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Less reporting, more transparency? Smart cuts in SA

The South Australian government’s decision to loosen requirements on annual reports will help make public service reporting clearer, according to public service commissioner Erma Ranieri.

Public servants will also be required to publish complaints data, following a recommendation by the Ombudsman.

The government announced last week that information on a range of topics, including workforce data and contractual information, would not have to be included in departmental annual reports.

Public Sector Minister Susan Close said the move would also save between one and four days of work per agency across government, and remove several pages from each agency’s annual report:

“At present there’s unnecessary duplication in the material presented in annual reports, and material that’s published in other sources. By changing the process, we’ll ensure the information is still publicly available but eliminate that duplication.

“By removing unnecessary layers of red tape, we aim to deliver a more efficient public service.”

Information no longer required to be published in annual reports includes:

  • Human resources information — such as employee numbers, gender, status, as well as the workforce diversity/cultural and linguistic diversity and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander information — will now be reported by the commissioner for public sector employment.
  • Account payment performance will now be published on the Department of Treasury and Finance website.
  • Contractual information on procurement contracts exceeding $4 million will continue to be published on the SA Tenders and Contracts website.
  • Overseas travel reporting, which will continue to be made available at least annually on each agency’s website.
  • Asbestos Management in Government Buildings, which will be reported in a cross-government report to be tabled in Parliament each year.
  • Government Buildings Energy Strategy, which will be published in an annual energy efficiency report on the Department for State Development website.
Erma Ranieri
Erma Ranieri

Will decreasing annual reporting requirements represent a trade-off between accountability and efficiency? Ranieri is adamant.

“If anything, government will be more transparent,” she argued. “I want the community to be able to see how many public servants there are. I’ll publicise that on my website and people can look at the five-year trends.”

Centralising workforce data reporting in the commission will make it more accessible, Ranieri told The Mandarin. “It’ll make it easier to do comparisons. And it goes to the philosophy of one government — having one place where the information is available,” she said.

“Sometimes you can find discrepancies [between data] because they’ve been reported at different times. The State of the Sector [report] is in July, while annual reports are in September, so these differences can interrupt trends.”

While workforce data is  to be reported once a year by the commission at the moment, Ranieri — who is still relatively new to the job — hopes to make it more regular, perhaps by initially moving to quarterly reporting.

While she is wary of “overburdening” departments, more regular reporting would address the problem of having to make decisions based on lagged indicators.

“It’s about having consistent information across government …” 

“That way you can dissect better, identify trends better,” she said. “Departments are collecting that information anyway. It’s about having consistent information across government, so you’re comparing apples with apples.”

Departments will also now be required to report information about complaints received, following an Ombudsman’s audit into how agencies handle complaints.

Apart from enhancing transparency, says Ranieri, publishing complaints data will push agencies to think about “service recovery” — fixing problems where possible, or at least explaining why the complaint cannot be fully rectified, often for legislative reasons.

“If we are going to be transparent about how many complaints were lodged, the next step is to ask what to do about them,” she explained. “Inevitably there are complaints, but sometimes we can’t give them what they want.

“The question is how do you recover?”

More at The Mandarin: Document dump: online annual reports good, open data better

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.