Federal government’s new Transparency Portal set to transform APS reporting

By Stephen Easton

Thursday March 14, 2019

The Australian Public Service is expected to complete the long-discussed shift to online planning and performance reporting by the end of 2019, which could see the end of printed annual reports.

The transition has been on the cards for years but hit a significant milestone yesterday with the soft launch of a new website, transparency.gov.au, which was shown off to public servants attending an exhibition of APS Modernisation Fund projects hosted by the Department of Finance.

All federal agencies are expected to put their information on the website by a mid-October deadline, The Mandarin understands.

Legislative changes will soon be introduced to parliament requiring all Commonwealth bodies to publish their 2018-19 annual reports on the website. 

The Transparency Portal, as it’s known, currently hosts annual reports for 14 departments and agencies as well as some corporate plans and portfolio budget statements – “for demonstration purposes only” at the moment.

The website is not just a dumping ground for the same old reports in PDF format; it also allows users to instantly generate tables and charts that compare information on resourcing, remuneration and staffing from multiple government bodies and financial years.

A simple comparison table generated on the Transparency Portal.

The aim is to allow the public to more easily understand and track budget estimates, performance targets in corporate plans – which are themselves a relatively new feature of the recently reformed APS accountability and performance regime – and actual results, over time.

Minister for Finance and the Public Service Mathias Cormann and Assistant Minister for Treasury and Finance Zed Seselja said the pilot site’s launch marked “the beginning of the full digitisation of the Commonwealth’s annual plans and reports” in a joint statement. They said the government would “expand the data holdings” on the site next year.

Both ministers also addressed attendees at the Modernisation Expo, along with Finance secretary Rosemary Huxtable and the head of the APS, Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson.

Huxtable’s predecessor Jane Halton observed in 2016 that printed public service annual reports no longer served much of a purpose, before handing out awards for that year’s best ones.

Stacks of them are printed each year — a certain quantity is required by legislation — but most pile up in various offices before being carted off to the recyclers unread. Boxes are always delivered to the federal press gallery, for example, and nearly all of the books remain in the corridor, unsullied by human hands.

The exhibition also featured a range of other interesting projects paid for by the Modernisation Fund, a vehicle for reinvesting $500 million out of $1.9 billion worth of additional efficiency dividends extracted from the APS in 2016-17.

One interesting project, run by Data61 in partnership with Finance and the National Archives, aims to track machinery of government changes over time, making it easier to see where each discrete government function — Indigenous affairs, social services, digital transformation, employment services and so on — has been located within the bureaucracy over the years. The cost of each restructure is not included as it is much harder to follow.

Seselja sung the praises of the Data Integration Partnership for Australia and the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government while Parkinson singled out the cross-agency, cross-sector collaboration tool, GovTEAMS.

Another interesting project on show was Digital Earth Australia, in which Geoscience Australia uses satellite data to track minute physical changes across the country, while the Finance Department’s Service Delivery Office was showing off how it uses automation, challenging all comers to “beat the bot” at a simple data-entry task.

Attendees could also find out how the Veteran Centric Reform plan is progressing, chat to people from the Digital Transformation Agency, including chief executive Randall Brugeaud, and find out all about the National Health and Medical Research Council’s Sapphire project, which is improving and dramatically speeding up the process of applying for research grants.

Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the Data61 project tracking machinery of government changes over time to the Australian Public Service Commission.

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