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Commissioner: the ‘knot in my stomach’ over insulation findings

The Commonwealth’s public sector chief has questioned the sense of personal responsibility among bureaucrats, describing the “knots in our stomach” over the failings identified by the royal commission into home insulation.

Speaking frankly on a panel of public sector commissioners at a conference in Perth, Stephen Sedgwick said the royal commission identified “capability issues that hadn’t been properly thought through” and “governance matters that didn’t properly get addressed in the haste to get it done in time”.

And he questioned performance management frameworks in the public sector, which are institutional rather than directed at individuals. “They don’t say Bill or Betty stuffed up, they say Department X,” he told the audience at the Institute of Public Administration Australia annual event.

[pullquote] “… the sense of personal responsibility that people feel when something goes wrong is not as strong as it should be.” [/pullquote]

“There is something about the way we go about the performance management, the accountability, the feedback loop that we probably have to work on. And I have a suspicion that the sense of personal responsibility that people feel when something goes wrong is not as strong as it should be,” he said.

The minister responsible for the public service, Eric Abetz, is currently considering whether bureaucrats breached their code of conduct in managing the home insulation rollout.

Ian Hanger’s final report into Labor’s “poorly planned and poorly implemented” economic stimulus program was damning of both the directions from government and the work of departments “ill-equipped” to manage the scheme. It names a number of senior public servants from the Department of Environment, saying they knew about the risk to installers but didn’t act. Four died during the scheme’s rollout.

“The day that Ian Watt, the secretary of PMC [the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet], and I were being briefed on the findings of the royal commission we both had knots in our stomach,” Sedgwick said. “It wasn’t us, it was our system — but we were listening to this thinking ‘no, this is not kind of right’. I wonder how many other people felt the same.”

Sedgwick says bureaucrats’ natural inclination to deliver for government was put before proper scrutiny.

“Where the imperative of the government of the time reflecting the nature of issues that it was dealing with was to get something up that was big, bold, iconic and new in our environment to get it done very quickly. And that interaction between the decision-making process of government, the advisory process of the public service and some of the dynamics within the public service I think has given us pause for pause.

“Because our culture was so focused on the fact that, you know, we just go through brick walls, government says it wants X done by yesterday and 99% of the time by god we’ll do it because we are quite task-orientated, results-orientated and we will deliver for the agenda of the government of the day.”

Sedgwick used his speech to the conference to urge more reform within Commonwealth public sector ranks, saying “incremental change just won’t cut it any more.”

Author Bio

Jason Whittaker

Jason Whittaker is managing editor of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has written for and edited political, business and culture publications for a decade. He spent two years as editor of sister Private Media publication Crikey.