What the federal budget tells us about the buzzwords of government

‘Innovation’ is back. So is ‘digital’ and ‘data’. Verona Burgess decodes Budget Paper No 2 to give us a revealing insight into how the terminology of government changes over time.

A week after the budget landed with no dreadful shocks for the Australian Public Service, Treasury and Finance can take a bow.  Once again, the budget papers are up to their usual high standard.

Budget Paper No. 4 (Agency Resourcing), or BP4 as it is known, has become the go-to document about the federal public sector since the average staffing level tables were, sensibly, moved from Budget Paper No. 1 into BP4 in the 2015-16 budget.

While BP4 sets out the agencies’ allocation of $488.6 billion worth of expenditure, it now also contains an excellent overview of where the government wants to take the public service signed off by Finance minister Mathias Cormann.

Even so, and despite the temptations of crystal ball gazing offered by Budget Paper No. 1 (Strategy and Outlook), our favourite budget paper is No 2 (Budget Measures).

As federal public servants know but many outside don’t, BP2 might not be your average bedtime reading but it does explain truthfully where the revenue, expense and capital measures will go across the next four years – the “forward estimates” – and in plain English too.

It can announce projects but can’t pretend it is providing brand new money for them, if the funding has previously been allocated in the forward estimates – such as many of the (probably vote-winning) infrastructure projects listed this year in BP2.

And it can’t double-count money that will come from existing agency or portfolio budgets – such as the $9.8 million over two years for the review of the APS from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s resources. This, by the way, is small beer compared to the banking royal commission, which was given its own initial $75 million in the Mid Year Economic and Financial Outlook statement and a further $42.4 million for agency support in the budget. So you can take it that the APS review will be no Coombs royal commission.

In addition, if the government gives with one hand and takes away with another, BP2 has to say so (a random example: “The government will provide an additional $2.3 million in 2018-19 to the Regional Jobs and Investment Package for Regional Tasmania. The cost of the measure will be met by redirecting funding from the Tasmanian Jobs and Investment Fund”.)

Occasionally, it even reveals the government has learnt a painful lesson, such as this: “The government will provide an additional $106.8 million over four years from 2018-19 to modernise the health and aged care payments systems and ensure that the government continues to own and operate the ICT systems that support the delivery of Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, aged care and related payments into the future.” Get it? No more Mediscare, thank you.

This year’s BP 2 for 2018-19 is peppered with measures upgrading computer systems across many portfolios, not least the third tranche of the roughly $1 billion replacement of the ageing Centrelink payments system, known as the Welfare Payment Infrastructure Transformation program.

Worth $316.2 million over four years from 2018-19, the government can’t pretend it is new money because it was already provided in the forward estimates. But BP2 says it will save $35.4 million over the next five years, so that’s new.

And while the government is also spending $50 million to reduce Centrelink call waiting times, as reported, this isn’t new money either – it will come from “existing resources” in the Department of Human Services (and might even be offset by savings from the 1280 job cuts revealed in BP4, although BP2 doesn’t mention this delicate issue).

While most eyes are on the economics and politics, let’s look at language. The budget papers also give indications of how the terminology of government changes over time.  For example, although Malcolm Turnbull has made the innovation agenda his own, it was Kevin Rudd who added “Innovation” to the Industry department under then minister Kim Carr, who launched a review of Australia’s national innovation system in early 2008.

Just for fun, a word search of BP2 in the 2006-07 budget (under Howard) reveals that “innovation” was mentioned just four times; “digital” seven; “data” 41; “ICT” once; “platform” once; “online” 12; “internet” twice; and “information technology” 52 times. As an aside, for those in the states who think the Commonwealth only cares about policy, “service delivery” was mentioned just four times and “policy” 28. Touché?

Things soon changed. In the 2008-09 budget (the first Rudd budget) BP2 mentioned “innovation” 127 times; “digital” 91; “data” 29; “information technology” nine; ICT once; “online” six; “cyber” twice; and “internet” 14. Mentions of “service delivery” picked up to 13 and “policy” to 28.

But in the first Abbott budget of 2014-15 “innovation” was evidently out of favour, not only removed from the department’s name but appearing only 12 times in BP2. “Digital” appeared once; “data” nine; “information communication technology” once; “online” 15; and “internet” once. “Service delivery” appeared just twice but “policy” a whopping 223 times.

Fast forward to the 2018-19 budget. In BP2, “innovation” is back, appearing 84 times; “digital” 67; “data” 70; “ICT” 18; “blockchain” four (it didn’t exist a decade ago); “transformation” 26; “platform” and “AI” six times each; “digitisation” five; “online” 19; “cyber” 11; and “internet” twice. Mentions of “service delivery” dropped back to six; “policy” was mentioned 46 times.

Fans of plain English might be pleased to note that “agile” does not appear anywhere in the latest BP2, although it does pop up in BP4 along with 51 mentions of “innovation” and 40 of “digital”.  Roll on, the new age.

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