The price we pay for selling our values
The uncomfortable truths Robodebt has exposed should ensure every charity in Australia is actively monitoring both its values and its purpose writes CCA CEO, David Crosbie in Pro Bono News:
The price we pay for selling our values, Pro Bono News, 14 December 2022
‘Effectiveness without values is a tool without a purpose.’ Edward De Bono
Most of the time I am proud to live and work in Canberra alongside many hard-working public servants, most of whom take their responsibilities to the Australian community very seriously. They do not always get everything right, and can sometimes be a little overzealous and out of touch, but mostly they are doing their best, informed by their own commitment and values.
In fact, the Australian Public Service (APS) has adopted a set of five core values:
- Impartial: Apolitical and provides the government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence.
- Committed to service: Professional, objective, innovative and efficient, and works collaboratively to achieve the best results for the Australian community and the government.
- Accountable: Open and accountable to the Australian community under the law and within the framework of Ministerial responsibility.
- Respectful: Respects all people, including their rights and their heritage.
- Ethical: Demonstrates leadership, is trustworthy, and acts with integrity, in all that it does.
I know people who work at senior levels in the Department of Social Services. They were proud to be part of an organisation that has as its stated purpose: “Our mission is to improve the wellbeing of individuals and families in Australian communities”. They are not as proud these days.
The last fortnight of revelations about Robodebt has been devastating, not only because of the level of harm done to so many Australians – most of us were only too aware of the destructive impact – but also for what it says about the capacity of people working in the APS to completely disregard every one of their five core values.
No-one questions the need for all governments to ensure taxpayer funds are being well spent without fraud or misappropriation. This is an important aspect of running accountable government. But for the government to construct a false and misleading narrative about welfare fraud and deception, and then seek to recover legitimate expenditure from the most vulnerable in our community is a betrayal of everything government should stand for.
Robodebt was biased, unprofessional, unaccountable, disrespectful and unethical. It undermined the wellbeing of vulnerable Australians and their families. It destroyed lives. And what made it worse is that Robodebt demonstrated the capacity of the public service to prosecute innocent people while working overtime to pretend they were doing nothing wrong.
In decades of dealing with public servants across many areas of government, the Robodebt scheme stands out for me as an icon of malicious discrimination against innocent and vulnerable Australians.
Rick Morton, writing in The Saturday Paper, described Robodebt in these terms, “Although no findings have yet been made, it is clear the welfare debt scheme is at the very least the result of a catastrophic, multisystem failure within the APS, which designed, incubated, sold and then covered for a program with a fatal flaw so obvious that every Centrelink front-line worker – who earn 13 times less than the secretary – was warned about it during routine inductions”.
The fatal flaw Rick Morton was referring to was income averaging, taking the gross income for a year and averaging it out per fortnight so that if someone was unemployed for nine months, but then managed to earn $30,000 in three months of paid work, they were presumed to have earned $1200 every fortnight of the year. The debt collectors could come calling asking for nine months of Jobseeker to be repaid.
Not everyone was complicit in prosecuting the bastardry of Robodebt. Centrelink compliance officer Colleen Taylor told the Robodebt inquiry she quit because she could no longer keep “doing the wrong thing … If we know there’s no debt, and yet we’re sending a debt notice out to someone, isn’t that stealing?” Her appearance at the royal commission this week introduced Australians to a frontline Centrelink worker who had the moral compass to tell her superiors something they either did not or pretended not to know: that the Robodebt program was wrong. (Source: Centrelink worker recounts ‘callous indifference’ from superiors after raising alarm about robodebt)
The question many people are now asking is; why were so many senior people in government departments prepared to put aside their own values and the values of the APS to create non existent debts and seek repayments from vulnerable Australians?
The answer is partly about the nature of the government and the ministers these public servants were answerable to, partly about what they perceived was required of them if they were to advance their careers, and partly about their own insular arrogance and limited compassion or empathy.
Rather than explore each of these factors, I think it is important that we as charities reflect on our own professional behaviour and what, if anything, prevents us jettisoning our values and purpose in pursuit of individual or organisational interests?
Who would or wouldn’t we take money from to continue our programs and services? What terms and conditions might we insist on to ensure our values are enacted within new partnerships and collaborations? What values or behaviour would exclude someone from being able to fulfill a leadership or executive role in our organisations? What are our value red lines around staff, volunteers, leaders and supporters? What are the moral or ethical boundaries that our organisation has to stay within?
While most charities have strong mission statements and can talk about their values, the best defence against losing our way and dropping our moral compass is the ongoing monitoring and reporting of both our purpose and our values.
I have looked for reporting about the APS values and cannot find any measures anywhere. We now know the words the APS use to describe their values are no more than decoration, meaningless statements that everyone can agree to without having to actually do anything or not do anything.
Robodebt is an indictment of the APS, a clear demonstration that values do not matter for some of the most highly paid ‘successful’ government officials in Australia.
The uncomfortable truths Robodebt exposes should ensure every charity in Australia is actively monitoring both its values and its purpose. The costs of losing your integrity go way beyond the dollar signs.
Read on Pro Bono News: the-price-we-pay-for-selling-our-values