Department of Immigration and Citizenship secretary Andrew Metcalfe before Senate Estimates at Parliament House on October 17, 2011.

Former Immigration Department secretary Andrew Metcalfe. Photo: Andrew Meares

When divvying out the loot of political office, the immigration portfolio is known widely as the ''shit sandwich''. Sure, it has status: its minister sits in cabinet, commands a large workforce and budget, and inevitably becomes one of the highest-profile politicians in the land. But few reputations escape unscathed from the torrent of bad news the portfolio generates, especially since Australians went berserk over boat people in 2001.

It's not that the Immigration Department's work always involves human misery; most of it doesn't. Some of its staff regularly witness the kind of raw joy that most of us only rarely experience: the cathartic relief of a refugee given sanctuary from hell; the hard-working migrant who achieves success on a scale for which they'd never dared hope; or the genuine pride of a new citizen who has fallen in love with this country.

Too often, senior public servants refuse to allow even their mid-level executives to do the work for which they were hired, and instead opt to vet and second-guess every detail. 

Yet these are not the tales with which the public associates the department. Nor does good news of this type resonate with the insular, swinging voters who dominate the politics of marginal electorates. These insecure, downwards-envying Australians resent what the department does: it lets foreigners ''steal'' their jobs and it ''pampers'' refugees who they feel have no right to be here. Neither of our main political parties bother to tackle misconceptions about the portfolio; they simply compete to appeal to the mob.

I often wonder how this toxic debate affects Immigration Department staff. Late last year, the Public Service Commission released an independent review of the department's capability, which hints at some of the damage. It found the workforce suffers from a crisis mentality, flitting from one calamity to the next but rarely planning to avoid them. Its culture ''is heavily risk averse'', with basic decisions ''routinely escalated because there has been an excessive reliance on the risk-scanning intuition of a small number of senior people''.

Senior executives too readily passed the buck or didn't bother telling other work areas about important events. There was ''a lack of clarity regarding accountabilities and responsibilities in many areas … people said that they were not always sure who to go to and that 'there are so many fingers in the pie that no one owns the problem' ''.

The review also noted problems that may well apply to many other agencies. It warned that staff doubted recruitment decisions were meritorious and felt ''they are not given permission to innovate, which inhibits their motivation to generate new ideas without the freedom to fail''.

When critical reports such as this emerge, it's easy to blame the department's secretary, which, for much of the past 7½ years, was Andrew Metcalfe. Metcalfe, who has since left to head the Agriculture Department, deliberately avoided delegating tasks and encouraged staff to refer decisions to him and his deputies. Under Metcalfe, the department's catchcry became ''escalate, escalate, escalate''; anything to avoid another high-profile humiliation, such as the illegal detention of Australian residents Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon.

Yet this style of management was precisely what the secretary was told to create. Metcalfe was dropped into immigration in 2005 in the wake of the Rau and Solon scandals. Former police commissioners Mick Palmer and Nick Comrie's inquiries into those two tragic cases recommended removing power from junior officers and much stronger oversight and involvement from the department's most senior executives. In short, the two inquiries urged immigration's workforce to become more risk averse and its top managers to be more controlling; which is precisely what the latest review has criticised.

Under Metcalfe, the department was clearly overzealous in applying Palmer and Comrie's will. This was apparent as far back as 2008, when Elizabeth Proust's review of immigration warned Metcalfe that he was taking on too much responsibility.

''People externally commented that if they had a problem, especially an urgent problem, they would contact the secretary and be confident that he would solve it,'' Proust said. ''While external people are reassured that they have a ready point of escalation, it does make for a risk-averse organisation, knowing that the secretary will be turned to if all else fails. Such an approach was necessary in the months after Palmer and Comrie, when there was little trust in the whole organisation. It is now time to review delegations, formal and informal, which will send a positive message of trust in people in more junior positions.''

It seems this didn't happen. Nonetheless, it's unfair to blame solely an administrator - Metcalfe - for a problem that is rooted in politics.

The detention of Rau, a schizophrenic who insisted to authorities that she was German, was an avoidable mistake, yet it was also, to an extent, understandable. The deportation of Solon, however, and the callousness with which immigration staff treated her, was unforgivable. The relevant officers' conduct was clearly the result of what Palmer described as a ''culture that is overly self-protective and defensive, a culture largely unwilling to challenge organisational norms or to engage in genuine self-criticism or analysis''.

Palmer and Comrie were right to say immigration needed to redress this culture. It's less apparent, however, that the entire department needed to undergo the massive overhaul that followed, and which it is still undergoing. It's rather more likely this was a politically driven overreaction: part of then immigration minister Amanda Vanstone's attempt to deflect blame from herself onto the officials who served her.

The result today is a department so paranoid about mistakes that - despite having a workforce of more than 10,000, mostly university-educated staff - only a handful of its executives are trusted with meaningful decisions. It's an incredible waste of talent and demeans the many bright recruits who join the organisation.

The latest review recommends ''mobilising the intelligence of all … staff members in the risk-scanning process''. It's a point that all government agencies, not only immigration, need to take on board. Too often, senior public servants refuse to allow even their mid-level executives to do the work for which they were hired, and instead opt to vet and second-guess every detail. It's enfeebling and demoralising.

Yet the bureaucracy's damaging, risk-shy culture is not only the fault of fearful senior executives. Every time politicians, or the public, seize on a public servant's mistake and trumpet it as evidence of widespread incompetence, they discourage the bureaucracy from trying something new, or from trusting a junior officer with greater responsibility.

The Rau and Solon scandals were no mere gaffes; they demanded serious introspection. And, as a result of the Palmer-Comrie inquiries, it's unlikely that either of those events could take place today.

But how will we react when the next immigration scandal unfolds? Given the extraordinary political heat that the portfolio attracts, it's almost certain that we - our political representatives, the media and voters across party lines - will use it to score a point or to demand a scalp, rather than to calmly ask ''how can we avoid this happening again?'' And in doing so, we'll no doubt contribute to making the department a little bit more dysfunctional than it already is.

Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant. Send your tips to aps6@canberratimes.com.au.