In many ways Australia was leading the way. We all knew hard work lay ahead, but the outlook was rosy. Open data, a democratic renaissance and authentic online dialogue – Government, citizens and the Australian Public Service.
A common issue identified in the Gov 2.0 Taskforce report and the reviews into public service reform and innovation was that of public service culture itself. Reflecting on my work on Ozloop in the intervening years it has become clear that the culture of the Australian Public Service contained the seeds of the betrayal of open government.
Essentially, open government at the Federal level has stalled at open data, freedom of information and the use of social media as a one way communication channel. There has been backsliding on freedom of information and what has emerged in 2013 is the active repression of online discussion between public servants. Even as private citizens.
In the midst of all this Australia conducted an inquiry into workplace bullying. What emerged during that inquiry was the extent of systemic bullying within the Australian Public Service itself. In course of my work it became clear that the targets of abuse were often clever and questioning individuals. It also became clear that bullying and mobbing were carried out by their superiors under the guise of management. in short, it was and is systemic.
This is due to the fact that he Australian Public Service has a controlling and, to put it kindly, heavy handed culture. Worse than that, it has become increasingly obvious that this culture is a platform for harmful and abusive practices. At the core of this lay three well known cultural attributes. These are:
- Severe risk aversion
- A rigid belief that the chain of command is the chain of information
- A strong emphasis on conformity and compliance
Culture, of course, is an abstract concept, but there is nothing abstract about the administrative and management practices it gives rises to. Practices that are used against both citizens and public servants. These practices include:
- The disproportionate use of legal force against taxpayers and public servants.
- The use of sham reviews and hostile mediations against complainants.
- The administrative bullying and mobbing of taxpayers and public servants. Especially when they become complainants or whistleblowers.
- The use of oppressive management practices in the public service to discourage even low level disclosures and dissent.
- The use of compulsory psychiatric assessments against whistleblowers or public servants who complain about being bullied and mobbed under the guise of management.
- Putting taxpayers and public servants on an administrative and legal treadmill to grind them down.
In addition to the above, public servants face the prospect of being disciplined or sacked for making comments online as private citizens. And we are not taking about the leaking of information. We are talking about anonymous commentary made on information, official tweets for example, that are already in the public domain.
More to the point any comment made, anonymously or not, can be simply deemed to be so harsh and unreasonable as to bring the public service into disrepute. To bad if it’s the truth or adds to public debate. And there is no 1st Amendment in Australia. We only have an implied freedom of speech in our constitution.
The result? A chilling effect on legitimate public discussion and an environment that places pressure on public servants to shut up. In the case of whistleblowing employees are, even with changes to legislation, thrown back into the arms of the agency they work for.
All of these practices and arrangements create an environment where transparency, accountability and justice are, to say the very least, compromised. Where self-censorship is rampant. If that is not an license for corruption I don’t know what is. And with that open government and the prospect of reinvigorating democracy have been betrayed.
Royal Commission into Systemic Corruption within the APS. Includes open letter detailing corruption and personal statements from taxpayers.
Australian Public Service Commission – Compliance model exposed. Examination of media reports and other information. Reveals what is effectively a compliance model designed to silence public servants. Include a diagram illustrating how this works in practice.
APS Commissioner channels whistleblowing, leaking & dissent. Critique of the Australian Public Service Commissioner, Steve Sedgwick’s address to the Attorney General’s Department, Security in Government SES Breakfast.