While South Australia’s water management bureaucracy earned the highest accolade at the Prime Minister’s public administration awards this week, its equivalent in New South Wales has been spiralling into dysfunction for at least a decade, according to the state’s ombudsman.
Acting NSW Ombudsman John McMillan (pictured) has serious concerns about the “devastating” impact of almost constant machinery-of-government changes over the past 20 years.
“The opinion of the Ombudsman’s office is that the impact of these changes on staff, loss of expertise and corporate knowledge, disruptions to systems and strategy, and continuity of service delivery, have been devastating,” the report states.
Over two decades, water management and regulation functions have been shifted around the bureaucracy almost 20 times, according to the report.
“At least eight of those changes in the last fifteen years were major restructures that resulted in substantial staff relocations and retrenchments, carving up of functions, splitting of departments, amalgamation of units and establishment of new agencies,” the report explains.
“Since 2003 when the Department of Land and Water Conservation was abolished, there has been a restructure involving water management functions approximately every two years.”
The Ombudsman has been alerting the government to issues with water management since well before the issue became front page news in July, when ABC journalists exposed Gavin Hanlon, a Department of Primary Industries deputy director-general in charge of water, inappropriately offering inside information to irrigators.
“We have undertaken three prior investigations into those complaints and disclosures that resulted in reports to Government and the Minister,” McMillan said yesterday.
“We commenced a fourth investigation in [July] 2016, once again triggered by complaints from the public and public interest disclosures from officials working in the agencies charged with administering the legislation.”
The NSW Ombudsman’s office has been receiving “complaints and public interest disclosures alleging that the water management principles and rules were not being properly complied with and enforced” since 2006.
McMillan decided to go public with the progress report on the latest investigation, which commenced last year, mainly because several other inquires into similar issues are now underway.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption is looking at allegations made in the ABC program, and working with a departmental investigative team looking at specific instances of illegality, the Murray–Darling Basin Authority is reviewing state-level compliance and enforcement, and a Senate committee is also conducting an inquiry into the integrity of the MDB water market.
Another consideration that led McMillan to table the interim report yesterday was the “substantial action being taken by government to change the administrative structure for water management” in response to an investigation by retired public servant Ken Matthews that followed the Four Corners expose earlier this year.
“In that setting it is appropriate to advise Parliament, Government and the public of the progress and direction of our current investigation,” he explained.
“The concerns that we raised in the earlier investigations continue to be a strong theme in the current investigation, and are summarised in this progress report.”
There are two recurring questions that keep coming up for the ombudsman. He questions whether the water use compliance and enforcement function of the NSW public service has it “suffered rather than benefitted” from the frequent administrative restructuring.
And, he wonders, is it “properly understood, supported and resourced” by the government?
Being an interim report, there are no official findings and recommendations, but it’s pretty clear that McMillan has serious concerns based on a longstanding pattern of complaints. Water management is a “matter of intense public interest” in Australia, he notes.