Opinion: reports expose examples of still getting the basics wrong

By Bernard Keane

Tuesday July 7, 2020

Adobe

While the federal government’s handling of the pandemic and its economic impacts have bolstered trust in the capacity of the Australian Public Service, two recent ANAO reports again point to fundamental problems within the bureaucracy around achieving the basics of good administration.

The ANAO’s follow-up audit on the Lobbyist Register was supposed to investigate whether its 2018 recommendations around better communicating the register requirements, assessing risks to compliance and proper performance assessment had been implemented. But given the register, which had been housed at PM&C since the Rudd government re-established it in 2008, had been moved to Attorney-General’s that year, it also served to shine a light on what has been pretty much a complete debacle.

After nearly a decade of trouble-free operation at PM&C, the site was moved from PM&C to AGD’s servers in May 2019, and promptly stopped working: it was unusable for external users (I can personally vouch for this), and lobbyists trying to submit or update information found it impossible, forcing AGD to apologise to lobbyists and ask for their patience while they tried to get it working (and after they got it working, they accidentally broadcast the email address of every registered lobbyist to their competitors).

As the ANAO discovered, AGD had gone for the cheapest solution in porting the register over from PM&C, and “the system was placed online without performing pre or post-deployment user testing, data migration validation or having a back-out strategy in place.” Now, $600,000 later, the department is now midway through a two-year program to get the system working properly.

As for the 2018 recommendations, had AGD implemented them? The short answer was no, not even in the slightest. In its response, AGD said it had been too busy trying to get the site to work to implement them. “The department recognises the challenges that have been experienced by stakeholders as a result of significant IT issues during the transfer of responsibility for the Lobbyists Register from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet,” AGD said in its response. It “appreciates the patience and support of lobbyists through the transition.”

This wasn’t some minor page in the obscure corner of a departmental website, but the primary transparency tool of the government. We may not have meeting diaries, strong FOI laws, a federal integrity commission or decent political donation disclosure laws, but we have a register for lobbyists that public servants need to consult before accepting meetings with representatives of stakeholders.

At least, until AGD gets hold of it.

Nor is this the first time that AGD has stumbled over the basics in recent years. While the original handling of a potentially significant letter from Lindt Cafe siege murderer Man Haron Monis was only questionable in hindsight, AGD’s misleading of ministers, who then misled parliament on its advice in 2015, on its subsequent actions should have led to heads — senior heads — rolling.

And the AGD branch — Transparency Frameworks Branch — that bungled the lobbyist register was also responsible for the attempt to use the foreign interference laws to intimidate the Nine Network, not to mention pursuing the organisers of a Sydney conference, and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, over suggestions it was a vehicle for foreign interference. That prompted a public rebuke from the Attorney-General.

Such lack of judgment and an inability to get the basics right over an extended period reflects poorly on a department that, given its portfolio responsibilities, should surely be expected to manage core competences well.

But it’s not the only department with long-running problems.

The audit before that one was of what is now the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s administration of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Even more so than the lobbyist register audit, this was a damning report. “Despite being subject to multiple reviews, audits and parliamentary inquiries since the commencement of the Act, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s administration of referrals, assessments and approvals of controlled actions under the EPBC Act is not effective” the ANAO concluded. There is literally nothing positive in the entire audit — and that was after the ANAO, in the words of Agriculture Secretary Andrew Metcalfe, worked with the Department “to ensure that the report reasonable reflects our current performance and areas to be improved,”

Yikes.

Like AGD, Agriculture has been in the spotlight in recent years for the wrong reasons. It, too, received a spray from its own minister, about its mishandling of live exports, an example of industry capture with sickening animal welfare consequences. It has also been front and centre in major scandals of water sales and the maladministration of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

But again, they’re not alone.

In May, the ANAO also criticised Home Affairs for aspects of its handling of the notorious Paladin contract, including a failure to explain why the Department opted for limited tender arrangements or waited until it was in a position where it lacked the time necessary to conduct an open tender process.

Procurement in Home Affairs has been the subject of multiple savage audits in recent years, with ANAO staff highlighting remarkable failures involving billion-dollar contracts. Home Affairs was also revealed by an independent report in 2018 to have resumed its Howard-era habit of detaining Australian citizens unlawfully, with warnings that it would continue to do so if it failed to address persistent internal flaws.

Scathing audits are nothing new for agencies — and procurement has been a long-running problem for the Commonwealth right back to cases like Hughes in the 1990s. But the failure of agencies to heed previous audits and inquiries and to keep repeating mistakes of the past is likely to be exposed more frequently now. Under the Turnbull government, Liberal senator Dean Smith, chair of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, grew sick of departments failing to implement the recommendations of ANAO audits and inquiries by his own committee, so he encouraged the ANAO to undertake follow-up audits of whether departments have done what they were told. The Audit Office, under the more aggressive Grant Hehir, hasn’t needed to be asked twice.

Unlike the lobbyist register audit, sometimes the results are good. A recent follow-up audit of the education and health portfolios found they’d been assiduous in implementing recommendations, while other follow-ups have been more mixed.

In 2018, the ANAO also began putting more effort into communicating with departments what it is seeing on a cross-government basis about recurring failures and problems. Last week’s “audit insight”, for example, examined conflicts of interest in procurement and grants — a problem that had cropped up, yet again, in the Paladin contract.

What the ANAO is less likely to provide guidance on is just why departments fail to address recurring problems or, in the case of AGD, Home Affairs and Agriculture, prove unable to deliver the most basic elements of their functions — run a website, administer portfolio legislation, avoid misleading ministers, manage a tender process. Is it the effect of years of staff cutbacks? Of too great a reliance by ministers on external consultants? Do some secretaries lack the capacity to drive change in their departments, or do some departments, like Home Affairs, simply have incompetence in their very bureaucratic DNA?

Whatever the cause, we’re likely to see continuing exposure of some departments failing to deliver the essentials.

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