Creeping politicisation of public sector a reality in Victoria: Ombudsman

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The Victorian Ombudsman has today tabled in Parliament her report Alleged politicisation of the public sector: Investigation of a matter referred from the Legislative Council on 9 February 2022 – Part 2. It stemmed from a motion requiring the Ombudsman to investigate several matters, including an allegation about the politicisation of the public sector.

The referral alleged the public service had been improperly ‘stacked’ with ALP operatives. The investigation did not find this. But it did find a public sector that has been politicised in other, equally pervasive ways.

“Politicisation can take many forms. It is not just the hiring of people with political affiliations. It is also the closing down or marginalisation of apolitical, independent voices.”

“Creeping politicisation is a reality in Victoria, and requires urgent attention,” Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass said.

In one of the more intensive investigations conducted in the Ombudsman’s 50-year history, we interviewed 45 highly placed public officials and reviewed millions of individual records across more than a dozen agencies.

A key finding was the marginalisation of the public sector and the erosion of a core Westminster principle: an impartial public service that serves the government of the day while providing it with ‘frank and fearless’ advice. An example of this was the early assessment of the Suburban Rail Loop.

“It was subject to excessive secrecy and ‘proved up’ by consultants rather than developed by public servants. Its announcement ‘blindsided’ the agency set up by the same government to remove short-term politics from infrastructure planning,” Ms Glass said. “The lack of rigorous public sector scrutiny over such projects before they are announced poses obvious risks to public funds.”

The report also found public sector confidence that senior hiring decisions are merit based has been undermined, largely due to frequent sidestepping of open and advertised processes. The investigation found frequent direct appointments of former Ministerial staffers, rushed and shoddy recruitment practices, poor record-keeping and opaque selection methods.

“Perception matters. Not only must merit selection be done, it must be seen to be done. Disregarding this principle makes it less likely that the public sector will attract and retain capable leaders. The quality and candour of advice upon which important decisions are made will suffer. Confidence in the strict neutrality of public service will be shaken,” Ms Glass said.

The growth and influence of the Premier’s Private Office was raised by some as a worrying concentration of decision-making outside of specialist Departments.

“In 2022 the Victorian Premier had roughly as many staffers as the Australian Prime Minister and New South Wales Premier combined,” Ms Glass said.

A troubling aspect of the investigation was the number of public servants who were afraid to contribute, fearing if they spoke up, and identifiable as having done so, their careers would be finished.

“Whatever the truth of the question at the heart of this investigation, that so many people were concerned and fearful should be a signal to this Government that all is not well. A culture of fear in the upper echelons of the public sector does not support frank and fearless advice,” Ms Glass said.

The report identified four key areas for reform and made eight recommendations including the establishment of a public service Head, to replace the Premier as employer of Department Secretaries and administrative office heads. Among other recommendations were steps to crackdown on the use of direct appointments to fill senior roles, and the lifting of excessive Cabinet secrecy to bring Victoria in line with other jurisdictions.

“Our recommendations speak to the need for greater independence in the appointment of public officials and improved security against ‘at will’ termination to mitigate the fear of speaking out. But nothing will change without a recognition at the highest levels of government that change is necessary,” Ms Glass said.

Link to report

Link to report summary

Link to report recommendations