That annual report you’re currently writing could be the last of its kind

By Verona Burgess

Wednesday June 20, 2018

It is the lead accountability document for every government agency, but things may not be the same again if the PGPA review draft recommendation goes through, says Verona Burgess.

With the new financial year just a matter of days away, the public service annual reports season is reaching the final sprint.

Good luck to those whose happy task it is to coax all the last bits information from the various corners of the agency, finish melding the deathless (sometimes deathly) prose into a clean narrative without offending senior egos, ensure it ticks all the compliance boxes and get it into production ahead of printing and delivering to the minister by October 15.

Often regarded as a dreaded chore, the annual report is no joke. It is the lead accountability document for every government agency, and the one opportunity they have to tell the story of their financial year without interruption.

But things are changing.

Changing the reporting timeline

The boxes of glossy reports that have traditionally languished against the walls of the parliamentary press gallery will soon become a distant memory.  That’s if – or when – a cluster of recommendations from the draft report by David Thodey and Elizabeth Alexander of their review of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 and Rule is accepted.

One (Recommendation 29) is that the reports be presented to the parliament on or before September 30 each year.

“This would ensure the parliament has annual reports available before the Senate supplementary budget estimates hearings,” says the Thodey-Alexander report. “Annual reports should be presented to the responsible minister no later than seven days before this date.”

They said the current tabling arrangements did not give the parliament enough time to get across the detail before the hearings begin.

“By the time the reports are tabled, senators may only have a few days to consider content and information about the entities’ performance. There have been occasions when annual reports are tabled only after hearings are completed.”

There was little point in improving the quality of the performance information and of annual reports more generally, if the parliament did not get the information when it needed it. “Timing is critical for proper accountability.”

The second (Recommendation 30) wants the parliament and Finance to continue to implement a fully digital platform and reporting process for annual reports and other relevant reporting requirements, phasing out hard copies by 2019-20.

Currently, more than 25,000 annual reports are printed every year for more than 180 Commonwealth bodies.

“Printing requires significant lead times. It represents a risk to meeting the earlier annual report timeframes and tabling dates that we recommend.”

A number of entities had said digital tabling would help them meet any new requirements (such as having their financial statements audited earlier).

Widespread support for digital tabling

“There is widespread support for digital tabling. We are among those supporters,” the review says. “Digital reports should make information easier to find and will eliminate duplication through electronic tagging and the use of links.”

The review commended the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit and the Department of Finance for piloting a sample of 2017-18 digital annual reports, and the Joint Committee on Publications (actually two committees, one for each chamber) in establishing the digital reporting standards for the parliament.

The third recommendation (Recommendation 31) is that the Senate should consider referring annual reports for examination at the supplementary budget estimates.

“This would provide for greater scrutiny of annual reports at Senate estimates hearings.”

The review also says (with staggering understatement) “We have been told that in some cases, parliamentary scrutiny of an entity’s performance is not based on the performance and other information contained in annual reports.”

How true, although that may not change because of earlier and digital tabling. The Senate has given itself the power to ask agencies questions about anything – and it does.

The idea of modernising the system is not just to save trees and money and facilitate better parliamentary scrutiny but also to reduce duplication and create a better direct line of sight between annual reports, corporate plans and portfolio budget statements (see recommendations 23–28).

But responsibility cuts both ways.

“Electronic parliamentary documents are already required to be accessible and downloadable in a single pdf form and that will, and should, remain the case.

In going fully digital, agencies need to ensure they do not throw out the accountability baby with the bathwater by dumbing them down and reducing them to little more than a series of colourful graphs and motherhood statements that satisfy minimum requirements and depend on lazy online links.

Electronic parliamentary documents are already required to be accessible and downloadable in a single pdf form and that will, and should, remain the case.

The online environment is inherently mutable.  The unique value of the annual report is not just in ticking boxes but in providing a complete and thoughtful discussion and analysis of what the agency did during the year – not only for present scrutiny but also for history.

By way of a postscript, the famous (or should we say infamous) public service Shiny Bum Singers will reprise their mock opera, Seize the Day, at Holy Trinity Primary School in Curtin, ACT on July 1. From fire drills to audits, system crashes and ministerial interference, calamity rolls into calamity as the day at the office progresses, complete with workplace romances and a shock relocation of the office from Canberra to Crookwell. Don’t miss this one-off reprise, which will be a fundraiser for the mental health/homelessness charity “MyHome in Canberra”. Bookings here.

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