‘Culture of fear’, politicisation infects public sector

Rachael Ward and William Ton |

Ombudsman Deborah Glass has released a damning report on the politicisation of the pubic service.
Ombudsman Deborah Glass has released a damning report on the politicisation of the pubic service.

Victoria’s public service has been infected by a culture of fear that stops many bureaucrats from giving frank, impartial or fearless advice, instead telling the government what it wants to hear.

That’s according to a Victorian Obmudsman’s report on the alleged politicisation of the state’s public sector tabled in parliament on Wednesday.

Ombudsman Deborah Glass’s second iteration of the probe once again did not find the public service had been improperly stacked with Labor operatives but did uncover it had been politicised in “other, equally pervasive ways”.

It found officials were reluctant to push back against costly projects that are politically popular as genuine advice was sometimes equated with attacking the government.

Career insecurity meant many executives were worried about being sacked or being seen as “blockers”, which the report said could potentially lead to cost blowouts.

It also took aim at the early planning phase of the Suburban Rail Loop and now-aborted 2026 Commonwealth Games, claiming both were impacted by heavy secrecy and a reliance on consultants.

Ms Glass said the report’s broad theme was a lack of transparency.

“A culture of fear in the upper echelons of the public sector does not support frank and fearless advice,” she told reporters on Wednesday.

She called on the government and senior officials to urgently address the “creeping politicisation” of the public service and take the matter seriously.

“Ignore recommendations like this, reports like this at your peril,” she added.

Some 186 submissions were received but the ombudsman noted a “troubling” number of people were afraid to contribute, fearing retribution if they spoke up.

The report detailed a culture where senior hiring decisions were undermined by the sidestepping of processes.

This included frequent direct appointments of former ministerial staffers, shoddy and opaque recruitment practices and poor record-keeping.

Ms Glass noted in 2022, then-Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews had 84 staffers, roughly as many as the Australian prime minister and NSW premier combined.

But she stressed the report was “bigger” than the influence of one person.

Suburban rail loop
Melbourne’s Suburban Rail Loop was subject to excessive secrecy, the Victorian ombudsman says. (Penny Stephens/AAP PHOTOS)

It made eight recommendations, including establishing a public service head chosen by a bipartisan committee, stronger hiring practices and the lifting of excessive cabinet secrecy.

One matter was dropped from the investigation over welfare concerns and Ms Glass said she wished the report could have gone further but faced reluctant witnesses, cabinet secrecy and poor record keeping.

The Community and Public Sector Union Victoria slammed the findings, accusing the Ombudsman of slandering the service and her investigation itself as being motivated by politics.

“The public service is ruled by a lack of funding, not fear,” it said.

Opposition Leader John Pesutto said the report painted a scathing picture of a public service in which people were too fearful to speak out, and the coalition would consider the recommendations.

“If I become premier in 2026, I will lead a government that puts a premium on integrity and good governance,” Mr Pesutto said.

Deborah Glass report
Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass says “perception matters” in public service decisions. (James Ross/AAP PHOTOS)

Treasurer Tim Pallas said the report did not find one example of inappropriate appointments and denied a culture of fear in the public service.

“I’ve never been engaged in a process with a public servant where they haven’t felt frank and fearless, sometimes a little too frank, on occasion,” he told reporters.

He defended the premier’s right to pick department heads and the use of consultants as governments needed to receive ideas from a variety of sources.

Cabinet will consider the report and provide a response.