If we've learnt anything in 2020, it's this:
- Facts matter.
- If we ignore facts, then we inflict grievous harm.
- Proper process matters.
- If we ignore proper process, then we impose tangible costs on the community.
- Integrity matters.
- If we abandon integrity, then we create real problems for governments and society.
Now it's true that few of us are much interested in the work of government, which is administration, probity, programs and procurement and which can be grindingly dull stuff: file here; record there; notify X; receive notice of Y.
But dullness does not release agencies from the responsibility to ensure that an accurate record exists of the factual basis on which decisions are made.
Administrators know that without accurate records we are damned in hell.
Gravity, electricity, COVID-19 or climate change as phenomena care nothing of ideology. For example, our understanding of COVID-19 as a contagion that can infect populations at an exponential rate frames an epidemiological response. We manage COVID-19 by a response and this response does not change the facts that it exists and is virulent.
The recent experience of the United States is a case study for those who believe that, in the face of COVID-19, a wilful ignorance of facts confers immunity - or that venality is a vaccine.
Not all investments by government are worthwhile and not all projects are equal.
If the work of government were unimportant, or if the scale of works were insignificant, then facts, process and integrity would not matter. Which is why it is worth quoting at some length the comments made by the Auditor-General, Grant Hehir, in his mid-term report:
"... procurement is a core activity of government and fundamental to the delivery of many of its services. In 2018-19 entities reported contracts with a combined value of $64.5 billion on AusTender. In many cases it is difficult for entities to be able to demonstrate that they have provided value in the use of public resources. It is also particularly concerning that we regularly see entities complying with the letter of the procurement rules but not with their intent. Often the evidence suggests that the decision to exempt procurements from open competition has been based more on it being a less costly and easier process for the entity to undertake, rather than a focus on the overall value of the use of taxpayers' funds ...
"Developing capability in procurement, including contract management, should be a priority for public sector leaders ...
"Regulatory activity is the second category recording a high proportion of negative audit conclusions. Like procurement, regulation is an important function of the Australian government and high quality regulation (whether of the private, not for profit or public sector) is crucial for the proper functioning of society and the economy. In many cases, audit findings raise issues with respect to the appropriate implementation of risk-based approaches to regulation. Risk-based regulation is important in ensuring that the burden of regulation is appropriate. However, it can only be successful if accountable authorities of entities utilise available evidence to develop a strategic, diligent and risk-based regulatory compliance approach and consistently implement this. Too strong a focus on 'red tape' reduction, including through not utilising the full range of regulatory powers provided by the Parliament, can often be at the expense of effective outcomes ...
"Further effort in improving the implementation of regulation by government entities is required ...
"Similar issues exist in other compliance audits, such as in procurement and grants management, where culture is a driver of the proper use of public resources. Compliance with minimum standards is essential, but internal culture drives entity behaviours and affects whether their approach to compliance results in actions consistent with the intended outcomes of a framework ...
"However, the area of ethical behaviour can be much more nuanced. It is clearly unethical to comply with the letter of a rule, but in a way which undermines its intent. For example, using the provision of 'extreme urgency brought about by events unforeseen' to grant an exemption from open competitive tendering, simply because the procurement process was left too late ..."
By good luck and good management Australia has dodged a COVID-19 bullet. But we should not think that we are safe and secure. The International Monetary Fund projects global GDP in 2021 to be only 0.6 percent above that of 2019. In addition, the IMF has identified the imperative to defuse trade and technology tensions between countries. Given the preparedness of the Chinese government to use trade as a tool to have Australian policy conform to its will, we must accept that the risk of export shocks are real.
Accordingly, every domestic post must be a winner.
The lazy and indolent days of federal and state governments slinging millions to marginal seats to realise political rather than social gains must be put behind us.
Paradoxically, as expenditures grow, governments must impose a greater discipline on their expenditures and direct programs to those areas that generate the greatest social and economic return. The reason why is clear enough. Not all investments by government are worthwhile and not all projects are equal.
Expenditures by government, in the first instance, of $64.5 billion can either create or consume value. And because the opportunity cost of craven decisions is great then society as a whole is made worse off - irrespective of the joy created in the hearts of those who live in marginal electorates.
So for Christmas, and then in 2021, we should look askance at government projects that are worked out on a whiteboard in a backroom, of allocations made on training wheels in ministerial offices, of funds not properly documented, of decisions made late at night, when people are tired, when reserves are low and when thinking is corrupted by an exasperation with constraints and a contempt for process.
And if this mean that expenditures are better targeted, better recorded, better managed and more ethically administered, then, really, who would dare complain?
- Chas Savage is chief executive officer of Ethos CRS and has a passion for clear communication, good policy and effective regulation.