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In an update to the robot debt inquiry, a former minister who oversaw a department responsible for robot debt attempted to split it into four agencies, against the advice of the responsible secretary.
Hundreds of thousands of Australians were wrongfully given IOUs under the robo-debt settlement, which was in effect between 2015 and 2020 and unlawfully recovered more than $750 million.
The commission is looking into how the robo-debt scheme was able to work for several years despite concerns that it was illegal.
Renee Leon, former secretary of the human resources department, appeared before the committee on Tuesday. She became secretary in October 2017, two years after the start of the scheme, and her employment was terminated in December 2019.
Professor Leon described the tense relationship between her and then-Secretary of State Stuart Robert when she advised against his plan to split up the department, an idea modeled on the Services NSW platform.
The then minister wanted to divide the department into different agencies that oversee information technology, services, compliance and design, Leon said.
“The Department of Human Services is a very different beast to Service NSW, and we couldn’t have implemented the plan the minister proposed without a very significant impact on services,” she said.
“The minister had to be advised not only by me, but also by others in the public service that it was not possible to fire everyone in the human service and keep the service running.”
Leon said the then-government designed the robo-debt program with the intention of running it entirely online without people having to talk to anyone in person, as a cost-cutting measure. But when implementation issues arose in late 2016 and early 2017, the department called in contract workers to answer phones.
“Existing employees felt it … a little insulting to their knowledge and experience that the government thought their work could be done so easily by someone who had just been brought in to read a script,” said Prof. Leon.
Wider cultural issues within the department were brought to Prof. Leon’s attention when she became secretary, including aggression and public disgrace.
“When people are exposed to that kind of behavior at a higher level…we end up with a situation where people are afraid to take risks or say something negative because they could be humiliated or called names,” she said.
The hearing continues in Brisbane.