The lack of measurable high-level goals in many agencies stifles transparency and accountability, argues former top mandarin Terry Moran. He says it’s up to agencies to step-up and build public trust in the work they do though clear public statements of plans and expectations — especially for focused agencies needing to demonstrate effective performance to their portfolio department or minister.
The former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet told The Mandarin that the way agencies were created has contributed to leaving few safeguards in place beyond often-token ministerial oversight. Unfortunately, the recent crackdown on the number of federal government agencies, and in the works at state level, hasn’t yet tackled how accountable those that remain are.
A wide range of existing accountability structures — the result of ad hoc agency creation over a series of governments — has led to a dog’s breakfast of agency powers and strategic approaches, Moran says. He wants a “major examination of accountability within government beyond financial issues, for both agencies and departments” to help remedy the problem.
This situation “has grown up historically as each new government has set up new agencies on a model they think is reasonable, so you don’t have much predictability in how the agencies are and are not accountable to ministers,” he says.
“Agencies need a comprehensive strategic plan with clear measures of performance. They should be held accountable directly for results through Parliament and by the public. From the public’s point of view, it’s very hard to know how many of these agencies are going. Measuring or otherwise assessing what they deliver can be hard to master.”
Agencies are usually set up under their own Act of Parliament with defined responsibilities and powers, their own CEO and, usually, a supervisory board or council.
Moran pointed to the Reserve Bank of Australia as “a good model”. “With a statement of expectations, a great deal of transparency and frequent explanations from senior bank officials it is possible to judge how the RBA is going,” he argues. “This should be more common for more agencies. Thus a department to which an agency is attached can advise the minister on its specific performance over time.”
Clear and readable agency plans and measures “would deliver more transparency, more accountability within government and more public confidence in the work of agencies”, he says. “Although agencies are held accountable through Parliamentary Committees several times a year, a gotcha approach is taken. Real performance is often cloaked from public scrutiny. That should change.”
Although he acknowledges the government of the day is ultimately responsible for monitoring the performance of agencies, leaving it entirely up to the minister can be “a fairly hit-or-miss approach to holding agencies accountable and doesn’t of itself build public confidence”.
Sorting out better accountability arrangements for agencies “will make it easier to deliver results through agencies and move away from the alternative: big, bloated conglomerate departments,” Moran thinks. “Agencies can be a source of innovation and connection with the broader community. Moving everything into departments makes them unwieldy, remote and inefficient.”
“Indeed agencies are often far more efficient at performing a given task than would be a large department. Specialised functions performed by agencies with expertise in an area is one of the strengths of the Australian Westminster system — provided there’s clear accountability that they’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” he said.
Tell us: Do you know an agency with a good approach to accountability?