Awaited corruption report blasts SA Health but independent inquiry rejected

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday December 4, 2019

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South Australia’s corruption watchdog has released a scathing report on the agency he has previously described as “riddled with maladministration”.

Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Bruce Lander delved into a number of his major concerns with SA Health — the state’s primary agency for health services — including “troubling ambiguity” surrounding the agency’s operations, cultural issues, and poor record keeping.

While he didn’t make any recommendations in his latest report, Lander reiterated his belief that “poor conduct and practices are common and accepted within SA Health”, and that the agency “must be as transparent as possible”.

The commissioner conducted a public integrity survey across the SA public sector last year. It showed SA Health had developed a culture in which employees have been reluctant to report misconduct for fear of risking their job, or simply have not been fully aware of reporting procedures, he said. This could lead to an organisation which eventually “learns to tolerate” misconduct.

More than half of the SA Health survey respondents said they had encountered bullying and harassment, while 78% rated the agency as vulnerable to bullying and harassment. Lander argued this environment would also make employees hesitant to report misconduct.

The failure by SA Health employees to manage conflicts of interest, poor contractual and financial management, and mismanaged procurement practices were also major concerns cited in the ICAC report.

Lander has previously spoken about how shoddy record keeping has impacted on his ability to properly investigate corruption. He elaborated in his report:

“During the course of my investigations into conduct in SA Health I have observed record management practices that are wholly inadequate for an organisation which is relied upon to deliver a critical public service and which is therefore entrusted with administering substantial amounts of public funds.”

“Administrators do not often know whether records have been kept, where they are kept and how they can be accessed. My investigations have made requests for conventional business records only to be told SA Health employees were having difficulty locating them. The production of such records has often not been possible or affected by significant delay.”

The commissioner argued investigations can rarely be completed when records have not been kept or documents maintained, because investigations often involve allegations surrounding neglect of duties or misuse of power. These aspects cannot be looked at if they have not been properly recorded.

All of this adds up to an environment which allows corruption and maladministration to flourish, Lander said.

“These matters should be a concern to all members of the community because SA Health delivers a critical service on which all members of the community, including its most vulnerable, depend,” he wrote.

“I have become frustrated with the administration of public health services in South Australia. My frustration will come as no surprise to successive Chief Executives of SA Health and other senior officers, with whom I have been in regular communication.”

READ MORE: Case study: how not to hire a public service leader from the private sector (or: How a highly respected CEO of a venerable NGO learned about politics the hard way)

The report has dropped amid growing pressure on SA Health’s chief executive Dr Chris McGowan, who has been the focus of conflict of interest concerns due to his former top job at healthcare provider Silver Chain. McGowan found the report to be a “reasonable reflection of the matters raised with him”, Lander noted.

SA Health has said it was committed to responding to the report, and announced the establishment of a Cross-Agency Implementation Taskforce, to be led by the Department of the Premier and Cabinet Chief Executive Jim McDowell. It will involve senior SA Health staff, the Treasury and Finance department, and the Office for the Public Sector.

The taskforce will oversee the development of a response to the issues raised in the ICAC report, and expects to have an implementation plan by the end of the year.

SA Health said the Department for Health and Wellbeing and the Local Health Networks will work together to develop a best practice model to improve working conditions.

Health Minister Stephen Wade has reportedly rejected calls for an independent public inquiry or a royal commission into SA Health. Lander has also been refused funding (again) to conduct an investigation himself.

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