Minister Shorten’s address at the Rebuilding trust and integrity in the Australia Public Service conference.


Thank you, Peter (Gearin) and The Mandarin for inviting me here today to talk about this important topic.

And good morning, everybody.

I start by acknowledge that we meet on Ngunnawal and Ngambri land and pay my respects to elders past and present…

…and to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.

In 1994, a B-52 airman walked into the Fairchild Air Force Base hospital in Washington State and shot and killed several people.

Psychiatrists had warned the Colonel at the Base, William Pellerin, of the man’s unstable mental health and feared something like this might happen.

Pellerin ignored them.

Just five days later, another lapse in the Colonel’s judgement saw a second tragedy at Fairchild Air Force Base.

US Air Force pilot, Lt Col Bud Holland, crashed his B-52 Stratofortress

at a rehearsal for an air show.

He killed all on board, because – not for the first time – he had ignored the rules and manoeuvred the plane beyond its operational limits.

Records revealed that multiple people had warned Colonel Pellerin that Holland was reckless; an accident waiting to happen…

…he was described as ‘the personification of arrogance, ignorance and complacency’.

His co-pilot on that fateful day, Mark McGeehan, had been a vocal critic.

He’d begged Pellerin to ground Holland.

McGeehan had even prohibited any of the less experienced pilots in his charge from flying with the rogue pilot, putting himself in harm’s way instead.

And yet the Colonel did nothing.

McGeehan spoke truth to power and power abandoned him.

In what may be an apocryphal story, it is said McGeehan’s last words to Holland were ‘you’ve gone and killed us’. All that Holland could say in response was ‘I’m sorry’.

There are times when words of apology ring hollow.

When innocent people are the collateral damage of behaviour that could and should have been stopped by those with the power to do so is one of those times.

Robodebt was one of those times.

An apology would not have been needed had the honesty, integrity and ethics that are the cornerstone of the APS Code of Conduct been adhered to.

It is there in the very first line of the APS Code of Conduct. That an APS employee is to ‘…behave honestly and with integrity in connection with APS employment’.

Unless we have staff – from the very junior levels right up to the very senior levels – who take seriously their pledge to uphold the APS Code of Conduct…

…and Ministers who not just respect the independence of the bureaucracy, but ask for and respect the independent advice of their bureaucrats…

…there will always be an internal and external trust deficit.

If the APS is deemed to have lost its independence and become a mere extension of a government then the community’s perception of it as an apolitical, honest broker is diminished.

Researchers from the University of Queensland Business School wrote a paper titled ‘Algorithmic decision-making and system destructiveness: A case of automatic debt recovery’, using Robodebt as their case study.

They called the scheme ‘striking and revelatory’, finding the many of its negative and destructive effects were far-reaching – damaging both citizens and Centrelink employees.

The academics found, and I quote, that ‘Sustaining the program severely tarnished the reputation of Centrelink and eroded public trust in the government’s ability to manage social services’.

A look at the 2023 ‘Trust in Australian public services’ report from the APSC…

…shows that Centrelink, which comes under Services Australia, ranks at the bottom of the trust and satisfaction rankings. While Medicare is equal top four.

Ironically, both are part of Services Australia. Both are staffed by dedicated, skilled, compassionate, professional people.

The APSC report did note that organisations which have a greater number of vulnerable customers have a higher bar for gaining their trust.

Child support, another Services Australia area of responsibility, is an illustration of this. It scored low as well. But child support and family breakdown cases are inherently complex and contentious.

Curiously the ATO scores very high, despite taking a third of our salary – though we can all look forward to the thought of the upcoming Labor tax cuts on 1 July.

But even when the APSC report rankings were adjusted…

…for a scenario where all customers for all services had the same average scores for life satisfaction and interpersonal trust…

…Centrelink was still in the bottom four.

I have visited dozens of Service Centres across Australia, met hundreds of staff members, spoken to scores of their customers.

And I would bet a lottery ticket predicting that the trust score for Centrelink would be much higher if it was based solely on interactions between members of the public and frontline Agency staff.

Very public policy failures at the highest levels, like those associated with Robodebt, can have catastrophic repercussions for any organisation associated with it.

