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Inspector-General's review

Margaret Stone AO FAAL was the Inspector-General during the reporting period and prepared this review and the majority of the report prior to the end of her statutory term on 23 August 2020.

Over the past year, the most significant event to affect the operation of the Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) has been the COVID-19 pandemic. The security classifications of material relevant to IGIS’s core inspection and inquiry activities mean that this work cannot be done remotely. As as result, during the peak of Canberra’s COVID-19 restrictions some inspection, inquiry and complaint work was reduced or delayed, with the recognition that greater attention would be paid to these activities at a later stage. As restrictions eased in Canberra, compliance and inspection activities increased with a focus on completing the work which was delayed. Core corporate enabling functions continued with little or no interruption.

During this challenging period IGIS refined and developed new approaches to its activities and built staff capabilities through training and development. Four IGIS officers were seconded to agencies within the National Intelligence Community (NIC) and to other oversight agencies to fill critical vacancies. As the Office transitioned through several phases of working arrangements, officers were adaptable and flexible in response to the changing requirements.

In accordance with s 35 of the IGIS Act, this report provides details of inquiry and inspection activities during the year and on agency compliance with certain privacy rules, in addition to details of the performance and financial position of this Office. Despite the temporary pause in inspections due to COVID-19 restrictions, IGIS completed the majority of scheduled inspections by the end of the reporting period. Inspections continued to target areas assessed as at high risk of an undetected or unreported breach of the requirements of legality, propriety and human rights. During the reporting period an inquiry was also concluded. The inquiry required many in-depth interviews and the review and analysis of many thousands of classified documents. Reduced access to classified systems and material during the COVID-19 restrictions resulted in some delays in finalising the inquiry report.

There continue to be a number of legislative changes to the powers of agencies which will significantly expand IGIS oversight responsibilities. The Inspector-General has been consulted on the development of these changes and continues to contribute to the consultative processes around further proposed changes. This consultation helps ensure that features supporting effective oversight by IGIS are built into the legislation. Many of these changes have complex legal and technical aspects which have significant implications for how IGIS oversees agency activities. During 2019–20, IGIS contributed to all inquiries conducted by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) that were relevant to the oversight of agencies within the Inspector-General’s jurisdiction. Written submissions were provided and the Inspector-General appeared at hearings to answer questions from the Committee.

IGIS has engaged with other Australian integrity and oversight agencies throughout the year. Two IGIS officers participated in the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI) immersive development placement program ahead of the proposed changes to the Inspector-General’s jurisdiction. Regular meetings occurred with the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman (OCO) at both the executive and officer level. IGIS is also cooperating with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) on a project related to the COVIDSafe app to ensure the relevant agencies are acting legally and in accordance with the restrictions that have been applied to this data.

International engagement continued with Five Eyes partners throughout the year, although the annual 2020 Five Eyes Intelligence Oversight and Review Council (FIORC) conference was cancelled due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. The group has been able to conduct regular teleconferences to discuss key items and to progress joint projects.

Informing the public and providing assurances that intelligence and security matters are open to scrutiny is a key priority for IGIS. While there are some security constraints on what information can be released publicly, we seek to engage with public groups and include as much information as possible in this report and in other publications. IGIS has convened two further meetings with the Civil Society Reference Group and these meetings are now an important part of the IGIS public engagement strategy. IGIS has also updated and expanded the content on the IGIS website and more information is now available about the activities of IGIS, as well as specific inspection information for each of the agencies within the Inspector-General’s jurisdiction. Complaints are important elements of IGIS’s oversight of intelligence agencies and of its public assurance role. Recent improvements to the complaints process have made complaints by means of online forms on the website more accessible.

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. One strategy to deal with the high withdrawal rate has been the use of the staff placement program which is discussed in Section 2 of this report. 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.

In light of the increasing size of the Office, a comprehensive review of internal governance has been conducted to design governance arrangements that will suit the expansion and ensure the Office delivers its responsibilities as a Commonwealth entity effectively. Based on the recommendations of the review, a governance and strategy team has been created for central management of governance functions such as corporate reporting, strategic planning, internal audit and risk management. Work has commenced on devolving authority to make decisions so as to increase the effective operation of the Office. Revised delegations and authorisations will link to clearly devolved accountability and responsibilities across the senior executive and executive level officers. Activities related to these and other recommendations will continue into the next reporting period and provide the platform to support the core investigation work of IGIS. In addition to these governance initiatives, two major ICT projects have been delivered this year – an electronic document management system and a new case management system that will be used to manage and track complaints related activities.

The coming year will also bring to a close my five year term as the Inspector-General, and the appointment of a new Inspector-General. It has been an honour to lead this Office and to participate in its important work.