Robodebt: Leadership inaction in action

There is no doubt that the intent, structure and administration of the Robodebt scheme offended all proper principles of public administration and caused great and avoidable pain and suffering to those unfortunate enough to be caught up in its abuses.

The Royal Commisson into Robodebt has already done a great service in exposing the consequences of the Robodebt scheme and will in due course deliver its findings on the extent of the malfeasance and maladministration that took place. But it is already apparent that the scheme was both immoral and unethical.

The onus of proof about debts allegedly owing to the government was reversed. Some who received notices for large debts allegedly due to the government took their own lives in consequence.

The collapse of Robodebt has already meant that Australian taxpayers have paid out billions of dollars in justified compensation and to cover the continuing costs of unraveling the awful mess of Robodebt.

A friend following the Robodebt Royal Commission texted me and said, ‘right now, I am ashamed to be a public servant.’

The proceedings of the Royal Commission show that the relevant politicians and many, but not all, of the senior bureaucrats who created and implemented the scheme used every trick in the book to distance, deflect and deny their responsibility for the operation of Robodebt. There were many claims of ignorance and faulty memory but very little acceptance of responsibility and accountability.

The responsible departments evidently became degraded to the point where they were enacting a program that was beyond the scope of the government’s power and authority or, more bluntly, illegal and known to be so from its inception.

The Royal Commission has heard from some public servants that they had profound misgivings about the scheme, and that some had been aware of legal advice that the Robodebt was operating outside the bounds of legal authority.

It must be asked how, despite so many misgivings and warning bells, how could these departments and their senior officers have both promoted the scheme and allowed it to run for years before the weight of the many abuses led to the collapse of the scheme.

Pondering on these questions, I wondered what safeguards I might integrate into my leadership practice to protect myself and by extension my colleagues from ever being placed in a similar predicament to those involved in the Robodebt fiasco.

Here are my top 3 reflections.

Listen more closely to criticism and develop capacity in your critics

There was a lot of what looked like collegial behavior on display at the time of Robodebt that quickly dissipated as the Royal Commission picked apart emails and other records. Getting along with your colleagues appears to have been part and parcel of keeping your job at the Department. It appears there were ‘consequences’ for not being in agreement with everyone else.

I think the golden rule of developing psychological safety is to create space for diverse views and opinions. If you find everyone is agreeing with you all the time, you might not be creating enough supported space for individuals to express an alternate view. I ask myself: Do I invite feedback outside of the meeting space, do I seek personal meetings with team members to really gauge their views and opinions, do I treat opinions that are different to mine with utmost respect and seriousness?

Regularly go back to basics: read the relevant Act, vision, mission and values

You don’t have to be a lawyer to understand the function and purpose of your organisation, regardless what kind of sector you work in. It doesn’t matter if you are a Director or an Administrative Clerk, understanding the explicit role and function of the organisation and its underpinning operating principles will empower you.

That’s been my experience working across a few statutory bodies and government businesses, organisations that can be complex, large and challenging to understand. Having that framework in mind helps to seek out part of the puzzle when you get stuck or come across a program or position that doesn’t make sense to you. It also helped me to understand the cultural and values of these organisations and why they are different to each other.

It was heartening to hear the names of a few objectors who recorded their unease with Robodebt and linked their objections back to the organisations foundational documents and mission. For their personal and professional sakes, I hope they were able to find employment elsewhere and rehabilitate their careers and sense of worth. Those records will eventually exonerate them.

Institutions protect themselves; whose side are you on?

I think we’re all guilty of this. Our natural instinct is to protect ourselves, our work, our colleagues and our jobs. In doing so we assume that institutions, governments, companies, organisations can always be counted upon to act in the best interests of the community and their clients.

Sometimes, despite the best intentions, institutions can be led away from these principles.

When the Department of Social Security switched the onus of responsibility onto the welfare recipient, it was a game changer. The individual was required to prove that no debt was payable which, in many cases, was simply impossible. This wasn’t about checks and balances, it was an ideological shift that robbed the individual of their capacity and dignity to engage meaningfully with the system.

When put like this, it seems outrageous, However, it is not an uncommon approach. Best practice complaint handling systems are predicated on the injured party having to substantiate their claims. This is the burden of proof.

When a claim is made against an institution that burden is easy for the institution to deflect, deny or discredit. Legal advice often acts from this defensive position, even if in the case of Robodebt the legal advice was right. This can make it doubly hard for us to distinguish claims as wrong or lacking in merit.Putting ourselves in the position of the claimant, the community member or customer automatically pits us against the institution we might be working to protect.

This can be an uncomfortable space, especially if we are acting as judge and jury on an individual issue. I think that’s the power of leadership groups who are full of mentors and experienced leaders. Places to share experience and build our capacity to reflect and be effective at holding ourselves and others to account.

I await the reccomendations of the Royal Commission with interest and full confidence at Commissioner Catherine Holmes AC SC will act with interigty, honesty and in the interests of the Australian people. Commissioner Holmes has shown remarkable humanity in her conduct during the proceedings. Perhaps she can restore our faith in the system.

Update at 21 May 2023:

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