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Intelligence watchdog faces continuing staffing deficit

Posted By on March 9, 2022 @ 10:35

The 2020–21 annual report of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) reveals that an office that’s paramount to the oversight and accountability of some of Australia’s most secretive agencies is struggling to meet some of its key performance measures due to ongoing staff shortages and resourcing constraints.

The IGIS is an independent statutory office appointed to oversee and review the activities of Australia’s intelligence agencies for their legality and propriety as well as consistency with human rights.

Established in 1986 in response to a recommendation from the Hope royal commission into Australia’s security and intelligence agencies, the IGIS has powers akin to a standing royal commission under the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Act 1986.

The inspector-general’s office can undertake formal independent inquiries into the activities of Australian intelligence agencies in response to its own motion, in response to complaints or public interest disclosures (PIDs), or at the request of relevant ministers or the prime minister. It can also act independently to initiate and conduct regular inspections and monitoring of agency activities to help foster a culture of compliance.

The IGIS’s scrutiny of the intelligence agencies is critical and central to assuring the parliament and the Australian public that Australia’s national intelligence community is subject to robust scrutiny and held to account by a credible and independent oversight body. Its crucial role is often used as an argument for limiting the remit of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security to play a more active role in agency oversight.

The 2017 independent intelligence review recommended an expansion of the IGIS’s jurisdiction to include AUSTRAC and the intelligence functions of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Australian Federal Police and the Department of Home Affairs. Under the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Act 2021 and the Intelligence Oversight and Other Legislation (Integrity Measures) Bill 2020, which is under review in the House of Representatives, the IGIS’s remit will expand to three of the four additional agencies recommended by the intelligence review to either include the whole or some part of their functions.

In addition, the review recommended that the resources of the office of the IGIS be increased to ensure that it could effectively oversee the national intelligence community. The government accepted this recommendation and in the 2018–19 budget allocated funds for the IGIS to sustain a full-time staff of 55, which the IGIS was working to achieve by 2020–21.

However, the planned expansion of the IGIS’s staff numbers is yet to be achieved. The 2020–21 annual report highlights the precarious state of the office’s staffing, which is having an impact on its ability to meet some of its key performance indicators. As detailed in the annual report, the results against the performance criteria set out in the IGIS’s corporate plan reveal that the office didn’t meet one of the measures for ‘well-developed and effective complaint and PID management processes’ due to a lack of resources. It only partially met one measure under the ‘appropriate infrastructure and governance’ criterion due to resource constraints in finalising internal policies.

According to the report, as at 30 June 2020 the office had 33 staff—well under the proposed 55 and vastly disproportionate to the expanded staffing and resourcing of the intelligence agencies the IGIS oversees.

According to previous reporting, the IGIS had 33 ongoing employees (not including the inspector-general) at 30 June 2020 and 32 at 30 June 2019. So, since 2019, the office has only managed to increase its overall staffing by one.

Why has recruitment continued to be an ongoing challenge for the IGIS? The 2019–20 annual report notes that one reason for the shortfall is the lengthy security-vetting process:
While IGIS welcomed a number of new officers over the past year, the planned expansion to 55 staff has not yet been reached. IGIS officers are required to hold the highest level of security clearance. Acquiring this level of clearance is a lengthy process that not infrequently results in a number of candidates withdrawing before it is finalised … Recruitment activity remains a focus for the next year as well as developing retention strategies to provide flexibility for IGIS officers and to promote high levels of job engagement and satisfaction.

The protracted security clearance process clearly requires further reforms not only for the IGIS but also for the intelligence agencies and other government entities that use the same process. No doubt, Covid-19 has also played its insidious role. However, some remedial action is also required to the IGIS’s recruitment and retention strategies, which the 2020–21 report acknowledges: ‘[T]he Office continues to review recruitment strategies and processes to ensure recruitment is targeted and as flexible and efficient as possible.’

Given the climate of emerging and evolving threats and the growing powers and size of Australia’s intelligence community, it is imperative that we ensure that they have robust and proportionate oversight mechanisms. The IGIS is key to this.

While others have noted there will always be a significant disparity between the size of the intelligence agencies and the IGIS, that such a crucial gatekeeper is lacking teeth is inexcusable and reflective of fundamental systemic weaknesses.

The IGIS needs more resourcing and staffing to ensure a more muscular approach to its powers and independence to guarantee public confidence in Australia’s intelligence agencies. That an office so crucial to the oversight and accountability architecture of Australia’s intelligences agencies is understaffed, under-resourced and unable to meet key performance criteria is not in the national interest.

It is encouraging that the report notes that recruitment and retention strategies are expected to bear fruit with several new staff expected to commence in the current financial year. Hopefully, at the next round of Senate estimates hearings, this issue will be front and centre of questioning because numbers do indeed count if oversight is to be real and effective rather than tokenistic.

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[1] 2020–21 annual report: https://www.igis.gov.au/about/annual-report

[2] Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Act 1986: http://classic.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/ioiasa1986436/

[3] 2017 independent intelligence review: https://www.pmc.gov.au/resource-centre/national-security/report-2017-independent-intelligence-review

[4] Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Act 2021: https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2021A00098

[5] Intelligence Oversight and Other Legislation (Integrity Measures) Bill 2020: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Bills_Legislation/Bills_Search_Results/Result?bId=r6655

[6] others: https://www.thomsonreuters.com.au/content/dam/ewp-m/documents/asia-region/en/pdf/reports/alj-vol95-10-2021-special-issue-national-security-and-the-law-thomson-reuters.pdf?form=thankyou&gatedContent=%2Fcontent%2Fewp-marketing-websites%2Faustralia%2Fen%2Fc%2Flegal%2Falj-2021