Red tape raid: agencies agree on sweeping regulatory reform

By The Mandarin

Thursday November 5, 2015

Departments and agencies across the federal government will implement sweeping reporting reforms to cut red tape in a regulatory environment described in a new report as inefficient, inaccessible and risk averse.

The Department of Finance has publicly released its Review of Whole-of-Government Internal Regulation, conducted by respected former public servant Barbara Belcher. Agency heads received the report in September and October and have already agreed to implement all 134 recommendations they have the power to do.

The changes focus on reducing excessive regulation by streamlining security vetting processes, removing duplication of reporting, improving accessibility of information, clarifying guidance, introducing electronic tabling in Parliament and improving annual reports.

Finance secretary Jane Halton (pictured) says central regulating agencies — the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Attorney-General’s Department, Australian Public Service Commission and Finance — have already “made a good start on progressing some of these”. In a statement, she said future regulation will be “better targeted, more effective and, ultimately, uses less of our scarce resources”:

“This will allow us to be better focussed on delivering services for the community. The review will help us to test future regulation against a set of principles, to avoid the future occurrence of red tape …

“The review found many regulatory requirements are appropriately and efficiently administered, but others are not. Some regulation was put in place when entity capability was significantly lower than today, and before the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013‘s focus on risk, performance and duties.

“The Secretaries Board is committed to progressing the review’s recommendations.”

The key issues identified in the Belcher report: rules and guidance that is either inaccessible or hard to interpret, over-regulation, inefficient regulation, and the famous “culture of risk-aversion” that is regularly criticised.

Portfolio secretaries have agreed to move towards a “collect once, use many times” approach to data collection and maximise the ability of senior executives to make the big strategic decisions, while pushing as much responsibility down to middle managers and below as possible.

Each will also determine their agency’s risk appetite to encourage innovation, and review their freedom-of-information practices to find the “least burdensome mechanism”. The secretaries agreed to “consider” actively publishing information to decrease FOI requests as well.

Belcher articulates five principles which say all new internal regulations should be:

  • The minimum needed to achieve whole-of-government or entity outcomes;
  • Proportional to the risks to be managed and supportive of a risk-based approach;
  • Coherent across government and not duplicative;
  • Designed in consultation with stakeholders for clarity and simplicity in application; and
  • Reviewed periodically to test relevance and impact.

The recommendations sit well with the management reforms catalysed by the PGPA Act, particularly what Belcher describes as:

“The push towards removing prescriptive legislative controls and moving to principles and duties-based accountability arrangements … with corresponding strengthening of mechanisms for risk management and public accountability for performance.”

It will be especially important, she writes, that the five principles are kept in mind as the APS also continues with:

“… the increasing centralisation of some functions through shared and common services, the digital transformation agenda, low risk procurement contracts and whole-of-government purchasing arrangements, new reporting requirements such as monthly reporting to the Australian Public Service Commission of unscheduled absences and consolidation of Enterprise Resource Management systems.”

The mandarins told her that some of these whole-of-government requirements and procedures have “constrained their ability to realise benefits” from the PGPA reforms.

Belcher’s impression is that, by and large, APS entities “aspire to, and are prepared to work for, a public sector freed of excessive regulation and risk aversion” and she credits them for starting to push decision-making back down to lower classification levels. She commented:

“There is a continuing role for senior management in identifying a way of managing risk that encourages innovation and gives responsibility and experience in decision-making to future leaders in the public sector.

“There is, similarly, a need to identify and remove the many unnecessary requirements entities place upon themselves either to avoid risk or because, over time, myths have replaced facts.”

More to come, including an interview with Finance secretary Jane Halton …

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