And when you consider that one of the Uni of Queensland researchers went so far as to say that Robodebt ‘resembled extortion’…

…with its intent being to scare Australians into accepting the debt and paying up…

…you can understand Australians being horrified that their government used its public service to perpetrate crimes on hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people.

And just to clarify, the UQ paper was written before the Royal Commission heard the confronting evidence of the scheme’s impact and published its response.

The lack of integrity on display at the Royal Commission was breathtaking.

And according to the OECD, integrity is the most crucial determinant in building or destroying trust in the public sector.

When you look at the attributes of integrity you’ll see the words honesty, accountability, transparency, morals, principles and ethics – attributes in short supply from too many of the APS and political leaders at the Royal Commission.

The 2019 APS Review is well worth revisiting when looking at the implication of such a failure by political and public service leaders.

Just as an aside, the review references the word ‘trust’ on 166 occasions and ‘integrity’ on 177 occasions. Perhaps the authors were dropping hints at the government of the day.

The review noted that scepticism is part of a healthy democracy.

But when scepticism turns to extreme low trust, it compromises the capacity of the APS ‘to provide services to citizens, to regulate effectively and to provide well-informed and influential advice’.

We cannot allow low trust to stand.

It has the potential to stifle the Albanese Government’s vision for Australia which includes a future with digital ID, and faster, customised service delivery.

Services Australia is the primary face of government service delivery, supporting almost every Australian at some point in their lives...

…and providing surge capacity for other government agencies for planned and unplanned peaks.

Instead of Australians navigating bureaucratic red tape to find their entitlements, better use of data by Government can mean their entitlements find them.

This can be tailored to major life events such as having babies, getting a job, turning 18, retiring and aged care.

But as we enter a new era for government services – with opportunities to enhance their delivery – department heads and their deputies must re-set their thinking.

There must be a conscious decision to put the citizen at the centre of your mission.

If traditional attitudes of turf-protecting, duplicating and ‘silo’-ing are allowed to fester, they will act as a spoiler to a progressive whole-of-government use of Services Australia.

Australians will, rightly, judge the APS harshly if it behaves in a manner detrimental to the benefit of the society it serves…

…in a way that harms citizens and, ultimately, undermines trust.

If we are to bring Australians on the journey to a digital future, we need to get people to share their data with us…

…and for that to happen we need to prove the integrity of the processes by which we collect it.

The Albanese Government is moving Australia towards a Digital ID System – a secure, convenient, voluntary, and inclusive way for Australians to verify their ID online.

It spells an end to repeatedly providing copies of sensitive documents, like your passports birth certificate and driver licence.

My ministerial colleagues, Minister for Finance, Katy Gallagher; Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus; and Assistant Treasurer, Stephen Jones, are making great strides in this initiative and I congratulate them on what will be a revolutionary policy for Australians.

A proposed Digital ID Bill will put in place the legislative framework to further advance the Government’s vision for a national, economy-wide Digital ID system.

The Bill will allow the expansion of the Digital ID System used across all government departments and agencies, states and territories and, in time, the private sector…

…to give Australians a consistent, world-leading customer experience.

But the embrace of a digital future rests on community trust. Trust that has been dented by high profile data breaches like Optus and Medibank.

Rebuilding trust is a common theme around the world, not just here at home.

It was centre stage at the World Economic Forum’s recent Davos meeting, which focussed on the Global Risk Report of 2024.

Cyber insecurity ranked number four out of the Top 10 risks facing the world.

President Ursula von der Leyen, of the European Commission, addressed the gathering urging leaders to take the risks seriously or else they limit the ability to tackle the global challenges we face.

‘This is not a time for conflicts or polarization’, President von der Leyen said. ‘This is a time to build trust’ and said any response must match the size of the challenge.

The size of our challenge, with regards to a digital future, is to meet the substantial expectations of Australians when it comes to online government services.

Australians are big users of apps that are easy to navigate, secure, and that give us back precious time that was once wasted searching for and filling out online forms.

Based on research findings, the myGov Audit recommended a number of ways to increase trust in government.

One is transparency in the collection and storage of data.

Another is the ability for a citizen to control their own data.

