Then-Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison holds a press conference on June 12, 2020. An commission investigation found that the "Robodebt" program to crack down on benefit overpayments overseen by Morrison was unfair and likely illegal.

Then-Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison holds a press conference on June 12, 2020. An commission investigation found that the "Robodebt" program to crack down on benefit overpayments overseen by Morrison was unfair and likely illegal. Sam Mooy/Getty Images

What the United States can learn from Australia’s recent catastrophic failure to listen to career government experts

COMMENTARY | A hastily launched 2016 program to reduce overpayment of government benefits was plagued by “unfairness, probable illegality and cruelty,” an Australian commission later found.

Debate is heating up over proposals to undermine the expertise of government career officials, with renewed criticism of the “deep state”—an issue that surfaced during the Trump administration when political appointees claimed career officials were attempting to sabotage presidential policy. Along with that comes planning by conservative Republicans to bring back Schedule F in a new Republican administration. This plan, launched in the last weeks of the Trump administration and undone by the Biden administration, would allow political appointees to replace 50,000 feds—or more—in positions that influence policy.

If rooting out the “deep state” by making government employees more politically accountable is such a good idea, why aren’t more countries doing it? In fact, why aren’t any other countries doing it?

The “deep state” complaint isn’t just an American issue. The former chief adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, contended that “deeply entrenched institutions” control “the vast majority of government” in the United Kingdom. In Canada, political scientist Barry Cooper analyzed “the deep state in operation.” Critics of new Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are convinced that his victory over Jair Bolsonaro was the product of “deep state” meddling in the electoral process.

French President Emmanuel Macron worries that “deep state” diplomats are sabotaging his foreign policy. Opponents of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi charged that the country’s “deep state” is “chewing” the Indian government, much like what happened in Pakistan, they said.

But an Australian crisis shows why other countries aren’t in any rush to follow the American debate about reducing the political independence of government experts. In Australia, the government set off on a radical plan to reduce overpayment of government benefits in 2016. But government ministers—overseen by Scott Morrison, who was social services minister from 2014 to 2015 and would later become prime minister—didn’t pay much attention to their career experts in creating the plan.

The Australian government had been manually searching for overpayments in programs for retirees, people with disabilities and students, among others. The 2016 program used algorithms to search out overpayments and send the bills. Christened “Robodebt,” the algorithm checked each individual’s payment against the average income of people in similar circumstances. If the algorithm determined that the person was likely overpaid by the government, it generated a bill.

Robodebt allowed the government to review 20,000 cases per week, instead of the 20,000 cases per year in the manual system it replaced. Government officials no longer had to contact employers to obtain data on employment history and payroll amounts, and the government no longer had to prove an individual had been overpaid. Instead, individuals had to prove that they had received the correct amount. If individuals didn’t pay quickly, debt collectors went to work.

The government launched Robodebt fast and claimed credit for catching recipients who had benefited from mistakes in the system. But many people receiving the notices were distraught. They often had to come up with big payments in just a few weeks. Some people had to sell their cars or take out loans, which was a huge burden on some of the country’s neediest residents. Others drained their meager savings. At least three people committed suicide, a Royal Commission found in a devastating 1,000-page report.

An investigation revealed that some repayment notices were incorrect. Some simply were false. Moreover, a 2019 court challenge found that Robodebt had violated important provisions of Australian law.

In July 2023, the Royal Commission pointed to “Robodebt’s unfairness, probable illegality, and cruelty.” When problems surfaced along the way, the commission concluded, “the path taken was to double down, to go on the attack in the media against those who complained and to maintain the falsehood that in fact the system had not changed at all” from the previous system.

How did such monumental errors happen? Australia has a long tradition of “frank and fearless advice” from career government experts to political ministers. In Robodebt, the ministers made clear that they weren’t interested in advice that complicated their speedy implementation of the policy, and they refused to listen to analysis of the escalating problems. As Andrew Podger, former head of the Australian civil service pointed out, there was excessive responsiveness of career experts to ministers and little appetite on the part of ministers to listen to the career experts.

In addition to the damage Robodebt inflicted on trust in Australia’s government, Podger also pointed to the erosion of confidence in the Australian public service. The career service, he said, “plays a critical democratic role in serving the elected government and administering its policies and programs.” Advice was less than “frank and fearless” because careerists were uncomfortable raising challenges to the government’s policy. Government officials charged ahead only to discover later that their plan wouldn’t work and was probably illegal.  

The result was one of the biggest governance crises in recent Australian history. Effective democratic rule in complex programs, it turns out, requires bureaucratic expertise—and the willingness of political appointees to use that expertise in both framing and implementing policy.

Elected officials, of course, have the right—indeed, the responsibility—to pursue their promises once they’re in office. But failing to collaborate with career experts to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what’s legal only paves the road to disaster, as the Robodebt case makes clear.

The “deep state” arguments have percolated around the globe. But if the counter to a powerful bureaucracy is to push experts aside, there can be a fearsome cost in government performance and trust.

Australia now finds itself trying to escape the crisis by rebalancing the relationship between political officials and career civil servants—between political responsiveness and expert administration.   

As former British adviser Cummings contended, the fact that “brilliant 30-year-old women who no one’s heard of or who no one’s elected are running things is actually for the good.” Putting faith in that expertise, in service of the government of the day, is the key to tackling the vast complexities of 21st-century government.

In Australia, politicians didn’t want advice. Careerists were afraid to give it. Disaster ensued. And that’s why no other major democracy is racing to make it easier to fire experts in the bureaucracy.

The Down Under parable is worth remembering here in the United States. Just what role should career experts play in shaping policy? That’s always been the subject of deep debate, and will continue to be during the 2024 election cycle. But Australia’s wrenching problems serve as a warning to Americans that ignoring the advice of the career bureaucracy can pave the road to an enormous crisis that only undermines trust in the very politicians seeking big policy change.