A series of follow-up audits conducted by the Australian National Audit Office over seven years indicates major issues with the long-term implementation capabilities of the Australian Public Service, according to new research.
The research conducted by Dr Peter Graves, adjunct visiting fellow at the Public Service Research Group of UNSW Canberra, looked at where the APS has been deficient in implementing recommendations made through ANAO performance audits.
Graves examined ANAO follow-up audits related to 14 departments that were conducted between 2013 and 2020 to identify systemic reasons for the incomplete implementation of audit recommendations.
The research found “systemic and unresolved deficiencies across the APS”, despite implementation guidance being repeatedly issued to the APS in 2006, 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2019. The deficiencies included incomplete implementation, staff inattention, no structured implementation plan, closure of incomplete implementation, no effective implementation, no implementation at all, and limited impacts of central guidance.
Graves argued that there have been structural deficiencies in departments’ implementation of central guidance and meeting their obligations to parliament, and the “repeated deficiencies” were despite central guidance to the APS.
“The ANAO has repeatedly stressed the importance of implementation, monitoring of complete implementation and timeliness,” he concluded.
“Despite these repeated issues first identified by the ANAO in 2013, there has been an absence of systemic analysis by the APS centre … especially about secretaries’ lack of follow-up(s) within agencies on previous signed reports.”
The first of nine follow-up audits conducted between 2013 and 2020 that the paper assessed related to the Department of Defence (2009-12). The ANAO found delays in implementation exceeding a year, incomplete implementation, and no consequences for staff who failed to speedily implement recommendations, Graves noted.
In 2013, the ANAO examined earlier audits (2009-2013) of the Education, Families, Finance and Infrastructure departments. Other than Education, “none of the agencies included in [the] audit had developed structured implementation approaches in relation to implementation of ANAO recommendations”, the audit office found.
An ANAO examination of the Agriculture and Human Services departments in 2014 found that while some changes had been made, the departments “fell short of the full intent of the recommendation”.
The ANAO had concluded that “audit recommendations should be effectively implemented in a timely manner”, which Graves argued pointed to “APS deficiencies in effectiveness and timeliness”. Similar deficiencies were found between 2015 and 2019 across the Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Airservices, and Infrastructure departments, as well as the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, the research found.
However, in 2017, the ANAO found the Australian Taxation Office had effectively implemented four years of recommendations made by the ANAO and parliamentary committees. Graves argued that “patterns become apparent in effective implementation by agency management”.
In 2019, the APS was advised by the ANAO to develop implementation plans that “clearly identify intended actions, timeframes and measures of success”, with effective governance arrangements to include “clear responsibilities, reporting arrangements and systems that provide the accountable authority with a clear line of sight of implementation”. This message was echoed by the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in August 2019, Graves noted.
By 2019, the ANAO was concerned by standardised APS responses not addressing an audit, the paper stated. The agency had warned that organisations which respond to external criticism defensively or dismissively — with comments such as “we are already aware of the issue”, “we are already addressing the issue”, “the report needs to be read in context”, and “the issues raised are not material” — put their ability to build an effective governance culture and embed the characteristics of a learning organisation at risk.