Ombudsman probes ‘Red Wedding’ public service purge

The turnover of staff produced a $4.15 million spike in redundancy payments at the department between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2020.

Since Falkingham took over the rebranded Department of Justice and Community Safety at the end of 2018, the number of executives has ballooned from 73 to 176 and the total bill has grown from $792 million to $1.24 billion. Over the same period, the executive gender balance has shifted from almost parity to women holding nearly two-thirds of all positions.

On June 30, 2018, there were 36 women and 37 men employed in executive positions. On June 30, 2021, there were 66 men and 110 women. “We make no apologies for recruiting large numbers of women on merit,” the department spokesman said.

The so-called Red Wedding began with the most senior ranks of the department, with only two deputy secretaries who served under previous justice secretary Greg Wilson remaining in their jobs under the new regime. A deputy secretary who worked in the department for more than 10 years was told of their sacking her by voicemail on a Friday afternoon.

Seven of eight replacement deputy secretaries recruited to form a new board of management previously worked with Falkingham in the Department of Premier and Cabinet. The secretary’s office was staffed with three executives also brought over from the DPC. All three have since been promoted to higher pay grades.

Once the new board was in place, it oversaw a mass “spill and fill” of lower executive positions.

The Age spoke to experienced public servants who lost their jobs in the cull and those who joined the department amid the mass turnover. They describe an environment in which people with extensive operational experience were replaced by bright, generalist policy advisers with little practical knowledge of working in justice.

“You had to be in the click,” said another public servant who left the department amid the changes. “People were too scared to speak up because they knew that as soon as they did, their heads would be chopped off. I felt embarrassed and ashamed about what was going on at the organization at the time.”

Another senior public servant said: “Anyone who made noise literally got shown the door.”

The Ombudsman investigation into the politicization of the public service is being lead by John McMillan, an administrative and constitutional law expert who previously served as Commonwealth Ombudsman. It was prompted by revelations published by The Age about the proliferation of political operatives at decision making levels across what is supposed to be an apolitical public service.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass, in publicly detailing the scope of her investigation, invited information about recent examples of public service executives being appointed without proper process.

Former Court of Appeal judge Stephen Charles QC, a director of the Center for Public Integrity, offered no comment on the practices within the Justice Department but said any hiring process which creates bias towards an applicant of a particular type is a form of misconduct.

“It is unfair to people who don’t happen to be within that click and the result is you don’t get the best applicants,” he said. “It is wrong in both those ways.″⁣

Falkingham, a one-time Labor ministerial adviser who also served in the NSW government of former Liberal premier Mike Baird, is a protege of retired top bureaucrat Chris Eccles and one of Daniel Andrews’ most trusted public servants.

When she was put in charge of the Department of Justice, it was with a clear mandate to overhaul the policy focus, processes, personnel and culture of a bureaucracy notorious for being resistant to change. The “transformation” process had begun at Justice under the previous secretary.

In response to questions about the “bulk exec” process, the high turnover of executive staff, the more than doubling of total executive numbers and trebling of women executives, a Justice spokesman said the senior ranks of the department were depleted after the 2018 state election , with three out of 10 executive positions vacant.

He said that in bulk exec, candidates were selected after a “transparent, multi-stage process … exploring a candidate’s experience, values ​​and behaviors” and that people were recruited from the private sector, Australian Public Service and NGOs and the Victorian Public Service.

“The department has embarked on extensive reform that has delivered positive change to a number of areas across the justice system,” he said. “This recruitment process helped ensure highly-qualified and capable people led this work, which had a positive impact on the lives of many Victorians.”

The spokesman’s description of bulk execution is at odds with that provided by people who were directly involved in it.

Public servants familiar with the mass hiring told The Age that the internal advertisements prompted about 480 people to apply for executive positions. Falkingham and her new deputy secretaries then selected a shortlist of people to be interviewed.

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“Normally you would look at someone’s application, look at their experience and make a recommendation,” a bureaucrat involved in the process explained. “It was literally; we know these people so they are the ones that will go through to interview with these roles in mind.”

Short-listed candidates were subjected to a 30-minute, “values-based” interview at which they were each asked the same, four questions and scored on their answers. They were asked to nominate three jobs they wanted to do.

At a boardroom meeting, every executive position to be filled was displayed on a whiteboard while the names of candidates preferred by Falkingham and her deputy secretaries were written on Post-it notes. By the end of the two hours, each name was matched to a job. A further 13 jobs were subsequently filled through regular hiring processes.

The best interview score did not guarantee you a job if you were out of favor with the new regime; the spreadsheets seen by The Age indicate that experienced executives were earmarked for redundancy before the interviews were conducted.

Those made redundant include a senior lawyer who worked for the department for 22 years, a criminal justice expert with 20 years experience and a bureaucrat who had been with the department for 17 years and just started a five-year-contract.

The latter signed a new contract with another government agency the day after they received a targeted separation package worth nearly $140,000. Some of the jettisoned executives went on to play critical roles in Victoria’s COVID-19 response.

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