Estimates latest: Labor targets officials for attending ‘political’ events

By Harley Dennett

Tuesday May 23, 2017

Like you, our day-to-day work doesn’t cease just because Commonwealth Senate Estimates and Victorian Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearings are on. But we’ll attempt to provide you with some of the topic headlines as they’re raised, pending the release of transcripts.

An early theme of Federal Labor senators’ questions, across portfolios, has been public servants and statutory officers attending events organised by ministers and government MPs.

Australian Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd was not prepared to accept Senator Penny Wong’s assessment that some MP-organised events for local business communities, attended by senior public servants, were ‘political’ in nature.

The language used on flyers for these events became a sticking point during the discussion. Lloyd demurred on whether the terms like “Coalition policies” were more political than “government policies”, as he explained they were functionally the same. Copies of the flyers were provided to the committee, but The Mandarin has not seen them.

The abstract became uncomfortably specific when new Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) chief Gavin Slater (pictured) attended his first estimates since leaving his private sector banking role to join the public service. Senator Jenny McAllister had information that Slater was a guest of the government’s budget night dinner in parliament house.

Update: one of the Parliament House events on budget night is traditionally a fundraiser event for government party, while another is strictly for officials.

Slater confirmed he was a non-paying guest — although did not clarify which event — having been invited by a family friend who works as a staffer to Trade Minister Steven Ciobo, but was not told that the event was a political fundraiser.

Coalition senators highlighted precedents including NBN-spruiking events early in the project’s planning in which officials also attended and explained the project’s objectives.

DTA set to double in size with new responsibilities

Since the last estimates hearings, no agency has had their overall responsibilities change quite as significantly as the DTA. As previously reported, it has gone beyond mere vision and optional guidance for fellow agencies, to now having responsibility for improving the value of ICT spend through new digital opportunities and oversight of ICT procurement and all large and critical ICT projects in government.

The initial audit of the scope of that oversight revealed some 56 projects above the $10 million threshold, and a further 294 additional critical systems that DTA will have some role in ensuring appropriate governance and delivery.

To avoid making pejorative assessments — which can setup the trust relationship between the central agency and business units — each of these ICT projects will be classified into three levels of DTA involvement: engage (for the most high risk projects), monitor, and observe.

When projects go wrong, Slater, and his chief of staff Nerida O’Loughlin, reiterated that business managers in the line portfolios will retain accountability — they can’t simply leave it to DTA to clean up if the project goes south — but skills and governance support will be available.

The agency-to-agency charm offensive begins now too. DTA clearly has a preference to work with projects from the beginning, but even when that isn’t possible — myGov being the classic example of a project that long needed the DTA’s user-centric touch — they want to show that they can play well with others. Expect to see more in this space.

Beyond the staff the DTA acquired from Finance in last year’s machinery of government change, the agency is budgeted to more than double in size next year from an average staffing level of 93 to more than 200.

Government seeking clarity around Manchester attacks

Counter terrorism adviser Tony Sheehan told estimates this morning, shortly after news broke of the bombing at a UK concert by Ariana Grande, that the High Commission in London was seeking to find out if Australians were injured.

Greater Manchester Police has confirmed 19 were killed in the explosion and a further 50 injured.

According to the BBC, US officials have already suggested the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber.

Officials and senators expressed their condolences as the estimates hearing continued with domestic issues.

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