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Victorian FOI commissioner under investigation

The Victorian government has asked the Public Sector Commission to investigate the Freedom of Information commissioner over an undisclosed “serious” matter, it was revealed on Thursday.

The Public Accounts and Estimates Committee, Victoria’s equivalent of Senate Estimates, heard that the PSC had been asked to report on an issue relating to the FOI commissioner, Canadian-born Lynne Bertolini.

Although Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings did not provide any information on the matter, secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet Chris Eccles (pictured) told the committee:

“There were certain matters that were brought to my attention — and it’s not appropriate to disclose the detail — which I consider to be sufficiently serious to call upon the Public Service Commission to initiate an inquiry.

“That inquiry is on foot, and the matter is before government.”

A government spokesperson told The Mandarin: “The Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet commissioned a review of the Office of the FOI Commissioner by the Victorian Public Sector Commission, after receiving certain allegations. The review was led by the former Public Sector Standards Commissioner, Mr Peter Allen. The review’s findings are currently under consideration by the Government.”

Opposition committee member Tim Smith argued the government was using the investigation as a means “to force out another statutory officer”, raising questions about the appropriateness of asking a public servant, who answers to government, to report on a statutory officer.

Jennings did not respond to the question of whether the report would be made public.

Bertolini was little known when she was appointed the inaugural FOI commissioner in 2012 having come from the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation. Although the role has little statutory powers to speak of, Bertolini is described on the FOI commission’s website has having more than 30 years experience working regulatory and community education positions.

Comment has been sought from Bertolini.

DHHS restructure questioned

Crossbench committee member Dr Rachel Carling-Jenkins raised structural changes of recent years within the Department of Human Services — known as the Department of Health and Human Services since machinery of government changes after the election — aimed at ending siloisation. The restructuring had led to the loss of many middle management jobs, she argued, but which had not succeeded in improving work practices.

Noting that there had been many VPS graduates ousted in particular, Carling-Jenkins said:

“The idea was they were becoming more focused on grassroots decision-making. However, speaking to a lot of people within that, they said they were disappointed. The silos continue to exist but in different ways and many skills have been lost from the sector.”

Jennings responded that the government was looking into means of improving departmental structure.

“On coming to office we reflected on the incidence of key needs and clinical pathways for patients … that’s the reason we brought those departments back together, to actually see how they can be reassembled to try and deliver community-based services in an integrated way that brings together health and human services in an effective service delivery model,” he said.

The minister emphasised that his government’s machinery of government changes were aimed at service improvement, not cutting the headcount.

“It’s been designed not to reduce employment opportunities … the driver of this reform has been to have a look from the perspective of the citizen … how do we actually rise up and get our act together as a public service to respond to those needs?” he told the committee.

“How government joins up is a real challenge for us and something we’re very committed to.”

Eccles signalled the government had commissioned a capability review into the Health and Human Services portfolios.

“Under the auspices of the Public Sector Commission we have initiated a capability review that borrows a model from the Australian Public Sector Commission, whereby we get some external experts who come and examine the reform objectives of government and the system objectives of government.

“They go into a fairly deep analysis of the strengths and weaknesses both in terms of organisational design and … systems to see whether the portfolio aligns with those reform objectives,” he said.

“We are in the middle of that process with that particular portfolio, so it’s a model I would expect we would roll out more systematically across government because it has proved to be very successful at Commonwealth level.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.