Text size: A A A

Commonwealth agency cuts: rogue agencies in fed sights

A federal government frontbencher has issued a stern warning to bureaucrats not toeing the government line: your agency is in our sights.

In a speech to public sector governance leaders on agency cuts, parliamentary secretary to the Treasurer Steven Ciobo (pictured) said nobody in the public sector space is fully independent and the public had the right to expect that government act in unison. More agencies will be cut, he declared.

Ciobo told a forum hosted by the Australian Institute of Company Directors that some government bodies are involved in “ill-considered or manifestly dated” activities, but escaped scrutiny due to their small size.

“Citizens expect that their government will be consistent in the way it operates, not fractured and in conflict within itself. They also expect that, as taxpayers, their money should be handled efficiently, effectively and ethically across all government activities, whatever the legal status of an entity might be,” he said.

A new governance policy is also being considered by cabinet to prevent re-ballooning of government, with Ciobo giving clues that agencies should expect that contestability will reign over the public relations need to be seen to be doing something by creating a new entity.

The first two tranches of the federal government’s “smaller, more rational government” commitment involved reduction of the number of departments and elimination of 23 non-statutory bodies, with another 36 bodies waiting on passage of the 2014-15 budget.

The third tranche currently under consideration will be the most comprehensive phase of consolidation, Ciobo says. The final list of cut bodies will be released in the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook statement later this year. Ciobo says this will provide a clearer footprint for government.

“The side-effect of this will be to reduce the number of small bodies, such as advisory councils and stakeholder committees, which carry disproportionate and wasteful overheads,” he said.

“To ensure this de-cluttering is not reversed, we will also adopt an ongoing plan to keep control of the size and shape of government. Key to this will be a new governance policy that will set the parameters for deciding how a government activity or function will be carried out.”

“… creating a new body has been naively seen by some as tangible evidence that the government is ‘doing something’.”

The new policy will mandate a review of any new or proposed function for whether the Commonwealth has constitutional jurisdiction, or if states are more appropriate agents, and it will prioritise using existing agencies where possible. Ciobo argued this approach is more consistent with a form follows function philosophy.

“One of the reasons for proliferation of bodies is that creating a new body has been naively seen by some as tangible evidence that the government is ‘doing something’. Consequently, there is a temptation to jump the gun and announce that a new body will be in charge of a new activity, whether this has been thought through or not,” he said.

To ensure the remaining bodies do not escape scrutiny, the Department of Finance is close to finalising a searchable online database of government entities. The register will be ongoing and dynamic rather than a snapshot. Ciobo says this will offer transparency.

“We won’t put up with a situation where we do not know how many bureaucracies we have and whether the total is growing or shrinking.”

A range of governance, risk and performance frameworks have recently been implemented or are still in consultation through the Department of Finance, designed to complement the new legislative requirements on government bodies that came into effect in July this year. Ciobo indicated that new consistent corporate plans should be in place by the end of August next year, but the government would not rush the research in pursuit of instant results and change.

“Some observers of public life may not see the impetus for a big effort in reforming the internal operating model of government. It may not look like anything is glaringly broke, but that said many workings of government are in the back shadows away from the media spotlight,” he said.

“Bad internal governance practices which place you on a dismal trajectory don’t become obvious early on, it takes time and neglect for conditions to reach an intolerable stage where the public gets agitated.”

More at The Mandarin: Cutting the red tape burden: where public servants come in

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.