The federal government has launched a global search for the new head of troubled agency Services Australia, which is the target of class action over the controversial robodebt system.
Executive recruitment firm Egon Zehnder has been contracted to find a replacement for department secretary Renee Leon, who was dumped from her position after Services Australia was made an agency within the Department of Social Services as part of a shake up to the public service announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on December 5.
The leadership vacuum comes at a tough time for the organisation, which has been at the frontline of the Morrison government's response to the bushfire disaster while still coping with the backlash to its automated debt recovery system.
The recruitment firm said the future leader's key duties would involve working closely with Government Services Minister Stuart Robert to simultaneously drive "an ambitious transformation agenda" while ensuring continuity in the delivery of day-to-day services including Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support payments.
The agency has been at the forefront of the Commonwealth's bushfire relief effort. As at January 20 it had distributed more than $57 million in disaster relief payments to around 48,000 applicants, and had undertaken 162 deployments of mobile service teams and centres to bushfire-affected areas.
This ramp-up of effort has occurred at a time of flux in the upper echelons of the organisation.
Aside from the departure of Ms Leon, Services Australia has had to operate without permanent managers in several key ICT roles including architecture and innovation, quality assurance and infrastructure.
The agency is also advertising several compliance data roles including assistant director and senior compliance analyst.
Adding urgency to the recruitment of a new CEO, the agency has been reviewing the operation of its automated debt recovery system.
Dubbed robodebt by its detractors, the system has been plagued by accusations that it has resulted in millions of dollars being clawed back from pensioners and other recipients without justification.
In an admission of flaws with the operation of the program, Mr Robert said late last year there would be "refinement" in the way the controversial debt averaging process was used in assessing whether welfare recipients owed the government money.
Debt averaging matches income data from the Australian Taxation Office with income reported to Centrelink by welfare recipients.
In a memo sent to Services Australia staff last November and reported on by the ABC, the general manager of the debt appeal division advised that the agency would no longer raise a debt where the only information was its own averaging of ATO income data.
But the change has not prevented legal action against the government over the operation of the scheme.
In a judgement in November on a case involving a welfare recipient hit with a $2900 debt, the Federal Court found that the department's demand for payment was "not validly made" and the garnishing of the plaintiff's tax return was "not a lawful issued notice".
Law firm Gordon Legal has launched a class action against the Commonwealth, claiming Centrelink was acting unlawfully in using debt averaging, and was seeking compensation for those against whom debts had been falsely raised.
Applications for the Services Australia CEO position close on February 16.