APS must show it has changed by implementing the lessons from Robodebt: new report

Susan McKinnon Foundation

The Australian Public Service must use the Robodebt experience as a prompt to revisit its values and draw lessons for the future, according to a new report by the Susan McKinnon Foundation (SMF).

Robodebt was a painful episode in Australia’s history, and to prevent a recurrence, its lessons must be embedded in the daily practices of the Australian Public Service. A new report by the Susan McKinnon Foundation synthesizes the ten key lessons from Robodebt, based on a direct analysis of the Royal Commission transcripts.

The Susan McKinnon Foundation partnered with Professor Emeritus Richard Mulgan to analyse the findings of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme.

The report finds the Royal Commission offers unique opportunities to reflect on the distinctive contribution and responsibility of the APS, particularly with regard to its culture. It offers ten overarching and current lessons for public servants from Robodebt:

1. Lawfulness is a bedrock value for public servants

2. Truthfulness is a bedrock value for public servants

3. Public servants should keep an accurate record of significant events and advice

4. Hasten slowly

5. Department leaders should set a proper balance between responsiveness to ministers and independence from them

6. Cooperation and collegiality are essential to good administration

7. Other APS departments and agencies should be treated as colleagues not rivals

8. Public servants should welcome input from non-government stakeholder organisations

9. Public servants should build a culture of openness and accountability

10. Public servants should be openly accountable to individual members of the public to whom they are providing services

“The Robodebt Scheme was a dark chapter in the history of Australian public administration,” said Professor Mulgan.

“A critical element of the failure was the culture of the public servants involved, particularly at the more senior levels. Their behaviour fell short of the standards expected of a professional career public service as outlined in the APS values and Code of Conduct.

“These collective weaknesses predated the Robodebt Scheme and remain embedded in the APS culture after the scheme’s abolition.

“The Robodebt experience has now been clinically dissected by the Commission, but the APS response should not be restricted to dry structural reforms. There is a real need to revisit and reinforce APS values and improve the culture so damaging programs like Robodebt are nipped in the bud.” This new paper provides constructive guidance for current public service practitioners and an easy to read guide including relevant examples and evidence from the Royal Commission transcripts.

Full report

About us:

The Susan McKinnon Foundation (SMF) is dedicated to strengthening Australia’s democracy and enhancing public administration. Their goal is for Australian governments to be more effective, transparent and accountable. The foundation supports practical programs that deliver tangible progress and their work is motivated solely by the long-term public good. Their approach is non-partisan and is undertaken in cooperation with all sides of politics.

/Public Release.