If there was a competition for the announcement least likely to excite the Canberra press gallery, the launch of a new edition of the List of Australian Governance Bodies and Governance Relationships would have to be a front runner.
But despite its unromantic title, the List is a vital tool for government wanting to improve the operations of the public service. Finance minister Lindsay Tanner, launching the list at the AICD public sector governance conference yesterday, noted that it provided a base of information on which to build governance reforms.
The List shows 932 Commonwealth government bodies — departments, statutory authorities, companies, ministerial councils and various other agencies.
It is down by 221, from the recorded 1153 in December 2004 — although as Tanner noted, the sale of Telstra accounted for 172 of these as its various subsidiary companies exited the list.
The proliferation of multiple different bodies, with many peculiar governance arrangements, makes it hard for any government to manage. Ministers daily face the risk of embarrassment from the actions of a body in their portfolio that they may never have even heard of. But the unfortunate minister has no deniability — the body will have been covered in a briefing somewhere, even if only paragraph four, attachment seven of page 583 (hypothetically) of the incoming minister brief their department gave them on their first day.
Many inconsistencies in governance add to the risks of unpleasant surprises for ministers. Tanner said “we have a challenge in government to bring consistency to these bodies” — a mighty task given the numbers of bodies involved.
The List therefore is a vital governance tool in helping government and the public understand the nature of the public service. It might sound dull — but it is important.