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Wednesday, 21 August 1985
Page: 123

Senator JONES(6.32) —by leave-I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

Pursuant to Sessional Orders, the Senate Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment receives for consideration and inquiry some forty annual reports from Governnt departments and other bodies each year. The question of how to deal most appropriately with this flood of information has posed difficulties for all the Committees since it became a regular practice of the Senate in 1976. The Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment has been most diligent in attempting to meet the requirements of the Senate under the terms of the resolution on annual reports, having reported on examination of annual reports in March 1978, June 1978, March 1979, May 1982 and November 1983. Over the period covered by this series of reports, this Committee has attempted to develop a method of carrying out its duty of scrutinising annual reports in the most appropriate way. I dealt with the topic at some length in my tabling statement on the report on the preservation of the Abbot's Booby on Christmas Island in November 1983.

In earlier years, a common approach by standing committees was to examine briefly all the annual reports referred to them. These examinations tended to concentrate on the style, format and contents of the reports under review. Sometimes a summary of the problems raised by the reporting bodies was included. In its May 1982 report, the Committee criticised this approach as being shallow and superficial, and as not contributing substantially to the oversight by Parliament of the operations of the Executive. Following its May 1982 report, the Committee resolved that it would continue the approach of limiting its detailed examination of annual reports to particular matters mentioned in a small number of selected reports.

As a further contribution to the question of dealing with reports, this Committee invited a submission from the Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration. On 27 May 1985 the Committee heard evidence from Mr Norman Fisher of the Australian Capital Territory division of the Institute. The transcript of his evidence may prove helpful to committees considering the appropriate treatment of annual reports under Sessional Orders. The Institute's evidence covered two broad areas: Current arrangements for presenting annual reports, and Parliamentary use of the reports.

In relation to current arrangements, the Institute is critical of the lack of timeliness of reports, a matter also considered by the recent first report of the Senate Standing Committee on Education and the Arts on examination of annual reports. The problem of timeliness is exacerbated where the date of publication of reports is unclear or uncertain. The Institute suggests that, if Ministers or senior public servants had to explain delays, there would be fewer delays, and the Senate Committee considering any late report would gain some understanding of the difficulties involved by the department or authority concerned in preparing it. Mr Fisher also commented on guidelines for the production of annual reports. There are different guidelines for departments and authorities. The Government's guidelines for Departmental annual reports issued in 1982 were criticised on the following grounds: They are voluntary; they are so modest in the standards imposed they could possibly encourage departments to relax their reporting efforts; they are not subject to any follow-up action; and they are not subject to any process of regular review and revision.

The guidelines for reports by statutory authorities are more authoritative and specific. These were a substantive response to a 1982 inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations into Commonwealth Statutory Authorities. In order to encourage the use of annual reports as a tool of Departmental accountability, the Royal Australian Institute for Public Administration conducts an annual award scheme for annual reports. The Institute issues its own guidelines, which are based on the view that the fundamental task of reports is to report on departmental management. These guidelines are revised each year.

Following its judges' assessment of annual reports, the Institute organises a workshop on the production of annual reports. The 1985 workshop attracted nearly fifty participants. The Institute suggested that another possible area of improvement in current arrangements for annual reports could be some standardisation, particularly in relation to information on staffing and finance. It noted that there are already some standards for financial reporting in the Budget documents and in the supplementary information provided to Senate Estimates committees.

The Institute also had suggestions for the development of parliamentary use of annual reports. It noted that even where departments and authorities had provided annual reports to the Parliament in time for consideration in Senate Estimates hearings, such use was rare. Estimates committees make much greater use of supplementary notes on departmental estimates, thus conveying the impression to departments and agencies that annual reports were of less importance. The Institute recognises that other parliamentary committees may possibly draw on annual reports in their inquiries.

The Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration submission suggested the following developments for more effective parliamentary scrutiny of annual reports, and through them, of the generating department or agency: Either setting an earlier deadline, or impressing on departments the need to meet the December deadline by publishing the dates at which reports were provided and published; the Parliament could, perhaps through the Senate committees, require departments or authorities to provide explanations for delays in reporting; the Department of Finance specifications for explanatory notes on Estimates could require some cross referencing to annual reports; Senate committees could institute a limited but regular review early each calender year, of departmental management and performance, drawing on respective annual reports. Some simple rules for the selection of those to be reviewed each year could be considered; one possible selection criterion could be to deal with departmental reports each year and select annual reports from authorities less frequently; and it may be more effective if committees concentrated their attention on each agency's reporting of performance, as the Senate Estimates committees have focused on financial issues.

The Institute's submission concluded that, although annual reports had improved considerably in recent years, better parliamentary procedures and practice could result in them becoming a major instrument in improving the accountability of departments and authorities to the Parliament. The Institute paid tribute to heightened parliamentary interest in annual reports and considered that this factor, together with its own award scheme, had brought about improvements in recent years. This Committee found the Institute's evidence both informative and helpful. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.