Corruption findings against former senior staff of the Victorian Department of Education and Training have been the “biggest wake up call” for the public service in a long time, says Chris Eccles, the state’s most senior bureaucrat.
The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission released its report on the Operation Dunham investigation into claims surrounding the failed Ultranet software system on Friday, finding that “the tender process for the Ultranet was improperly influenced and therefore corrupted”.
The commission found evidence of process corruption, improper diversion of funds, conflict of interest and mismanagement at senior levels relating to the Ultranet project. It follows several days of public hearings last year. IBAC is presently compiling a brief of evidence for advice by the Office of Public Prosecutions.
It is the second major IBAC investigation into the department, following findings on the so-called “banker schools” system last year.
Speaking to The Mandarin on Friday, Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles described the “visceral reaction of anger and disappointment about the abuse of public trust” at hearing the allegations of corruption against senior managers.
“I think it was the biggest wake up call we’ve had as a public service for a long time and has put to the sword the complacency that may have existed before,” he says.
Although Eccles argues “you can never remove the risk entirely”, he asserts that “at the highest levels of the public service, with the really active support of government, we’re determined … to support those people within the public service who are determined to do the right thing, and put in place policies and procedures that minimise the chance of people who are motivated by personal gain being successful.”
The report sends a message to the community about integrity, he thinks. “Our responsibility is to ensure that we address the particular elements of the IBAC report, that we send a message to the public service and to the community more generally that integrity is critical. Once they lose faith in our integrity then we’ve got a real problem,” he says.
“In relation to the earlier IBAC investigation into the Department of Education and Training, the Victorian Secretaries Board held a workshop which was facilitated by [former Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary] Ian Watt to consider how we should respond as a system to the report. So we’ve created a dedicated subcommittee of VSB that is charged with, and has in fact, provided a response to deal with the issues we presented.
“I’ve written to IBAC with our reform program. It was the first time the VSB had sent a collective message to the whole of the public service, which was condemning that behaviour in the clearest possible terms, encouraging people if they see any evidence or suspicion of that sort of behaviour to feel absolutely free to call it out rather than just to turn a blind eye or to feel that they would be somehow compromised or somehow disadvantaged by calling it out. And then putting in place some very clear reforms around procurement and the declarations of interests and a range of other matters.”
Gifts ban recommended
The anti-corruption body issued four recommendations with the report, including that the Victorian Public Sector Commission consider banning public sector employees receiving any gift, benefit or hospitality from a current or prospective supplier.
Currently Victorian public servants must decline offers that, if accepted, would be seen as an inducement or give rise to an actual or perceived conflict of interest. They must also declare and record all “non-token” offers of gifts, benefits and hospitality — that is, offers worth more than approximately $50 — whether accepted or not.
IBAC also called on the DET secretary Gill Callister to provide it with progress reports on the implementation of the reform program to address the issues identified in Operation Dunham, to be published on the IBAC website.
It wants the department to “conduct a review of current arrangements governing how schools and other work areas pursue and respond to commercial opportunities, to ensure appropriate controls apply around transparency, accountability, central oversight and risk minimisation” and “advise on action taken to strengthen internal procurement and governance arrangements for major projects to ensure accountability and transparency, including proper record keeping, maintenance of conflict of interest registers, and proper documentation of complaints regarding probity.”
The department has indicated to IBAC it supports these recommendations.
The anti-corruption commission also recommended the Department of Treasury and Finance consider whether there are opportunities for further governance and probity improvements to gateway reviews and high-value, high risk-reviews.