11 October 2023

APS morale may be low, but buck up and be part of the solution

| Deb Nesbitt
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Michael pezzullo

Michael Pezzullo has been forced to step aside from his role while under investigation. Photo: IPAA ACT.

Who can blame public servants for dragging their feet to work amid repeated revelations of poor ”stewardship” by their highly paid so-called leaders?

The weekly slapdown of the public service by one authority or another, and, I fear, journalists like me going on about it, is unfairly feeding the general population’s disdain for it.

And it’s all contributing to plummeting morale.

On top of the usual bagging all public servants cop, they’re wearing the damage caused by Robodebt, the PwC scandal that opened the outsourcing can of worms, and now the Home Affairs affair.

The vast majority of public servants had nothing to do with the unforgiveable horror of Robodebt and, like anyone paying attention, many were aghast seeing it rolled out. They also became well aware of the limits of their power to do anything about it.

Good people I know fled the public service without a package years ago because they couldn’t bear being complicit in promoting policies they found unconscionable.

In Home Affairs’ case, it was also because they refused to wear head honcho Michael Pezzullo’s ”optional” horrid black uniforms.

(What on earth were those military-style stripes and gold epaulets on the uniforms Home Affairs bosses wore as they fronted Senate estimates? They looked like something out of Pirates of Penzance. What a waste of money.)

There was no real choice about wearing the uniforms. Brave public servants who said ”no way” were bullied out as non-team players. They were mostly in immigration, which was subjected to swinging staff cuts, leaving many thousands of people in visa limbo.

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If Border Force was meant to discourage bad people from wanting to enter Australia, it’s been a huge failure, says Christine Nixon’s review, unveiled this week.

The lines of people awaiting and appealing visa decisions have grown exponentially since Home Affairs was created in 2017, providing the wicked with an easily exploited and valuable black market workforce. All under Mr Pezzullo’s watch.

Mr Pezzullo’s extraordinary WhatsApp exchanges with a Liberal political operative linked to the Coalition government, which were exposed last week, tell us a lot about his perception of the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct.

A secretary’s job is to deliver government policies and abide by the code, which requires apolitical advice. They’re paid handsomely to work out how to do that without compromising APS values or defying government policy. No-one would disagree it’s a tough gig requiring a strong spine and thick skin.

With public service morale so low, there’s a risk the Australian Public Service Commission’s handling of its inquiry into Mr Pezzullo’s conduct will deliver another blow.

I can promise this: if the commission shows any weakness in applying available sanctions for breaches of the code of conduct, there will be uproar.

A slap on the wrist or payout beyond Mr Pezzullo’s entitlements would send a dangerous signal that the code and the commission are impotent.

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There’s no room for double standards. Getting it wrong could undermine everything the Government is trying to do to repair the APS, and worsen morale.

As Public Service Minister Katy Gallagher told RiotAct columnist Ross Solly recently, public service morale has been affected by multiple things.

“It’s been a whole range of decisions, including the fact that it wasn’t able really to do the job it was being asked to do through lack of staffing and lack of respect under the former government,” Gallagher said.

It’s also about the culture nurtured by poor leaders. A fish rots from the head, and the stench can take a long time to remove. It’ll take time to turn that ship around and it’s best done by modelling and rewarding the behaviours and the culture you want to instil.

The APS has many good people who have hung in there throughout its trashing over the past decade. Let’s hope it can attract more by installing worthy, well-trained leaders with impeccable standards.

Gallagher and Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil spoke last week about their respect for public servants. O’Neil said she “loved working with public servants”. Good.

I’d say to public servants who are struggling: buck up, take pride in your job and be part of the solution.

Original Article published by Deb Nesbitt on Riotact.

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