More on Ministers and pen pushers who know
the cost of everything and the value of nothing (yesterday, item 11). This amusing little
contretemps happened at Estimates on 25 May
when Geoff Leeper, the acting secretary of the Department of Human Services,
got asked about his Minister’s odd little habit of invoicing for
accountability:

Senator WONG – I had some questions on notice. Regarding the costings of the
questions on notice, which I am sure have been kindly provided by the
department in the interests of democracy and accountability, how do you cost
answers to questions on notice? What is the hourly charge rate? How is it
allocated?

Mr Leepe – Certainly.
These are notional costings. We have not taken the legal approach of asking
people to cost every six minutes. The answers to the questions have been costed
on an hourly basis for non-SES staff at an average rate of $40 per hour and for
SES staff at a rate of $60 per hour. Agency and departmental staff have been
asked to estimate the effort involved in answering the questions, and that
information has been annotated, as you have seen, to each of the answers.

Senator CHRIS EVANS – What is the purpose of that?

Mr Leeper – Our
minister requested that we provide an indication to the Senate – and we also do
the same in relation to House of Representatives questions – of the effort taken
to answer the questions.

Senator CHRIS EVANS – So it is just a decision by your minister for his reporting
authorities?

Mr Leeper – Yes.

Senator CHRIS EVANS – When did he make that decision?

Mr Leeper – It
was either just prior to or just after the 14 February hearing.

Senator CHRIS EVANS – Did we do something that insulted or upset him?

Mr Leeper – I
do not think so. He indicated that he would like it to be made clear to the
parliament the estimated cost of providing the answers.

Senator CHRIS EVANS – Do you also cost officials’ times at estimates hearings?

Mr Leeper – No.
I am not sure that I would be game to. It would be quite extensive, taking into
account preparation time and appearance time.

Senator CHRIS EVANS – That is the point, though, isn’t it? If we keep you here and wait
for you to look up the files on important questions of detail, it will cost you
more. Looking at the back of the room, I see a big team. I thought the
department had about only 40 people. They are all here. Who is answering the
phones?

Detail, detail! Estimates is supposed to be
all about detail. What about the information the po-faced pencil pusher didn’t
give the Senators? How about an itemised account of how
taxpayers’ money was spent? Would you accept an invoice from a small
businessperson which said “Answering simple question: $445”?

Any Government which spends $445 in order
to say “No” must be incredibly tied up in red tape – yet Hockey’s department is
supposed be tackling this. Instead, it seems as if Human Services is bordering
on inefficiency. Let’s have an inquiry. We’ll leave the last word on ministers and
bureaucrats who don’t understand that accountability is a key value of
democracy to Senator Evans:

Senator CHRIS EVANS – I was interested in getting some of the answers. It cost you $40 to
tell me no.

Mr Leeper – It
always takes a minimum period of time to assess whether an answer can be
provided. I suspect in our guidance to the agencies we said that the minimum
charge is probably one hour. I am aware of a couple of hours where there are
higher costs than a single hour’s charge, but the answer is still, “We don’t
have the resources available to do the work required.” There is a minimum
amount of effort required to investigate what it would take to answer the
question and, once the decision has been made that it would not be cost
effective, there is still a bit of a charge. These are notional rather than dollar
accurate figures, but it is an indication of the effort involved.

Senator CHRIS EVANS – It is the first time I have been charged $40 to be told to bugger
off. Most people do it for me for free. Senator Kemp has always done it for
free.

Peter Fray

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