Public servants complaining to the media: ‘un-Australian’ or valid last resort?


Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett says it is “un-Australian” for public servants to complain to the media about how their department is being managed.

His Health Minister Kim Hames calls it “highly disappointing and inappropriate” — even if the public servants in question are medical doctors who say their professional input was being ignored and lives will soon be at risk due to “a series of poor and wasteful decisions and a misguided political agenda”.

The acting chief executive of Perth’s South Metropolitan Health Area Service, Robyn Lawrence, tried to strike a more conciliatory tone, telling journalists:

“I think our staff are reacting to things that are happening in the organisation and my job is to support them all, whether they are frustrated or happy.”

That frustration boiled over in an open letter the doctors sent to a local newspaper, blasting “poor management and political decisions” they say have plagued the relatively new Fiona Stanley Hospital.

After the explosive letter dropped on the weekend, Lawrence sent an email reminding all staff of their obligations as public servants regarding unauthorised communications with the media. But she denied there was any threat of termination as claimed in the letter:

“Concerns about the current state of the service have been silenced by management through threats of dismissal, and a culture of bullying and fear that goes right to the top.”

Lawrence said she was disappointed in the decision to publish the letter, but stopped short of the strident language used by the two ministers.

Barnett angrily dismissed the complaint as a small group of whingers “carrying on and criticising what is arguably the best hospital in Australia” and described his embattled Health Minister as the best in the state’s history and probably the best it would ever have.

Hames and Lawrence both suggested the doctors should have raised their concerns internally with health administrators, many of whom, the acting CEO pointed out, have clinical qualifications themselves.

But the open letter, published by Perth Now, suggests this was not an option:

“Clinicians have completely lost confidence in the ability of many of these senior managers in WA. Unfortunately, most of the co-director roles have failed, either through poor choice of individuals, or poor role definition. Despite this, most of these individuals remain in post.

This has effectively resulted in a barrier between management and clinicians that has shut down communication and with it any trust between management and doctors. No longer can the most senior physician or surgeon in the hospital get easy access to the Executive or their secretive decision making.”

More Health problems in WA with ICT procurement

Meanwhile, the WA Office of the Auditor-General reports a Health Department ICT project was mismanaged so seriously as to warrant referral to the Corruption and Crime Commission.

The project was originally budgeted at under $50 million but could blow out to more than $175 million by 2020 because of 79 contract variations, according to the audit.

Some staff authorised spending beyond what they were allowed to by orders of magnitude. One bureaucrat had a $100,000 spending limit but made purchases worth over $40 million, and no longer works at the department.

Acting auditor-general Glen Clarke said the audit did not find evidence of corruption and he suspected the extraordinary debacle resulted from a “failure of good governance” but the CCC probe was a routine referral to determine if crimes were committed.

Clarke praised the previous acting director-general of the Department of Health, Bryant Stokes, for bringing the project to his attention:

“He was acutely aware of the prospect of very public exposure of shortcomings within the department, but nevertheless chose this course in the interest of ensuring a rigorous, external and independent review of this significant issue.”

The department says it has already completed two of the audit’s recommendations and made “significant progress” towards the others.

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