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ICAC's 'risk' warning over outsourced public service investigation

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A State Government move to pay private investigators to conduct inquiries into suspected maladministration and misconduct within the public sector carries “significant risks”, the state’s anti-corruption commissioner has cautioned.

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A panel of private investigators – to be called the Workplace Investigation Services Panel, or WISP – is being set up by the State Government to conduct inquiries into matters that are deemed too minor to warrant the attention of the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC), but serious enough to require external scrutiny.

Tender documents released last week state the panel would comprise “appropriately qualified and licensed private investigators” who would help government agencies make “objective, informed, appropriate and timely decisions in relation to complaints or allegations relating to workplace conduct”.

The panel would be tasked with investigating suspected code of ethics breaches, maladministration, financial management and employee grievances within the public sector.

“The Panel is intended to assist SA Government Agencies to more efficiently identify and engage external investigation services, and to result in better quality and consistency in workplace investigations,” the tender documents state.

The investigators would not be allowed to investigate matters that fall under the remit of the ICAC, Safework SA or Return to Work SA, or which constitute criminal activity.

However, they would be able to interview complainants and witnesses, prepare witness statements, analyse documents and access electronic information for all other matters at the request of government agencies.

There are significant risks associated with outsourcing government investigations to the private sector

According to the tender documents, the panel is being established in response to the ICAC’s 2019 report into governance issues within SA Health.

The Troubling Ambiguity: Governance in SA Health report, written by former Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Bruce Lander, found that the health department was “ripe for exploitation by corrupt employees” and that misconduct and unmitigated conflicts of interests were commonplace.

But Lander made no recommendations to the Government in his report, noting that “the making of credible and useful recommendations would require a substantial amount of further work”.

Treasurer Rob Lucas told InDaily that the Government responded to the report by promising to explore “new structures and processes that would contribute to a more consistent approach to undertaking misconduct investigations”.

He said a taskforce, which included Public Sector Employment Commissioner Erma Ranieri, was set up to implement the government’s response.

“I am advised that the taskforce identified potential advantages in establishing a panel of external investigators to support consistent and quality investigative processes across SA Health,” Lucas said.

“The taskforce quickly recognised that advantages to consistency and quality across the sector would be achieved if the panel were to be made available to all public sector agencies.”

Ranieri has previously described the panel as a “modern version” of the now-defunct investigations unit that used to sit within her office and the Crown Solicitor’s office.

She told a parliamentary committee in March that the panel would be “regularly used and of a standard”.

But ICAC Commissioner Ann Vanstone told InDaily that she was not consulted about the panel and warned that outsourcing workplace investigations to the private sector carried “significant risks”.

“I am aware that on a number of occasions my predecessor expressed disquiet about the quality and timeliness of internal investigations undertaken by public agencies. I share that concern,” she said.

“I have not been consulted on the proposed Workplace Investigation Services Panel, and my limited knowledge about what is proposed does not allow me to express an informed view about it.

“However, I would offer a word of caution. There are significant risks associated with outsourcing government investigations to the private sector.

“I hope that those risks have been well considered by the government and that appropriate controls will be put in place.”

In response, Lucas said: “The risks have been well-considered by the Government and appropriate controls have been put in place.”

The investigators could be appointed for a period of up to five years, with the cost to be determined by the tender process.

Tender documents state the panel would be headed by a “lead investigator”, who would be required to hold a minimum Certificate IV in government investigation.

Other investigators would be required to hold a Certificate III in investigation services, as well as a police check.

All investigators would be required to enter into confidentiality agreements and take the “necessary steps to protect legal privilege where appropriate”, the tender documents state.

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