Jane Halton: electronic annual reports are all we need now

By Stephen Easton

Friday May 20, 2016

The federal government could soon follow New South Wales in allowing electronic tabling of the annual reports its agencies produce each year by the truckload.

The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit has just approved the final element in the six-year public management reform agenda — new reporting rules — and is open to the idea of getting rid of hardcopy reports altogether, Department of Finance secretary Jane Halton said last night.

“I suspect that an electronic approach to tabling will probably do, in time,” she said, addressing the awards night for ACT and Commonwealth public sector annual reports, held by the Institute for Public Administration Australia.

“Hardcopies, I’m not sure serve much of a purpose any more.”

Jane Halton
Jane Halton

This year’s awards recognised the cream of the first crop of reports produced under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, along with the ACT’s best, and only considered the online versions. “IPAA’s influence in actually promoting excellence under the new framework is something which is incredibly important,” said Halton.

IPAA ACT branch president and secretary of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Glenys Beauchamp, spoke of the importance of the key accountability documents — joking that she only wished they were read more often by Senate Estimates committees, whose members often ask questions they could easily find the answers to themselves.

A switch to electronic-only reporting would also save a lot of money and be good for the environment. Halton joked about it doing away with the “uncomfortable irony of destroying I-don’t-know-how-many scores of trees to bring you the Department of the Environment’s 416-page annual report”.

The Finance boss confirmed said the JCPAA’s approval of the new reporting rules for federal agencies on budget day meant the new era of the PGPA Act had truly begun. She sees it as a perfect opportunity to reconsider the purpose of performance reporting — which is now linked to mandatory corporate planning — from first principles.

“I think now we need to think about how we’re actually going to use [the new framework] to enhance that reporting requirement, because it is probably still fair to say that they’re a little dense and difficult to read,” Halton said.

She reiterated the lessons learned from the first batch of corporate plans: agencies need to get better at defining their overall purpose with plain language and in terms of outcomes and impact in the community, because a well-written mission statement could be a strong force for cultural change. Halton also repeated the widely-held view that public servants need to move from reporting simple outputs to qualitative measures like benchmarking, peer review, surveys, and evaluations.

And she still thinks the documents are too long but she doesn’t primarily blame public servants for that.

“The problem of volume in annual reports is actually driven largely by the parliament, ministers and various regulators,” she said, “and we actually have managed to reduce the annual financial statements by streamlining a number of things in the disclosure notes and allowing more flexible presentation options.

“But given other requirements, they are actually still, in my view, too long.”

Her department managed to shave 13% off the weight of its report this year. “I said to the team: ‘Do not bring it back unless it’s shorter.’ … but because of the requirements imposed on us by others, it was hard to shrink it by much more than that.”

The JCPAA chair, Senator Ian McFarlane, wrote to Halton in March and “signalled support for modernising requirements where this improves transparency, accountability, and efficiency”, the Finance boss revealed.

Along with electronic tabling, she said the committee was happy to discuss the potential for “streamlining or removing annual reporting rules” as well as continuous reporting mechanisms and dedicated web portals for accountability information.

However the JCPAA also wants to make sure reporting rules “retain the same level of authority and obligation as current arrangements”.

Halton said McFarlane was also influenced by Barbara Belcher’s recent review of internal red tape, which was told by most submissions that annual reports are rarely read or used, either by parliament or the public.

Too many public servants, she said, “approach performance planning and reporting documents with a kind of compliance mentality” which led to reports that were like the terms and conditions on software products that most users never read.

“Users are looking for straightforward and clear text to understand what they’re getting, and instead tend to be met with a string of caveats and exclusions,” said Halton.

“Parliament and every Australian has the right to understand what we do, how we do it, what it costs, and what we achieve. So I actually think we’ve got a professional obligation to do this clearly and comprehensively.”

She said it was the simple truth that good performance reporting information leads to better decision making. “And, then maybe Glenys’ objective will be realised, and Senate estimates committees will actually look at them,” she added.

All the winners

This year’s awards were presented to Commonwealth agencies reporting under the PGPA Act for the first time, in three categories for those with less than 100 staff (small), 100-500 staff (medium) and over 500 staff (large), as well as a single category for ACT Government agencies.

This year’s Assessor’s Cup for the entity that contributed the most assessors to the judging process, as a proportion of their total staff, went to the National Blood Authority. The Departmental Shield, recognising a strong contribution overall, went to the Australian Taxation Office.

Three assessors were recognised for four years’ service, and three judges for five or more years service, while this year’s awards process provided training to 65 new assessors.

Large PGPA Entities

Gold  Defence Housing Australia
Silver  Austrade
Bronze  Department of Industry, Innovation and Science
Commended  Civil Aviation Safety Authority

Medium PGPA Entities

Gold  Australian Transport Safety Bureau
Silver  Australian Maritime Safety Authority
Bronze  Food Standards Australia New Zealand
Bronze  Indigenous Business Australia

Small PGPA Entities

Gold  Clean Energy Finance Corporation
Silver  National Health Performance Authority
Bronze  National Blood Authority
Commended  Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity

ACT Government Agencies

Gold  Health Directorate
Silver  Education and Training Directorate
Bronze  Justice and Community Safety Directorate

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