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Thursday, 28 November 1985
Page: 2519

Senator VIGOR(9.32) —The Australian Democrats support the broad thrust of the Public Service and Statutory Authorities Amendment Bill. We believe that the changes proposed and other changes in train or in prospect make it possible for the Public Service to fulfil its duties effectively. I stress the word `possible' as there is, of course, no guarantee that what looks good on paper will translate into significant improvements in practice. We will have to encourage those who will implement the reforms to make certain that the changes are properly put into effect. We will have to show a continuing interest in the pro- cess. Frankly, if there is any resistance, I believe that we will be asking for full explanations before deciding on how to deal with the problem.

The Public Service and Statutory Authorities Amendment Bill tidies up administrative areas such as the abolition, creation and transfer of departments or parts of departments. It spells out in some detail the retirement or redeployment of officers who are inefficient or not qualified to perform their duties. This change may prompt departments to initiate new procedures for updating duty statements and instructions about required work standards. The Bill also sets out a common framework within which people can be employed overseas for fixed terms on short term contracts in positions where promotion and transfer rights are not particularly appropriate. This framework is designed to put pressure on departments to justify the continued use of short term and fixed term employees.

The Public Service Board will oversee extensions for short term employees. It will look at the question of classes of employees who, after consultation with unions, can ordinarily start with short term contracts longer than three months. The Board will have to get staff organisation agreements for classes of continuing employees to be declared. The Board will lose its monitoring brief over consultancies in statutory authorities. I think that these changes should allow the Board to concentrate on management improvement functions a lot more than it does now and not to be tied up in unproductive red tape. Taken in conjunction with the Department of Finance's role in program budgeting reform, this gives us a chance to make the Public Service expend its energy on what is good for the country, rather than wasting resources by clinging on to what each department has constructed for itself.

I notice that Senator Walsh has raised the possibility of three-year rolling funding or of departments being able to keep unused cash limit appropriations for the following year. That statement was made in a speech to the Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration in Canberra in September. Such reforms certainly would discourage the type of fiasco which occurred last year with the Commissioner for housing loan schemes in the Australian Capital Territory. There was a fear that not all the money would be spent and in the flurry of activity a further year's amount, and then some more, was committed, leaving the scheme on hold for over 12 months. I hope that this type of problem will be handled quite effectively by new budgeting methods. We can certainly do without the mad spending rushes towards the end of each financial year.

In his speech in September Senator Walsh referred also to the criticism that some departmental central managers were not passing on the new flexibilities to their regional managers. I suppose that they are not devolving that flexibility on to branches or small units in most of these cases. I hope that this new legislation will allow management a lot more flexibility, even though they are not being overseen by the Public Service Board. I believe that if devolvement is not happening, it is a serious matter.

The Australian Democrats strongly support industrial democracy. My colleague Senator Siddons has been at the forefront in that, both in the work place and in this Parliament. By proposing a requirement that departments report each year on their implementation of industrial democracy, I am asking the Senate to show that we mean business and that we will be following up the matter if little progress has been made.

It was disappointing that only about two-thirds of the relevant departments and authorities submitted their industrial democracy and equal employment opportunity plans to the Public Service Board on time this year. I understand that similar processes have lagged somewhat within the parliamentary departments, and I am disappointed in that. Similarly, there have been problems with temporary employees who have been in virtually continuous employment for a number of years, without the opportunity for promotion or higher duty allowances when stepping into a temporarily vacant spot. The Bill before us will give such people greater protection, in that they will become continuing employees if they work for 12 months without a break.

In the case of Iannou v. Fowell and Others, the High Court of Australia held last year that departments and authorities cannot disregard with impunity legislation on the conditions of appointment and employment of staff. The plaintiff was reinstated and achieved the full protection of the Commonwealth Employees (Redeployment and Retirement) Act. What should happen in other cases is not always clear from that decision, so the Government has stepped in to make the departments and authorities openly justify positions listed as temporary, but which are not necessarily so in practice. So we will be watching that.

I think it is reasonable that departments sort out structural matters during normal budgetary processes. They should not make decisions on the run, especially if they are only avoiding the discipline of keeping to their appropriations for permanent staff in a roundabout way. Departments and authorities need to look at what they do and how they do it. The Australian Financial Review of 20 November has an example of 1,600 bureaucrats who ceased to write all weekly, monthly and quarterly reports. It turned out that 50 documents produced regularly contributed absolutely nothing to the division's operation. Such reassessment can clearly lead to better employment of resources. I commend that sort of analysis to departments and authorities that are complaining about shortages of staff. At the same time I urge the Department of Finance to recognise such initiatives where they occur and to show greater sympathy to under-resourced areas which have tried hard to get their houses in order.

