The best argument against the idea that the Commonwealth and, separately, the ACT, need independent commissions against corruption is that the public servants of the national capital are naturally far more honest than elsewhere, and are in any event hemmed in by a host of watchdogs, accountability mechanisms and checks and balances. 

Perhaps this was once true. But it's hard to be sure there's no misbehaviour if no one is looking. In recent years, almost all of the formal watchdogs have become completely tame. Some are so shy of conflict, publicity and the Project Management Office that one could be forgiven for thinking they would hardly make a fuss even with the most flagrant abuses.

Accountability regimes have become focused on generating paperwork to give an impression of compliance, rather than a hard-headed look at whether the rules are in fact being obeyed, or the desired result achieved.

It might be tempting to blame this on the wickedness of ministers, of one party or the other, or both, or on the progressive and debilitating meannesses with resources caused by efficiency dividends, budget cuts or constant rearrangements of responsibilities.

The truth is rather more unpalatable. There is no evidence that governments have lost an appetite for critical review of the quality of services provided. The real problem seems to lie among those put in such positions,  and in the bureaucratic appointment systems that seem to consider  safeness and steadiness as being more important than personality, character, imagination and drive.

If there is a criticism of ministers it is that increasingly many are unsure of what actual ''outcomes" they want, however much they talk about what government should be doing, and how. The political incapacity to define what is actually wanted has infected bureaucrats. If you cannot define what makes a difference, you focus on processes, procedures, inputs and outputs. All the more so when the watchdog was not at the policy table, and doesn't know or understand what was wanted.

Thirty years ago, the name and role of the Commonwealth ombudsman was generally well known and got considerable publicity. Most newspapers would devote extensive space to cases discussed in annual reports.

The ombudsman's office is as busy as ever, and may be resolving many low-level problems. But the person and the office seem to have slipped out of the public eye. The office has issued one press statement in the past year, and senior officers seem to give about a public speech a month, of little topicality or news value, even to bureaucrats. Reports on immigration detention matters seem almost designed to downplay issues, and are treated  accordingly, with a certain condescending contempt, by the Immigration Minister.

It's not usually helpful to be seen as bland, and unthreatening. Unless one is seeking reappointment, a good reason why watchdogs should not have it on offer.

A very important part of the accountability framework involves the Australian National Audit Office, tasked to check critically whether citizens are getting value for money from government programs.

Increasingly, however, the ANAO is doing "desk audits" that are not focused on results - whether the emperor has any clothes  - but on whether paperwork exists suggesting that a vaguely appropriate number of people were focused on the design, manufacture and discussion of materials, and on "governance structures" tying it together. Inputs and outputs - certainly not specific sums of money - are not discussed; outcomes are not either. 

It sometimes seems that the audit office thinks it should be judged by the quantity of reviews conducted, rather than their quality.

This week, for example, the audit office issued a report auditing initiatives to support the delivery of services to indigenous Australians by the Department of Human Services. Audit did not go to Centrelink, or other DHS offices out in the sticks or suburbs  to see how well, effectively or sensitively services were being delivered. It did not judge efficiency, or if and how services fitted into the vague, ambiguous and, probably ultimately meaningless appropriation "outcome" of "supporting individuals, families and communities to achieve higher self-sufficiency''.

Perhaps DHS is doing a good job in helping Aboriginal Australians to get the services all citizens get. One would not, however, know this from the report.

It merely considers the paperwork, and the statements of good intentions floating about the agency, mostly in Canberra. There were ticks for strategic plans, mission statements, vision statements, and planning statements, not to mention cultural awareness programs. And for advisory groups developing an Indigenous Compliance and Debt Working Group and High Level Plan, whatever that is, and collaborations with business areas in "initiative implementation", whatever that means.

The department has ISOs - indigenous specialist officers - who, according to the audit report, no doubt cut and pasted from some departmental bumph, "have a community facing, non-transactional role''.

But does it lead to better services? Or a style of provision of services better suited to the needs and situation of Aboriginal recipients who, one way or another, receive about $5 billion a year through DHS.

The closest the report came to addressing that issue was when it asked eight DHS service centre managers about the impact of the DHS Indigenous Servicing Strategy. Some told the auditors they did not need to know anything about Aboriginal clients or their issues, because their office treated everyone - black or white - in the same way. Yeah.

Other managers agreed one should understand the "indigenous customer base", but thought that a matter for their ISOs, not them. Others said the indigenous strategy did not affect the way they ran their centre, or their ordering of priorities.

Another worrying finding was that very little of the data and paperwork generated by the system were used in any sort of policy review processes, generally the province of "client" departments. But these seemed almost a casual byproduct of an inquiry of little point.

One awaits further reports giving agency after agency involved in indigenous affairs until we, the benighted public, or perhaps the subjects of these attentions, recognise there are no problems in the delivery of services to Aborigines. Why else, after all, would we have dispensed with the Co-ordinator-General for Remote Indigenous Services, and his glossy, always hopeful, reports?

Another audit report this week reviewed a critical matter:   how agencies coped with conflicts of interest.

But there were no case histories of actual problems. Instead, there was a review of the paperwork  of some selected agencies - asking if on paper, each had processes for declaring, monitoring and dealing with conflicts. No one could be comforted by the answer, but no one knows whether, as a result, there are actually serious problems of actual or potential conflict. The audit didn't even seem to be looking.

Other watchdog agencies, including the Inspector General of Security, and the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity have such low profiles, and are themselves so unaccountable to public scrutiny, they could hardly be feared by anyone.

The major law enforcement agency, the Australian Federal Police, plays an entirely passive role in any matters of official corruption, or breach of Commonwealth law, apart from drugs. It waits for matters to be referred to it and exercises no initiative whatever, least of all over its own activities. The risk is compounded by a developed pattern of the AFP hanging very closely to the minister of the day, and the disinclination of the Director of Public Prosecutions to mount a prosecution unless a conviction is all but assured. Since, in any event, most AFP statistics are meaningless, the public has little idea of whether things are well.

The Public Service Commission avoids any sort of media spotlight in promoting the values of public stewardship, and prefers to deal with major complaints privately and behind the scenes. A few agencies, particularly at the moment, the armed services, have had to have high-profile roles on issues of harassment, but most agency heads like their low profiles and want of public recognition. Most do not lack administrative ability, but very few lead, are known for their contributions to public policy, or express their views in public. 

Just as significantly, there is a major gap in the accountability processes - with the role of advisers and others working in ministerial offices. The problem is not only one of a lack of mechanisms for dealing with real or suspected misbehaviour, but in the want of clear rules and guidelines, and watchdog protectors, for public servants and members of the public having dealings with minders. All the more so when ministers show, by words and deeds, how little they seem to care about impressions.