If you caught Alan Ramsey on The 7.30 Report the other night, you’d have seen him complaining that the relentless expansion of ASIO has not been covered by the press gallery.

That’s a little harsh, because Crikey has tried to keep a watching brief on the apparently endless increase in ASIO’s budget.

The Howard years were good ones for ASIO, one of the least accountable public-sector agencies. Its funding surged, and it grew from a boutique intelligence outfit before 9/11 to a major state agency. But the Rudd government actually accelerated the increase in its funding. In May this year, ASIO received yet another whopping increase in its appropriation, along with yet another equity injection, taking its budget to a record far beyond the Howard years.

According to ASIO’s figures, its staffing has increased from less than 1000 in 2005 to nearly 1800, who will soon be shoe-horned into a new building being constructed to house them in Russell. That’s where those equity injections have been going.

But despite its constantly expanding funding, its 2008-09 “Report to Parliament“, or annual report, shows an organisation doing less work and being less accountable.

Measuring ASIO’s performance is difficult, because, while it is notionally bound by the same outcome/output/KPIs framework as other public sector agencies, its performance indicators, such as  “ASIO’s security performance” make even the vague bureaucratese found in most departmental portfolio budget statements look like rigid targets.

But the Report to Parliament gives us some data. The report says it produces 2738 reports and assessments for a variety of clients. “The audience for ASIO reporting is diverse and expanded in 2008-09,” it says. But that’s actually well down on the 3224 reports it made in 2007-08. The number of visa security assessments fell by 18%. That was partly because the bulk of the work for World Youth Day had been done in 2007-08, but the bigger fall was in applications for permanent residency, not temporary visas.

The amount of litigation ASIO was involved in was unchanged. “ASIO was involved in over 60 litigation matters,” the report says —  the 2007-08 and 2008-09 reports. They certified less than half the top secret sites than they did the year before. Counter-terrorism assessments fell for the third year running, and were less than half what they were in 2006-07. ASIO provided 230 briefs to the Attorney-General compared to 249 the previous year. There were even two fewer internal audits than the previous year.

Admittedly, there was a 1% increase in the number of personnel security assessments ASIO did.

But based on ASIO’s own figures, quite what all those hundreds of extra staff are doing is anyone’s guess. You certainly won’t work it out from the Report to Parliament .

And one thing they’re not doing is preparing the annual report. When you write an annual report in the public service, you tend to start with the previous year’s, and update it, then rewrite it so it doesn’t look too much like a cut-and-paste job. But there are repeated instances where ASIO simply reprints material from the 2007-08 report. The section on espionage is mostly taken verbatim from the 2007-08 report.

On the minor issue of proliferation, the report simply reprints the same anodyne paragraphs as the year before, concluding on “with particular emphasis on Iran”. Want to know about leads analysis? You can just look at 2008’s report. “ASIO obtains thousands of intelligence/ new leads each year/ annually … In 2007/08/ 2008-09 , ASIO continued to work closely with Commonwealth, State and Territory law enforcement authorities to resolve/ investigate and resolve intelligence leads …”

And much of the sections on Corporate Governance and Accountability are cut-and-pasted from previous years, although comfortingly there’s a new “new building committee” spoke in the ASIO wheel of corporate governance.

In previous years, ASIO’s reports have been like every other agency’s — i.e. roughly the same in structure and outline as previous years but written differently and updated effectively. This year it looks like they couldn’t be bothered. Says something about their sense of accountability to Parliament. And on the basis of the evidence they have presented to Parliament, their continued increases in funding have no justification.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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