In an update to the robo-debt inquiry, a former minister overseeing the department responsible for robo-debt tried to split it into four agencies against the advice of the secretary in charge.
Hundreds of thousands of Australians were incorrectly sent debt notices under the robo-debt scheme, which operated between 2015 and 2020 and unlawfully recovered more than $750 million.
The royal commission is examining how the robo-debt scheme was able to operate for several years despite concerns it was unlawful.
Professor Renee Leon, former human services department secretary, appeared before the commission on Tuesday. She became secretary in October 2017, two years into the scheme, and her employment was terminated in December 2019.
Leon described the strained relationship between her and then-minister Stuart Robert when she advised against his plan to split the department, an idea modelled on the Services NSW platform.
Robert wanted to divide the department into different agencies overseeing information technology, service delivery, compliance and design, Leon said.
“The Department of Human Services is quite a different beast to Service NSW, and we couldn’t have progressed the plan the minister was proposing without a very considerable impact on service delivery,” she said.
“The minister had to be advised not only by me, but by others in the public service, that it wasn’t possible to dismiss everyone in human services and still keep service delivery running.”
Leon said the then-government designed the robo-debt program intending to have it run completely online without people needing to speak to anyone in person, as a cost-saving measure. But when problems with its implementation arose in late-2016 and early-2017, the department brought in contractors to answer phones.
“Existing staff felt it was … a little bit insulting to their knowledge and experience that the government thought their job could so easily be done by someone who’d just been brought in to read a script,” Leon said.
Wider cultural problems within the department were brought to Leon’s attention when she became secretary, including aggression and public shaming.
“When people at the senior levels get exposed to that kind of behaviour … we end up with a situation where people are afraid to raise risks or say something negative because they might get humiliated or yelled at,” she said.
The hearing continues in Brisbane.