Charity Advocates Ask – What is Dr Gary Johns Hiding?
25 January 2019 at 12:30 pm
Labor is demanding that the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission publicly release results from its staff surveys, with the opposition and sector leaders concerned by what they believe is a major decline in staff morale since Dr Gary Johns was appointed commissioner.
Shadow charities minister Andrew Leigh revealed to Pro Bono News he had two Freedom of Information (FOI) requests for the data and comments from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 Australian Public Service staff surveys denied in recent months.
Leigh said he had sought the public release of these surveys to gauge ACNC staff morale since Susan Pascoe was replaced as commissioner in 2017 by Johns – who has stirred controversy since his appointment and faced calls to step down.
Anonymous ACNC sources have told Pro Bono News that high staff morale under Pascoe has dropped significantly under Johns’ leadership, especially regarding Johns’ past public comments and his view that an acknowledgement of country in an ACNC email signature indicates a bias toward Indigenous charities.
Leigh – who in 2017 launched a petition calling for Johns to resign – said the public deserved to know what damage Johns’ “disastrous appointment” might be doing to the culture of Australia’s charity sector and the ACNC.
“Since his appointment… Dr Johns has publicly defended his decision to suppress acknowledgement of country within the commission and confirmed he still holds troubling views about charities, welfare recipients and Indigenous mothers,” Leigh told Pro Bono News.
“Not only has there been public backlash, but Dr Johns himself has acknowledged that ACNC staff have complained about his conduct and leadership. These complaints are detailed in the survey, the results of which need to be made public.”
The charity commissioner Gary Johns' troubling comments reflect the out-of-touch government which appointed him. Australian charities deserve better https://t.co/Q9OzFXV1PY #auspol #charities pic.twitter.com/prsJk3mAyS
— Andrew Leigh (@ALeighMP) October 24, 2018
The commissioner said during Senate Estimates that the staff survey contained negative comments from one anonymous ACNC officer.
But sources told Pro Bono News dissatisfaction with Johns’ performance was much broader than this, and that the survey would show confidence had significantly declined in ACNC senior leadership.
Johns told Pro Bono News responses to the 2018 APS Census were captured in May and June of 2018 – a transitional period for the ACNC.
While he remained coy about staff morale during Estimates, Johns said that some measures on the survey were down on previous years.
“The senior management team and I received the ACNC’s census report in August, and were pleased to see strong results for both staff engagement and wellbeing,” Johns said.
“As expected shortly after a change of leadership, the results for measures of strategic leadership were lower.”
Johns said to address this, he had prioritised engagement with staff, and set out his vision for the ACNC at an all-staff event in early December.
Gary Johns regards humanitarian work as "campaigns to give aid to Third World kleptomaniacs"https://t.co/Gg4rkDnt6I
— Tom Arup (@aruptom) December 6, 2017
He confirmed that requests to access ACNC staff verbatim responses from the surveys were declined under the FOI Act.
The commissioner added that to the best of his knowledge, verbatim responses to the APS Census had never been shared with all ACNC staff, or publicly, but only with the ACNC’s senior management team to take appropriate action on any highlighted issues.
“As I stated during my most recent Senate Estimates appearance, staff provide this invaluable feedback confidentially. I believe releasing the verbatim responses is unfair to staff and destroys the privacy they assumed they had when responding,” Johns said.
“We cannot possibly expect staff to provide frank and honest feedback in future if their trust is betrayed. I have no wish to stymie feedback from my staff and I have an open-door policy. I encourage all staff to raise any issues with their manager, or with me directly.”
Johns – who previously served as a Labor minister in the Keating government and as a senior fellow at conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) – has been a vocal critic of charities in the past, causing severe backlash from the charity sector.
Johns said ACNC staff who had serious concerns about the conduct of any of their colleagues, including him, had access to confidential Australian Taxation Office resolution processes.
Senator @jennymcallister asks the charities commissioner whether he's disavowed his comments that Aboriginal women on welfare are "cash cows".
"Absolutely not". pic.twitter.com/nj6kBTeOqi
— Yarns (@BuzzFeedYarns) October 25, 2018
Leigh’s second FOI request was made in November, after Johns’ controversial Senate Estimates appearance, and was rejected on 12 December.
In the request, seen by Pro Bono News, Leigh said that participating ACNC employees were made aware under APS census guidelines that de-identified comments will be “reported verbatim and made available to your agency.”
The request said to that extent, the privacy of the respondents had already been assured.
Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie told Pro Bono News he had “no doubt” that staff morale was much lower under Johns than it was under Pascoe.
Crosbie said the important questions here were around what issues staff had raised and what steps have been taken to address their concerns.
“Dr Johns can demonstrate he is providing good management by releasing the staff survey and letting us all know what steps have been taken to address any concerns,” Crosbie said.
“A less than positive rating of management is not the worse outcome – but not being prepared to act on staff concerns would indicate a level of managerial incompetence.”
Crosbie added arguments about confidentiality made no sense since all survey data was de-identified.
“There are charities that regularly publish staff surveys as part of their public reporting, as do some companies,” he said.
“Given Dr Johns has consistently argued for increased accountability and transparency for all charities, the least he could do is provide this basic level of transparency back to the charities he regulates.
“What is he hiding?”