The public servant who restored Holmes’ faith in the APS

By Anna Macdonald

July 7, 2023

Colleen Taylor robodebt
Catherine Holmes called out Colleen Taylor for speaking up against the scheme. (The Mandarin)

This article references suicide and mental health issues. If you or a loved one need help, contact Lifeline at 13 11 14 or In an emergency, call 000.

Amongst damning observations of public service shortcomings within the royal commission’s final report, commissioner Catherine Holmes applauded Colleen Taylor’s efforts to speak up about the robodebt scheme.

“One of the worst aspects of the government’s response to concerns raised was its resistance to the warnings from staff who could see what was happening,” Holmes said in the report.

“Some of the witnesses who gave evidence before the Commission would make one despair of the Australian Public Service; but there were others, like Colleen Taylor, who restored faith.

“The shame is that people of her calibre were not listened to.

“Ms Taylor first began raising problems at the beginning of 2016. She saw clearly that the emperor had no clothes and did her best in a dispassionate, loyal way to warn the secretary of the Department.

“She was absolutely correct in the points she made, but they were highly inconvenient, and they were never going to be received in the spirit in which they were delivered.”

Taylor, a Department of Human Services (DHS) compliance officer, was concerned then-secretary Kathryn Campbell was being misled about the scheme.

After emailing Campbell her concerns in February 2017, Taylor ended up in a telephone conversation with two DHS SES members over her concerns. Ultimately, Taylor felt she was not listened to.

In the final report, Holmes said it was clear those higher up in the department did not understand how the online compliance system worked or its effects.

“To compound that problem, when people like Ms Taylor raised legitimate concerns, which in substance reflected the reality of what was occurring to those subject to the system, they were, effectively, ignored,” the final report stated.

During the royal commission, Taylor said the “callous indifference” she felt led to her retirement.

“Before robodebt was introduced I loved my job. I felt I had expertise in my area and I felt I was making a contribution as a public servant,” Taylor’s statement read.

“Having tried my hardest to get something done at the highest levels of the Department to change the scheme, I felt I had no option other than to leave my position and retire from the public service.”

Government services minister Bill Shorten, following a question from The Mandarin’s Melissa Coade on stripping honourifics from public servants, said Taylor should be given a public service medal.

“Her evidence was exemplary … I’d love to see Colleen Taylor, one of the frontline people in the public service, get a PSM but that’s just a personal opinion,” Shorten said.

“Because some of the real heroes here weren’t the people who should have been, the real leadership came from the rank-and-file of the organisation.”

Taylor was not the only public servant who tried to raise the alarm on robodebt’s issues.

Anonymous submissions published by the royal commission show front-line public servants suffering guilt over witnessing robodebt’s impact on Centrelink customers.

Indicative of the problem was one unnamed DHS social worker who said they raised concerns over robodebt’s impact and unfairness.

“I was ignored when I raised this feedback and my managers silenced the discussion as to not be “squeaky wheels”,” the submission read.

“Social workers were asked to provide suicide intervention and crisis support brought in from the actions of our own department. On one day, I had five suicidal referrals back to back and two staff in tears.

“I ended up with an adjustment disorder and had to leave my employment with Human Services as my mental health could not take it and as I knew how much harm was being perpetrated. Our executive teams had no influence.

“The whole departments [sic] culture shifted away from being on the customers side and ignoring vulnerabilities. The concept of being a beneficial welfare state was destroyed. It became mean-spirited in the senior executive team — the tone strongly set by [REDACTED].”

Four of the report’s 57 recommendations related to staff wellbeing and morale, which were stated as follows:

  • Services Australia should put in place processes for genuine and receptive consultation with frontline staff when new programs are being designed and implemented.
  • Better feedback processes should be put in place so that frontline staff can communicate their feedback in an open and consultative environment. Management should have constructive processes in place to review and respond to staff feedback.
  • More “face-to-face” customer service support options should be available for vulnerable recipients needing support.
  • Increased social worker support (for both recipients and staff), and better referral processes to enable this support, should be implemented.


Robodebt figures to face civil and criminal prosecution

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