Halton’s annual report overhaul: ‘next year will be different’

By Stephen Easton

Friday May 22, 2015

Can government annual reporting become less onerous for public servants and more useful to the community at the same time? Department of Finance secretary Jane Halton hopes it can, as the new Commonwealth Performance Framework links reporting to planning.

Speaking at the Institute for Public Administration’s Annual Report Awards last night, Halton said her department was working to “rationalise” annual reporting requirements for 2015-16, as part of smaller government reforms. Corporate plans would need to be seamlessly linked to annual reports in future.

“One of the key things we’re doing for the PGPA [Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act] is to establish the performance framework across government and our objective is to make sure that this framework can genuinely take effect from the 15-16 reporting year, so we will see two documents, I hope, which are bookends,” she explained. “They are equivalents. They are both incredibly important.”

She gave special thanks to the public servants who “put their heart and soul” into producing annual reports and acknowledged the role the awards play in professional development by involving volunteers from the APS teams that produce them in the assessment process.

But, in a light-hearted address seasoned with a very APS sense of humour, she also acknowledged the downsides of the gruelling yearly information dump and the limitations of its staggering output.

“I think it’s true that over time annual reports have developed a rather unfortunate reputation. We know there are entities that regard them as necessary but onerous and unavoidable, a bit like death and taxes,” said Halton, pausing to acknowledge the Australian Taxation Office team.

While annual reports are useful for job applicants wanting to clue up on their intended employer before an interview, Halton said, the current system arguably amounted to public servants “producing vast reams” that are read and used by very few people.

“But it shouldn’t actually be like that. If you think about it, the accurate and effective public reporting of government performance is actually vital and necessary as a part of any healthy democracy … and so it’s really important we get it right and we evolve it over time, as our approach to public administration becomes more sophisticated,” the Finance boss told the audience.

“Drawing on my Health experience, I think we could probably say that like a few people in our country, the current annual report requirements have consumed a few too many calories, and could go on a diet.”

She said the Finance annual report had increased from 195 to 317 pages in ten years. “And so perhaps we in Finance are a bit like a doctor who drinks, smokes and doesn’t exercise. We should take our own advice. And we also know that the production of annual reports has become a large and resource intensive exercise … at a time that we all know that resources are pretty scarce.”

She reiterated that the work being done itself was “fantastic” in her view, and acknowledged that sometimes, “the natural and healthy interplay between government and parliament” could skew what was reported.

“Parliamentary scrutiny is fundamental to what we do, however we also know sometimes the issues of the day can actually skew the focus towards issues that aren’t necessarily, in the long term, the most important.”

That interplay — including “a little bit of a tussle” between her department and the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, which is inquiring into the new Commonwealth Performance Framework — also extends to exactly how annual reporting is streamlined, she said, but it was an “evolving” process.

Whatever happens, the increasing amount of information available must be considered, and the best ways to present it. She asked the room full of annual report writers to “think really creatively” about the data holdings they have access to.

“We all know that the world is bigger, faster and more complex than it ever was and we do need to acknowledge the complexity in which we operate, but we also need to be able to distil what is fundamental and what is of enduring interest,” said Halton.

There must also be a “seamless line of sight” from corporate plans to annual performance reports. The Finance boss said the right performance reporting data, presented well, would empower government to make “rational” decisions. “Unless politics intervenes,” she added dryly.

Halton also explained how the reporting reforms would take shape in three points, beginning with “a focus on purpose and activities” which would require all entities to “tell a story about what they actually do and how they meet their mission”. She later suggested the Agriculture team’s story next year could be about “their innovative approach to the war on Johnny Depp’s dogs”.

The performance information required in corporate plans will also be expanded. According to Halton, the government has about 3500 KPIs for 600 programs, but they “can’t tell a complete story in and of themselves” so evaluation, benchmarking, peer review and surveys will likely come into play as well.

Near the end of her speech, Halton linked the APS public management reforms to the need to continue dismantling the barriers between unnecessary public sector siloes: “We need to understand that we are the one APS, and we need to start talking about how we operate as the one APS, and how we hold ourselves accountable, and I’m sure the ACT has got very similar challenges.”

Full list of winners in IPAA ACT’s APS and ACT annual report awards.

Read more at the Mandarin: Communications shows what digital can do for annual reports

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