Services Australia chief executive officer Rebecca Skinner has issued a wide-ranging apology to staff affected by the rollout of the unlawful robodebt scheme, acknowledging it as a "heavy burden" that many still carry.
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In a video shared with staff on Friday afternoon, Ms Skinner recognised the impacts of robodebt and the fallout from the scheme on staff, telling them she was "sincerely" and "deeply" sorry.
Released in July, the robodebt royal commission report found the scheme, which operated between 2015 and 2019, to be "a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal".
It automatically raised debts against social welfare recipients by comparing their reported income with averaged annual pay data from the tax office.
People who received debt notices were expected to prove that they were incorrect, demanding huge efforts to gather payslips and other evidence.
Staff at Services Australia were the frontline workers tasked with rolling out the scheme, and staff have since spoken out before the commission and in the media about the distressing impacts.
"I know robodebt and the fallout from the scheme has been difficult for you all to navigate," Ms Skinner said in the video.
"I want to apologise to all of you for robodebt.
"Robodebt is a heavy burden that many of you still carry.
"I'm also aware this has affected you in different ways."
She recognised the spectrum of those affected included staff who had "lived it first hand", worked on refunds, or the class action, as well as those whose experience had only been with the fallout of the scheme.
"I am sincerely sorry for the position this placed you in, and extend this apology to former colleagues who have since left," Ms Skinner told staff.
"From the distressing conversations had at the time with vulnerable customers.
"To the way it has coloured many customer interactions since then, resulting in frustration and a loss of trust."
Ms Skinner impressed that staff who worked directly on the program had acted in good faith.
"To those who worked directly on the program, I know you acted in good faith, under assurances from senior management.
"Your integrity remains intact. Your character is not in question.
"Robodebt has taken an unfair toll on you collectively and as individuals. You deserve an apology from your agency.
"To all of you, I am deeply sorry."
Ms Skinner, who joined the agency in 2020, commended those staff who raised concerns at the time or through the royal commission.
"You are the backbone of our organisation and I want you to know that your leaders and I are listening to you," she said.
"Everyone should feel safe to raise issues to keep our customers at the heart of every decision we make."
"It's my job now to make sure that we are listening."
The agency is working through the recommendations made in the royal commission report as a "top priority", Ms Skinner said.
The Albanese government has not yet formally responded to the royal commission recommendations.
The Australian Public Service Commission has set up its own mechanism to investigate those involved in the scheme, and 16 individuals have been referred to it for potential breaches of the APS Code of Conduct.
Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Melissa Donnelly, said staff "have long deserved an apology for the way they were treated and the work they were forced to do within the Robodebt scheme".
She added that they should receive apologies from Kathryn Campbell, the former Department of Human Services secretary, and former government ministers who oversaw the scheme.
"The personal and professional impacts of robodebt on frontline workers in Centrelink were profound, and in many cases, left passionate, good-hearted, and experienced public servants broken," Ms Donnelly said.
The CPSU national secretary also said "significant under resourcing is compromising their ability to deliver the public services people rely on."
The agency's average staffing level decreased by 1800 in this year's budget, which a spokesperson for Government Services Minister Bill Shorten in May said was a return to pre-pandemic levels.
But Ms Donnelly said Services Australia had been affected by "years of cuts to staffing".
"Our members in Services Australia deserved better during Robodebt, and they deserve better now."
Union members in the agency have this year staged two rounds of protected industrial action over pay and conditions.
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