public service advice, as ‘cabinet in confidence’ should no longer be a justification for maintaining their confidentiality is worthy of further debate. This provision is open to misuse, and government practices in Aotearoa New Zealand are far more transparent in this regard.

The establishment of the Commonwealth National Anti-Corruption Commission is a critical reform that will change behaviours and actions of senior public decision makers. As we have found at state and territory level, the prospect of independent scrutiny changes behaviour for the better.

However, ethical behaviour cannot just be about avoiding corruption. Public services must be delivered on a foundation of strong organisational cultures that incorporate public sector values into the actions we take.

These values – impartiality, commitment to service, accountability, and respectful and ethical behaviour – must be demonstrated every day, discussed with our colleagues, modelled, championed and recognised. These values should be the basis on which our performance as public servants is assessed and rewarded.

While the ‘what’ of the public service will always be important, and we need to pay as much attention to the ’how’.

We need to recognise that senior public service roles are under the ever-present risk of politicisation, and that standing up for integrity under those conditions can be difficult. A core skill for senior public servants is managing the balance between serving the demands of elected governments and those of the public, while maintaining personal and organisational integrity.

A point of reflection for me following the release of the Robodebt report is how we design and deliver public services for the most vulnerable members of our community.

This must be a defining learning from Robodebt: how those of us in positions of power use and share that power for the benefit and support of those who rely on government.

Customer-focus cannot just be an organisational buzzword – it needs to be founded in empathy and compassion for the people and communities that we serve.

Public servants need to be comfortable with using skills of empathy and compassion. If in doubt, we should ask ‘would I accept this situation for myself, my parent, my child, my friend?’. If the answer is ‘no’, we must do our best to speak up and ask how it can be changed.