Wed. Jan 26th, 2022

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The debate over the creation of a federal integrity commission should not drag on as public confidence in institutions continues to wane, a former government watchdog has warned. Recently, former Commonwealth Ombudsman Michael Manthorpe, who spent more than four years in the role until this year, told an audience of senior Canberra officials that it was an important oversight mechanism to establish, and soon. “While the vast majority of people I have worked with, in my view, are honest, I hope the current debate results in a strong, effective, fair and lasting system of integrity that builds public trust in institutions,” he said at a Institute of Public Administration Australia event. Many of the big thing-ups Mr Manthorpe had seen in the public service during his nearly 40-year residency did not come from ill-conceived convictions, isolated errors, moments of incompetence or deliberate abuse, he said. Instead, it came from group thinking and teams in windowless silos. “Most thing-ups are the result of several cases where problems manifest themselves in a course of action in policy design or delivery, but the responsible officials do not, will or can not see it, even when people point out risks,” he said. “Most thing-ups are due to the fact that teams, departments, departments, sometimes ministers over a period of time become so convinced of the benefit of their project that they are the opposite of curious.” During his time in the role, the veteran bureaucrat took issues with the immigration system, challenged the growing roles of the intelligence services, and wrote judgmental reports of bureaucratic failures. But he accepted that there was a limit to helping those who had to come to his office with genuine complaints worthy of further investigation. Months earlier, the watchdog was criticized for refusing to release robodebt protocols, which would outline what advice then-Social Secretary Scott Morrison received and how he chose to respond to it. The government watchdog said it received the minutes in early 2017 but would not release them because it threatened to affect their ability to oversee departments and agencies. It added that its role was based on “almost unhindered access” to information and documents from the agencies, and it required discretion to maintain trust. It said it also had no power to force agencies to hand over documents. Manthorpe admitted on Friday that his hands were often tied because the supervisory body lacked stronger powers. “The ombudsman cannot change policy or legislation. The ombudsman’s path is administration, not politics,” he told senior bureaucrats. “And even when an agency openly ought to do something different to help the unfortunate complainant or countless others, the ombudsman cannot get them to do so.” So, the ombudsman sits in the realm of influence. “READ MORE: But despite A Journey, that was not always easy, Mr Manthorpe said he would do the last four decades again if he had the chance. “Things will go wrong. You will be disappointed not to be promoted. You will be unhappy with how your big political idea does not come up. You will perform a subordinate performance in front of your minister or a parliamentary committee. You will be convinced of the need for more resources just to get them cut down, “he said.” And in response to that kind of thing, I learned this critical lesson: it’s what you do then that counts. “Reflect, seek advice, learn, adjust, move on. Work on ways to build your resilience. Keep an eye on your mental health, and try to keep these things in perspective.”

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