And the third is the ease of ‘opt-in/opt-out’ digital services.

Part of building trust is an assurance that a pledge today’s government makes on securing data cannot be repealed by a subsequent government.

I put it to you that the time may be ripe to legislate government services.

I have said to my Agency of Services Australia – and I put it to the APS more broadly – you have the ability to restore the public’s perception that this great institution is here to serve the Australian people.

And we will do that by being mission-oriented and citizen-centric.

I’ll give you an example of an initiative that meets this brief.

Just last week I announced that the Government had added the execution of legal documents to the myGov app.

Simple. Brilliant. Saves the taxpayer time and effort.

Anyone with a Digital ID can use the function which does away with the hassle of finding a JP to verify your stats decs, for example.

With just a few clicks, your identity is verified and documents are signed.

This initiative was ambitious and innovative and identified problems early…

…shorter, more contained and it is the way of the future.

It had buy-in from the Office of Regulatory Reform, the Attorney General’s department, the department of Finance, and Services Australia.

The project went into an ‘incubator’ for five days where Services Australia officials worked to operationalise it…

…then it was quickly tested and recalibrated where necessary.

With this model, you could have four or five projects in the incubator, tested to ensure their viability before being sent out into the world.

A far cry from the ill-fated Entitlement Calculator Engine that Services Australia had been saddled with by the previous government.

The ECE was meant to determine eligibility for welfare recipients and how much to pay them…

…but after spending a total of $191 million on it, there was nothing to show for it and the tough decision was made to write the whole thing off.

Juxtapose that with the execution of legal documents initiative.

It was presented to government with an estimated $2.5 million outlay, and an estimated return of around $150 million – and that’s a conservative estimate.

Those figures are very appealing to a government.

And the most exciting aspect is that it was the brainchild of two APS officers.

So, I would say to you the takeaway is nurture innovation within your ranks.

As Ministers, we’re not looking for grand designs or positive impression management.

We’re looking for you to be as proactive as private industry.

To present ideas that are about making life easier for Australians and that have applications across agencies.

I genuinely seek the insights of my public servants and do not look for confirmation bias.

But your advice will compete with ideas from a range of other sources so make sure they pack a punch…

…and come to the table prepared to strenuously defend them.

And that advice will come all quarters.

The first recommendation of the Robodebt Royal Commission notes that “peak advocacy bodies should be consulted prior to the implementation of projects involving the modification of the social security system”.

A simple way to do this is providing them with direct access to senior agency leadership and decision makers.

Services Australia has recently appointed a new CEO – Mr David Hazlehurst…

…and for the first time in the social services portfolio a representative from a welfare peak was on the selection panel for this process – Ms Leane Ho, the former chief executive of Economic Justice Australia.

Additionally, Ms Ho also sits on my newly established independent advisory board that provides me with contestable advice on reforms to the delivery of government services.

It is the same in my other portfolio agency where the independent NDIS Review panel drew from experts in public service (Lisa Paul), discrimination (Kevin Cocks) and lived experience of disability Dougie Herd).

If we do seek diverse views, we only create policy for a small section of the community.

I’ll return to where I started…

…there is a saying in aviation that the reasons you get into trouble become the reasons you don’t get out of it.

Demand integrity from yourself and within your agency or department with a goal to rebuild trust in one of the greatest public services in the world.

Do a deal with your staff to create an environment where it is safe to think big...

….and nurture their ideas to make the APS the leaders in public policy innovation – the go-to people for great advice.

But also create a place where the mental and physical health of staff is paramount.

A good example of how seriously this government takes staff safety is The Security Risk Management Review I initiated last May after a staff member was seriously injured by a customer.

It resulted in a $46.9m million commitment to strengthening security at Services Australia.

We have to have the trust of our staff if we are to achieve all we hope to achieve as an agency; as a government.

And there is no doubt the culture of a department or agency is set from the top.

So it is beholden on APS leaders to set the example.

Act with integrity.

Create the environment that makes a productive, motivated workplace.

And ask yourself who you work for.

The answer must always be ‘the Australian people’.

It is up to you to ensure the Machinery of Government does not hinder you in achieving that objective.