Podger roasts poor APS transparency and lack of career paths


The former head of the Australian Public Service Commission and robodebt forensic examiner Andrew Podger has publicly roasted the Australian Public Service’s (APS) enduring inability to restore its internal technology capability, and its refusal to create a sufficiently paid dedicated professional stream.

Giving evidence in a private capacity at the Senate, Finance & Public Administration References Committee inquiry into the management and assurance of integrity by consulting services, Podger warned it will take time and money to address the systemic loss of APS capability over the past 20 years not just in technology but across policy and research areas like social security.

It was a mirror to a culture of learned helplessness across the APS that has produced audit after audit, inquiry after inquiry, of troubled and poorly executed tech projects, policies and initiatives that fuel the internecine political blame game that looks no further than a few years out, at a maximum.

Podger told the probe — which was triggered by the PwC leaks scandal involving the firm allegedly using client-in-confidence Tax material to advise other clients on how to get around Tax’s enforcement measures — that the dependency on hired help had created a “serious erosion of capability” in the APS.

PwC is also under the microscope at the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme for apparently neutering, and then burying, an external report cataloguing the illegal program’s litany of serious problems and glaringly erroneous logic and calculus that resulted in it being paid $1 million for a PowerPoint deck.

In the cornucopia of sometimes — not always — borked government IT projects, robodebt stands supreme in its profound ignorance of human cost, trumped only by a cultish adherence to a grotesque solutionist innovation theatre as a means of deterring people from claiming welfare-entitlement payments.

Cautious to avoid pre-empting the commission, Podger said it was his general view that when external assessments were commissioned by agencies, they should be published as a default position, with reasons for non-publication needing to be stated to obtain exemptions.

“The amount of publications by departments is a lot less now than it was back in the 1990s,” Poddger observed.

“We don’t — they don’t — publish as much. And one assumes that that’s because of political concerns about managing the risks of what the publication might generate in the media. And I think that, sadly, is a wider problem.”

And then, like an old Road Runner cartoon, the cliff, the coyote and the anvil all dropped as one when it came to ill-conceived tech delivery.

“I think the public service remuneration arrangements we’ve got at the moment are not designed to get the best, to attract, develop and retain the best talent,” Podger said.

“We’ve gone down a route of allowing each agency to have their own pay arrangements. We’ve had weird and wonderful rules around that, but no reflection on what the markets require no basis for doing that.”

Podger told the inquiry the APS needs to “rethink what are the career trajectories today”.

“Is there an IT profession we ought to have? What would that look like and what does the private market look like in that place? And what should we pay to make sure we are attracting and retaining the people we need?” Podger said.

“It’s actually a lot of work. Now, the government’s said that they’re going to look towards a more APS- wide approach. I think that’s right. But what they haven’t yet said is within that approach, how are you going to specify the different career paths for different professions? And how do you measure it against what the market requires you to pay?”.

The former APSC chief lamented the seemingly limitless capacity of the APS to hand over young talent to the coalition of the billing, especially the devaluing of their expertise.

“If you want to develop young people, giving them a chance to write papers to be published in a journal, or published in some way, is a really good way to help them build up their capability. But if you turn around and say ‘we’re not going to publish things, that’s not what we do’ … you can do briefing notes for the minister for a question time, that is not the same as building up the depth of capability,” Podger said.

“So trying to change those issues of the relationships between the public service and the political framework, as well as the use of external consultants will take some time.

“If you get that, right, you give room to develop people better. And you’ll make more use of them, but it will take some time.”


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