EXCLUSIVE by ERWIN CHLANDA
North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency CEO Priscilla Atkins (pictured), who says she is currently on leave, discloses she was “excluded from the beginning” from an investigation by KPMG, a world-wide professional services firm which produced a scathing report about law firm, the Territory’s biggest.
The investigation was commissioned by NAAJA.
Says Ms Atkins, a staff member for 15 years: “Unfortunately, KPMG only met with me once and even though I provided them with detailed information with documentation this was not taken into account in the report.”
Ms Atkins says she nevertheless provided comprehensive information to KPMG about the running of NAAJA which has a budget of $23m, is almost exclusively funded by public money and employs some 70 lawyers.
Acting CEO John Paterson, in a comment on our story yesterday, says: “It is disappointing to note that you have selectively reported on key findings of the report.
“The KPMG Review was initiated by the Board prior to the departure of the former CEO. The Board has accepted the review findings and recommendations in full.
“The Board has developed an Implementation Plan and is moving to implement the recommendations including further reviews of key functional areas (HR, Finance, IT, Maintenance) together with a comprehensive review and updating of all organisational policies and procedures.
“These are significant pieces of work that will be undertaken over the next few months.”
Ms Atkins today replied to comments made by KPMG, providing substantiation in a string of documents.
The report stated: The role of the CEO is not clearly defined, and the CEO’s performance is not adequately managed.
Says Ms Atkins: “I had a clear job description and role. I had a performance review conducted every six months by three NAAJA directors.”
KPMG: A lack of appropriate delegations, processes and procedures, and support staff results the CEO workload being unsustainably large and compromises the achievement of NAAJA’s priorities.
Atkins: “We had a clear delegation register which was provided to KPMG. NAAJA has policy and procedures uploaded on the NAAJA staff portal and NAAJA Board portal. The NAAJA policy and procedures were updated by an external consultant in September 2021, but the NAAJA Board would not read them.
“My workload was too much but I made significant achievements. I would meet with the NAAJA Board and managers once a year to set priority services for the year.
“I would meet with NAAJA managers monthly to confirm we were on target with our priorities. Once a month an update of the NAAJA reforms would be sent to all NAAJA staff and Board directors.”
KPMG: The operation of the Board has not evolved in response to the growth in the size and complexity.
Atkins: “The NAAJA Board do not follow good governance. I organised for all NAAJA Directors to attend the Australian Institute of Directors Courses, but they would not do the assignments.”
KPMG: The Board should receive training and ongoing support on their role, responsibility and authority: Following an initial period of intensive capability uplift the Board should receive regular governance training, and new Board members should undertake induction training, including introduction to NAAJA and general governance training.
Atkins: All new board directors are sent the induction manual and offered training but would not take up the offer.
KPMG: The report describes as “moderate” the following problem: “Internal communication between the Board, management and staff is ad-hoc, irregular and inconsistent, and does not support the flow of important organisational and strategic information throughout the organisation.
Atkins: I would organise quarterly board meetings, each board meeting includes reports from each department of NAAJA. I would meet with the Chairperson every fortnight, so she was up to date on any NAAJA business.
“Board papers are sent out two weeks prior to the board meeting but the board would not read the papers. I would hold monthly meetings with all staff and individual managers.
“I [provided] all my stakeholder engagement and community engagement. Monthly emails are sent to staff on reforms NAAJA is working on.”
KPMG: External communication is also ad-hoc, irregular and inconsistent and does not support strategic and quality communication with external stakeholders.
Atkins: I would organise for the board and managers to meet every three years and develop our strategic plan. Each year every section of NAAJA does an annual action plan on how they will meet the goals of the organisation.
“Each year I provide an operational plan to the NAAJA board to endorse. I [received] attached support letters for the work I did.
Ms Atkins says her achievements included “leading NAAJA to be considered the leading Aboriginal legal service in Australia; increasing the annual budget from $4m to $23m, and staffing from 40 to 180, merging the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS) with NAAJA from January 1, 2018 and buying properties in Darwin, Katherine and Groote Eylandt.”
The News requested answers from NAAJA on May 16, 24 and 31. These are the questions. Mr Paterson’s communication today did not deal with them.
How many NAAJA employees have been sacked in the past two years and for what reason?
How many NAAJA employees have left the organisation in the past two years?
How many staff meetings have been held over the past 12 months and what kind of issues were discussed?
Has the Australian Services Union asked to meet with the NAAJA executive team and has that request been granted?
Is it true that all or some of the executive positions including the Deputy CEO, HR Manager, Governance officer, Company Secretary were not advertised and family members of the chairperson, NAAJA Board and NAAJA members were appointed? (Mr Paterson said today that these positions are subject to “comprehensive review and updating”.)
Are these people doing the job the suspended CEO did on her own?
Is the Board making decisions on a restructure without any involvement of the NAAJA managers?
What is the contribution by NAAJA to finding solutions for crime in the Northern Territory?
IMAGE at top the KPMG report.