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Jane Halton: worry less, the axe is falling on internal red tape

Jane Halton

The Department of Finance will soon begin cutting out internal red tape that constrains federal agencies, but it also wants public servants to stop making up compliance obligations that don’t actually exist.

“One of the things I’m constantly astounded by when it comes to red tape is how people make things up,” Finance secretary Jane Halton said today, following a lunchtime lecture on federal public sector reforms at Parliament House.

“So people decide that there is a particular requirement, a compliance requirement, which appears nowhere in any chief executive instructions or any piece of legislation, and then it becomes a matter of holy writ that you have to do something this particular way.”

“So whilst we are going to do things about the rules, and the red tape in the rules, [this is] one of the messages I’m giving my colleagues. And in fact I’m talking about this in my department, because I have found a number of examples of this in my department.”

The internal red tape reduction drive is just one small part of the massive reform process prompted by the new Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, which was the focus of Halton’s lecture.

“And we can sweep away a lot of that misunderstanding as well as [genuine] red tape, I would hope, in this exercise,” she said. “Because there have been steps taken over the last few years which should make it easier for people to transact government business in a thoroughly proper and accountable way without going through unnecessary administrative overhead and hoops.”

“So we’ll go to the actual red tape, and then I’m asking other people to go to the made up and mythical red tape while we’re at it.”

She said a review of the internal red tape burden on government agencies being conducted by former senior public servant Barbara Belcher was nearing completion.

A sub-committee of the Secretaries’ Board called the Secretaries’ Committee on Transformation, chaired by Halton, recently viewed a draft of Belcher’s review.

“Barbara has found a huge number of things which my department does, as much as other people do, but there are things right across the internal workings of government which she has identified as opportunities to sweep away red tape,” said Halton.

“So that discussion was of: ‘Have we got it right? Have we missed things? Are there issues? Is any of this wrong? And it was a very good meeting, and I’m very hopeful that she will be in a position to finalise that report in the near future.”

The Finance boss was responding to a question from Parliamentary Budget Officer Phil Bowen, who’s up next in the Senate’s Occasional Lecture Series on September 25. He said the compliance burden was particularly heavy on small agencies like his own.

Burdens on small agencies

Halton’s host, Senate clerk Rosemary Laing, took the opportunity to ask a question of her own about the disproportionate burden on small agencies, but from the application of efficiency dividends:

“I would just be interested in your thoughts, philosophically, on how a concept like the efficiency dividend, which bedevils small agencies like mine, sits with those principles in the PGPA act?”

Halton replied that she had “personally railed against it, to assorted ministers and various other people”.

“There is a conversation to be had about how we make investment choices and certainly there is a more sophisticated discussion to be had about what mechanisms we can use to get resources to reinvest in activity,” she said.

Inside Finance, there is a debate going on about what other mechanisms might replace the notorious blunt instrument, according to Halton, which suggests it may finally be nearing the time when it is put out to pasture.

“So I think you raise an important point,” she said to Laing.

“It’s something we’re very conscious of and certainly something we have been discussing. I don’t have the answer to that yet, I’m sorry.

“And you make a point rightly about the impact on small agencies. I would observe that both sides of politics, when they get in government, have acknowledged on a number of occasions the particular challenge of small agencies, because obviously if you’re running a very small agency, your capacity to even invest is quite constrained.

“So [I am] very aware of the problem and I think we need to continue to have that discussion. Any views you’ve got would be extremely welcome.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.