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Auditor-General: ‘narrow interpretations’ a leadership fail

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Too many public sector agencies have a “tick-and-flick” approach to meeting the expectations upon them with no follow up or assurance checking, a disappointed Auditor-General Ian McPhee has warned.

Speaking at a parliamentary hearing Wednesday on his recent audit of the Australian Electoral Commission, McPhee said institutional “narrow interpretation” of recommendations and priorities by managers was a problem seen in many agencies:

“It’s not good enough to just presume that because management has decided this will happen that it will happen. There needs to be appropriate follow up arrangements; there needs to be understanding amongst the managers in the organisation that it is their responsibility to ensure these things actually happen and take responsibility for checking that they have been.

“Narrow interpretation is a short-hand term that I use when something is agreed to be done, [but not checked] to make sure that is actioned and done in an appropriate way. And not only is it actioned in an appropriate way but having the desired impact as well. In some of the reports we do, it’s very obvious managers take a narrow view of their responsibility; don’t check with colleagues that the desired effect has taken place.”

Using the example of the AEC, which reported having implemented the recommendations of earlier audits yet done so poorly, McPhee said this was a case of ticking the box:

“Someone has probably said yes, we’ve done it, but not seriously assessing that the required action has been taken and the desired impact has been achieved.”

In some cases the AEC head office was blind to whether actions were taken or not, and never got feedback from the teams implementing the commitments the head office had made.

If a commitment or priority is important enough then the leadership should be getting regular feedback, McPhee says. It starts at the top, with the CEO and the governance body having procedures in place to inform themselves that in all significant areas the recommendations or government direction have been implemented.

McPhee says it takes discipline — more than he’s seen in many agencies to date — to make sure the governance arrangements are providing sufficient information with those charged, and to know where the soft spots in an organisation are, and where intervention is required. Leaders need to ensure priorities and commitments are understood across their organisations, he said:

“This is not easy work. This is about not only procedures and controls but there’s an important people element to all this as well and it goes to a leadership, how managers bring their people along.

“We want an army of risk managers; we just don’t want a risk-person in an organisation who is responsible, we want everyone to be tuned into our objectives, what we are trying to achieve, what our aspirations are and contributing strongly to that. That’s an important job for senior executives and there’s a procedural element which we ought to look at certainly, but we never ignore the important people issue and bringing people along with us.”

More at The Mandarin: AEC audit: they promised reform, but did very little

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.