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Planning tsar sanctioned over management "failure" as department probes leak

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The bureaucrat overseeing the Marshall Government’s e-Planning overhaul has been sanctioned over the sacking of a contractor who questioned his demand not to work from home during the coronavirus lockdown – but has himself been working from his own home in Sydney for the past month, it has been revealed.

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It comes as his departmental boss revealed the bureaucrat had previously been handpicked for a contract role after the pair had worked together in Sydney – and declared he had launched an investigation into the source of emails about the incident that were leaked to InDaily.

Ray Partridge was appointed in February as program director for the highly-anticipated e-Planning rollout – a key component of the Government’s broader planning law reforms – but questions have been left unanswered from the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure about his whereabouts since an internal investigation was launched last month.

The inquiry was prompted by Partridge’s dismissal of a contractor who questioned his edict that a project team was no longer allowed to work remotely in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown in April, and had to relocate to the department’s Adelaide office.

Today, DPTI boss Tony Braxton-Smith fronted parliament’s Budget and Finance Committee, confirming the internal investigation had been completed, and had found that Partridge “fell short of expected standards of conduct”.

“I’ve addressed the action internally by writing to Mr Partridge… with clear direction and advice to him as to what the standards are, and the consequences of any further failure to adhere to them,” Braxton-Smith told parliament.

“I’ve provided him with guidance, pointed out to him the consequences of any repeat of a failure to meet public service standards and required him to have training in public sector standards.”

However, Partridge remains program director, with the CEO revealing he’d been allowed to oversee the crucial project from Sydney for the past month – despite sacking a contracted employee who questioned an order not to work remotely.

Committee chair Kyam Maher asked the DPTI boss: “Can you understand why in the public mind it’s difficult to reconcile the fact that the program director has been working from home – and interstate – when a contractor was sacked for wanting to work from home… during the COVID-19 crisis?”

Braxton-Smith said “it goes to the requirement for the task”, likening the scenario to “a bricklayer [who] must perform their work on the job while a project manager for construction of a house can work remotely from time to time”.

“Mr Partridge was contracted in February to work in a flexible arrangement, because he’s a resident of Sydney,” Braxton-Smith said.

He said Partridge was contractually allowed to work from his Sydney home for two out of five days a week. Having remained in SA for six weeks after border restrictions were first imposed in late March, he had since “returned to Sydney and managed the program from there”.

DPTI has previously stated that Partridge is an “essential traveller” under the state’s emergency provisions, but Braxton-Smith indicated that this has not been formally tested.

“Mr Partridge has skills, qualifications and experience necessary for a critical infrastructure project that’s on a timeline [and] those skills are not available in SA,” he said.

“In my mind, he’s an essential traveller [but] the decision rests with the authorities that make the assessment and not with me.”

Braxton-Smith said while the details of the sacking – during an online group meeting – had been previously outlined in InDaily’s reporting, “to the best of my knowledge there was an interaction between the employee of a contractor, and the program director, and subsequently a decision was made that that contractor’s services were no longer needed”.

He said DPTI had since terminated its contract with the entire contract agency.

Asked whether the employee’s sacking was appropriate, he said: “The termination of the contract with the firm performing the work was appropriate.”

“They provided testing services in software development [and] we needed to lift the performance of our software testing function – and that’s been achieved,” he insisted.

He said while the 30-odd DPTI employees working on the project had been “relatively stable”, there had been significant turnover of the around-50 contractors, who “turn over very regularly as tasks shift and change”.

Braxton-Smith also revealed the department had since launched a separate investigation into the source of various leaks that brought the matter to public light through InDaily’s reporting.

“As you’d be aware, improper use of government assets and information systems would trigger an investigation – and that investigation has been triggered,” he said.

He declined to say who was conducting the inquiry but said the agency had notified the Office of Public Integrity and “sought advice from the Department of Premier and Cabinet”.

Braxton-Smith acknowledged that he had previously worked with Partridge in Sydney, where he oversaw NSW Transport.

Asked what process was undertaken to appoint him, he said “the project team appointed Mr Partridge directly [after] he’d done some work for the department previously”.

After further questioning he revealed that work was at his own behest.

“Mr Partridge performed a piece of work for me previously in SA… he assisted me with formulating a strategy for Service SA,” he said.

“That was my decision… it was a single source director procurement.”

He said Partridge had previously “worked for Service NSW in program delivery there, and performed a piece of work for me when I was with Transport NSW”.

“I have worked with Mr Partridge previously – I was seven years in NSW,” he said.

“Mr Partridge did previously work in programs in NSW that have a significant complexity.”

However, he insisted his most recent appointment to e-Planning was made directly by the executive director for planning and land use services and “I think I learned about it post the fact”.

“This is a very complex program and complex program management skills are in short supply, particularly where there’s a highly technological component,” he said.

“You need experience in complex software development to be able to manage the process – there’s an interface with six different council software systems… not many projects in SA have been delivered that have that degree of technological complexity recently.”

Braxton-Smith said he was “confident” the e-Planning project will be rolled out in accordance the Government’s stated timeline, which was previously delayed by three months till the end of September.

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