Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Transparency and accountability: theory and practice

The ANAO today released a report into Primary Healthcare Grants under the Indigenous Australians’ Health Program (link here).

The report identified a range of shortcomings, more misdemeanors than major issues. I don’t propose to provide a summary or detailed analysis as the report largely speaks for itself. I particularly commend it to readers interested in Indigenous health administration issues.

Notwithstanding its critical content, I confidently predict that the various issues identified, the ANAO report will garner very little media coverage or even Senate scrutiny.

In reading the report, however, one particular issue caught my attention, and it sparked an observation which is perhaps worth noting since it opens a window on to a much larger dynamic which can operate in the APS. This dynamic is where Ministers push the boundaries, public servants don’t see a way to hold the line, and ultimately it is Departments which are exposed as not meeting appropriate accountability norms.

Amongst its various findings, the ANAO uncovered the following issue. Included in comments on the lack of value for money assessments on a billion dollar round of funding, the ANAO also noted at para 16:

The department was also unable to provide evidence it had undertaken a value for money assessment regarding the $114 million grant to the Northern Territory Government. In virtually all cases, risk assessments formed part of the assessment process.

Later in the report, the ANAO provided more information:

2015 Northern Territory government grant
3.13 The Northern Territory government had been funded under pre-IAHP grant programs for the provision of primary healthcare to Indigenous Australians, mostly through clinics in remote areas. As part of seeking Ministerial approval about the funding process under the IAHP, the department advised the Minister that it would only make a formal offer of a grant following receipt of a specific grant proposal and undertaking a value for money assessment against the ‘deliverables’ in the proposal. The Minister approved this approach in mid May 2015.

3.14 No specific departmental assessment plan or selection criteria was developed for the Northern Territory grant. The department contacted the Northern Territory Department of Health on 26 June 2015 to request that it provide a proposal. Departmental records indicate that a formal offer of a $114 million funding agreement to the Northern Territory Government was made on 6 August 2015, before the proposal was received on 15 August 2015. A funding agreement was signed in October 2015. The department was unable to supply the ANAO with evidence that it had undertaken value for money or risk assessments of the proposal.  

The ANAO, whose remit is the operations of Departments and not Ministers, leaves the impression that this was largely an oversight on the part of the Department.

My own experience working within Government tells me that Departments rarely take decisions on these sorts of matters without clear authority from Ministers. There may or may not have been evidence on the file, but it would be a severely career limiting move for a public servant to act without ministerial authority on a grant to a subsidiary jurisdiction such as the NT. Instead, what we have is a ‘mistake’ by the Department, and when caught out by the ANAO, the Department expresses contrition, agrees with the ANAO recommendations, and resolves to do better in the future.

If my supposition is correct, (and I emphasise, it is merely supposition), this would tell us a number of things.

First that the NT Government of the day was apparently so incompetent that they could not develop a timely funding proposal making the case for Commonwealth funding.

Second that there may have been formal or informal signals from ministers to ‘just get on with it’.

Third, that in such circumstances the senior bureaucrats in the Health Department at that time may have felt unable to stand up to the Minister. The provision of frank and fearless advice seems increasingly rare in the highly politicised (with a small p) world of public policy administration in Australia, and this may well have been another instance.

Fourth, that there may have been electoral considerations in play as the timing of the decision to grant the funds to the NT was in the year before an NT election. The then CLP Government, headed by Chief Minister Adam Giles, was closely aligned with the Nationals. The Federal Health Minister at the time was Peter Dutton; the Assistant Health Minister was Nationals Senator Fiona Nash.

Fifth, that if the Senate Estimates Committees are doing their job, we could expect that there would be direct questions at the next hearings directed to determining whether there was ministerial involvement in the Department’s decision to prematurely offer the funds to the NT Government. And if not, what action was taken to counsel the officers involved in making the premature offer without a value for money assessment.

To sum up, what we appear to have with this audit is a good degree of transparency, courtesy of the efforts of the ANAO, but limited or non-existent accountability. There was merit in the traditional Westminster notion that Ministers are responsible for the actions of their Departments. Ever since that notion lost effective traction, accountability standards within Government have gone downhill. And the voting public and taxpayers are the losers. In theory we have accountability, in practice we don’t.

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