Outsourced government services are placing a wall between contractors and ministers that can be used by governments to avoid responsibility, a parliamentary inquiry has been told.
The University of Melbourne's Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies has said the use of contractors in the federal bureaucracy distances ministers from services.
Its submission is among several to a Labor-initiated Senate inquiry into changes to government service delivery focusing on the "robo-debt" program and moves to outsource visa processing.
Co-directors at the centre, Professor Adrienne Stone and Associate Professor Kristen Rundle, said private sector contractors were not responsible for the public interest.
"The use of tender processes, whether for fairness or to seek value for money, places a departmental wall between contractors and ministers, which can be used to avoid ministerial responsibility," they said.
Commercial confidentiality, often given as a reason to withhold information from the public, further blocked the accountability of ministers to Parliament and the public.
"All of these issues, and others related to them, need to be resolved in decisions to use contracts for service delivery."
The relationship between the government and the public, set out in the constitution, did not change simply because governments might choose to deliver services in different ways.
"However, there are real concerns about how such arrangements as contracted-out government programs or services might operate to close off avenues of accountability to which the government should be subject," Professor Stone and Associate Professor Rundle said.
"It is essential for these avenues for accountability to remain open, accessible, and effective."
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It was unlikely ministers would adopt reforms preserving their accountability, and the Senate committee should insist on their importance, the co-directors said.
"Ensuring the responsibility of ministers to Parliament, on which the entire system depends, is complex enough when government programs are delivered by the departments of state.
"In conditions of modern government and politics, there are questions about the extent to which ministers, as opposed to public service officers, are accountable for performance and whether and how public service officers are answerable to Parliament in circumstances where ministers cannot be held to account."
The inquiry follows repeated controversies over contracting by agencies, as well as growing concerns about labour hire outsourcing as the government signs $1 billion in contracts for Human Services Department call centre operators and compliance staff.
Spending on labour contractors for 18 of the largest public service agencies more than doubled in the five years to 2018, reaching more than $730 million.