Department of Human Services has 'crazy' culture of command-and-control, says Labor

A "crazy" culture of command-and-control within the government's largest department has created an obsession with secrecy and suppressing information, the federal opposition says.

The Department of Human Services has been subjected to a scathing assessment of its approach to Freedom of Information, with the government's information watchdog finding the giant department was secretive and obsessed with process.

Labor's Human Services spokesman Doug Cameron says the DHS is reluctant to supply basic information, even to the ...
Labor's Human Services spokesman Doug Cameron says the DHS is reluctant to supply basic information, even to the nation's Parliament. 

In the wake of the report, Labor's Human Services spokesman Doug Cameron says the culture comes from the top and that DHS is reluctant to supply basic information, even to the nation's Parliament.

In his report, Information Commissioner John McMillan revealed an organisation that preferred legalese to plain English and had increasingly lost sight of its duty to share information.

The report exposed a number of stock techniques that DHS bureaucrats used to deny people their legal right to information held about them.

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Professor McMillan recommended the department take its FOI process out of the hands of lawyers and that it should engage more with applicants and try to understand what they were seeking from the freedom of information process.

In response, the Department of Human Services said it would begin to implement Professor McMillan's recommendations, but Senator Cameron said the department's problems went much deeper.

"The command-and-control structure in DHS, in my view, is just crazy," the Labor frontbencher said.

"Everybody there is focused on cost-cutting and short-termism and once you start doing that you're covering up the implications for effective service delivery.

"There's cultural issues and management system issues."

The NSW senator told of his problems extracting information from Human Services using parliamentary processes.

"You ask questions at [Senate] estimates and obviously lots come back trying to avoid the question but that's not something new to the public service," Senator Cameron said.

"But I did ask a question on the computer system and a complete cloak of silence was thrown over the issue.

"I was told I would get a briefing and when the briefing came they told me they couldn't tell me anything."

Senator Cameron called on Human Services Minister Marise Payne to get more involved with her department's process.

"The minister should be trying to develop an efficient, open , effective public service and that's the big challenge for her," he said.

A spokesman for the minister said on Thursday that she had "noted" the commissioner's report and the department's response.

"The Minister has noted the Commissioner's recommendations and also notes that the Secretary has already indicated that the department will develop a plan for their implementation," the spokesman said.