15.08.2017

Ombudsman hopeful: ‘do better so I can slam less’


Every public servant fears earning their own ‘ombudsman slams’ headline.

Seeing your failings splashed across the front page and suddenly drawing the attention of the minister and the opposition is unpleasant, but it’s also an important part of keeping government on track.

Yet there’s also a slightly depressing regularity to it. Thanks to newspapers’ formulaic headlines, the phrase ‘ombudsman slams’ has become something of a joke inside the Victorian Ombudsman’s office.

But sometimes a bit of slamming is needed to draw attention to an egregious lapse in public administration, Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass told Public Sector Week on Monday.

One of the clearest such integrity failures of recent times was the misuse of public resources by the board and senior managers of the publicly owned Mt Buller and Mt Stirling alpine resort.

According to the Ombudsman’s report, this included living in resort-owned accommodation for the entire ski season, hosting family and friends for free, and using conferences as a way of justifying extended overseas holidays — even charging a teenage daughter’s flights to Paris for study several months before a family holiday to the agency.

One of the most concerning things about this case was that the people involved maintain they were unaware this was inappropriate conduct for the public sector, Glass told the conference, which is hosted by the Victorian branch of the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

While it’s one thing to deal with people who’ve knowingly done the wrong thing, there can be little hope for high integrity if there are public sector employees who don’t know that using public resources for private benefit is unacceptable.

And it’s not just about these high profile indiscretions. Many public servants are unaware that Victorian government rules state that only two days of annual leave can be taken for every seven days of work overseas, for example at a conference, said the ombudsman.

While it would generally be considered acceptable to take a holiday after a business trip in the private sector, only minimal personal travel is allowed in government. It doesn’t matter if it still costs the state the same amount of money in flights, the difference is that public employees can’t be seen by the public to be subsidising their own holidays care of the taxpayer.

Public servants must act with integrity, but also must be seen to be acting with integrity.

Glass maintains that despite her role as an irritant in highlighting examples of poor administration, she really does want to help. Her office has published several guides to help public servants avoid falling foul of the integrity agencies — such as how to manage complaints involving human rights and how to apologise — and she wants more to read them.

Broader understanding of the core principles and behavioural change are ultimately how agencies will be able to avoid getting into trouble.

While she isn’t confident her workload is going to dry up any time soon, Glass is hopeful.

“Otherwise where does it all end?” she said.

“I’d like for you all to do better so I can slam less.”