Occasionally, a report will encapsulate everything that’s wrong with government. Almost never does that report come from government itself.
Victoria’s Auditor-General John Doyle got slap-happy yesterday. In a tranche of reporting tabled in Parliament, he released papers on heatwave management (“a lack of clear and effective leadership”), emergency response systems (“consistently failing”), IT security (“weak”) and mental health support in the justice system (“neither uniform nor sufficiently co-ordinated”). Doyle, an admirably fearless public servant, even had the gall to attack the Napthine government’s accounting practices over a write-down of 10 state schools — an intervention Spring Street veterans call remarkable.
Some of that — at least the stuff on heatwaves and ambulance response — was covered in the press yesterday and this morning. But you wouldn’t read about the most damning findings. The ones that cut to the bone on government accountability and dysfunction. Much more than any parliamentary “porn ring”.
As Crikey‘s sister title The Mandarin reported yesterday, Doyle’s report into how the bureaucracy manages and measures its performance was particularly scathing. Government is failing, spectacularly, to account for and communicate what it’s up to.
Examining three top departments — Premier and Cabinet, Health, and Transport — Doyle said they are “not effectively applying the performance measurement and reporting system” and are falling “well short of providing the information needed to understand departments’ effectiveness and efficiency in delivering outputs and intended outcomes for the community”.
Since 2011, the Victorian bureaucracy has been required to report not only its output but the impact that has on the community. Three years later, reporting still falls “well short of the government’s minimum requirements” and “the rate of progress does not suggest that agencies are close to addressing this”.
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There’s specific evidence of systemic indolence. Another of Doyle’s reports, into technology systems, found security controls are inadequate and disaster recovery planning requires “urgent attention”. Of the previous recommendations grimly warning of security flaws, less than half have been taken up — and only those that were “low-risk” rather than higher risk. That is, picking off the low-hanging fruit and ignoring anything that might have been harder to solve.
In its failure to effectively measure performance, Doyle said the bureaucratic “weaknesses, repeatedly raised over the past 13 years through VAGO [the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office] audits and other reviews, remain unresolved”. Today, in yet another attack, he noted “serious concerns” with the Audit Act and that, four years after an inquiry recommending change, nothing has happened.
The charge is clear: even when it’s specifically instructed to improve systems, the bureaucracy either moves at glacial speed or does nothing at all. In some cases, more than a decade of inaction.
Government can get away with it because nobody is paying attention. You can’t blame anyone for tuning out when the reporting from government is so “impenetrable” (Doyle’s words) and fails to provide “the information needed to understand departments’ effectiveness and efficiency in delivering outputs and intended outcomes for the community”. Journalists can’t hope to get through all the reports anyway …
As Doyle lectured: “Being transparent and accountable are not optional extras under our system of government and are undermined if departments do not accurately and clearly communicate their performance. Parliament and Victorians deserve no less.”
Perhaps. But you’ll be waiting a long time to get it.
*More on the Auditor-General reports — and the best public policy debate — at The Mandarin