I now make some suggestions which should enable the Public Service to run better and be better value for money. The first area deals with greater efforts to achieve a smoke-free work environment. One employee has been successful in obtaining compensation for suffering brought on basically because he could not get a smoke-free work setting. Token efforts will achieve absolutely nothing. We have a problem that needs continuing attention. The same is true of repetition strain injury. Here we have a question both of equipment standards and work practices. If we force people to spend hour after hour at the keyboard without proper breaks, we should not be surprised to find sizable proportions of them unable to work after some time. This often means that extra staff have to be trained, and it takes some time to get them to peak efficiency. The speed-of-answer statistics I received in answer to a question I asked about Telecom Australia earlier this year showed that management has had major problems on its hands because of this retraining process.

I hope that the Minister will also look at the question of personnel records in the Public Service. They ought to be compatible right across the spectrum so that people can move effectively from one place to another. There should also be a continuous record of training for each employee. That would serve two purposes. First, it would enable departments to make better use of staff talents. It would also enable studies assistants to give sound advice to staff who want to develop further in their careers. The problem is that at the moment a lot of valuable data can be lost as officers move from one department to another because of the incompatibility of record types.

In the Estimates committee's proceedings the Public Service Board officers foreshadowed the establishment of an inter-departmental committee to examine technological change and its effect on work structures. I shall certainly be following the committee's deliberations with great interest. I trust that the difficult questions will be tackled quickly and that areas such as voice input into computers will be developed in consultation with staff associations, rather than just depending on keyboards. If we plan for and take the opportunity we can get extra-capacity equipment to free more people for the direct provison of services to the public. We can start thinking about what has not been practical so far. I believe that the Public Service must move into this area, as business has.

I turn finally to accountability and reporting. That is a subject of the amendments I will be moving. I have already mentioned the importance of industrial democracy, and the Australian Democrats will be moving an amendment to make sure that the public gets proper reports on what departments have achieved or propose to achieve in this area. I pay tribute to the Australian Capital Territory branch of the Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration for having its annual award, a system which has been in existence since 1982, for the best-produced annual report of a department. Many shortcomings have been publicly highlighted as a result, and there is evidence of enormous improvements that have followed this practice. The first report of the panel of judges mentioned that few departments wrote about objectives. Staffing information was rudimentary and often not to be reconciled with the figures given in the annual report of the Public Service Board. Financial information was not often accompanied by interpretation, nor was it grouped according to purpose or program. Program budgeting may help us in this area. Comments made by the Auditor-General were not taken up in the annual report. I believe that is a real problem.

The Australian Capital Territory branch of the Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration set down its own guidelines for the usefulness of annual reports. These were somewhat more forward-looking than the previous Government's guidelines, tabled in the Senate by Senator Sir John Carrick on 11 November 1982. I seek leave to have the former guidelines incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The document read as follows-


The following guidelines were determined in 1982 by the ACT Group of the Australian Institute of Public Administration to guide the review of Departmental annual reports for its annual award scheme. The Panel was asked to take account of these in assessing the information provided in annual reports on the activities of Departments.

1. Functions

(a) Description of the functions and objectives together with a statement of the specific services provided and the sectors of the community served.

(b) Departmental organisations chart, including regional and overseas offices and any advisory committees, and explanation of the particular functions carried out by each major unit.

2. Operations

(a) Narrative review of operations, including adequate comment on policy changes, present or proposed, together with a statement of the background to major policy decisions.

(b) Indication of the extent of achievement of objectives, in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, with quantitative measures where relevant.

(c) Discussion of possible future changes in the environment within which the Department operates and the impact this could have on policies and operations.

(d) Outline or research and development activites being undertaken and description of future actions or planned projects.

(e) Summary of any major legislative changes affecting the Department.

(f) Description of actions to ensure public awareness of Departmental activities. An indication of further publications and other sources of information produced by the Department and available to the public.

(g) Comment on Departmental management policy and practice including management systems, functional and related resource reviews, employee and trade union relations, professional development activities and staff training programs (including co-operation with external prgrams) and other means to ensure effective management.

3. Financial Information

(a) Financial statements in appropriate format and detail, clearly showing:

* All major sources of revenue.

* All major ends to which expenditure was directed.

* Adequate details of any trading activities.

* Departmental administrative expenses.

(b) Adequate details of any separate funds administered by the Department (e.g. trust funds) including movements in, balance of and justification for each fund.

(c) Adequate and understandable notes to the financial statements, including explanations where appropriate of significant financial and accounting policies.

(d) Comment on results of any audits performed by the Auditor-General, and the effect of administrative review mechanisms.

4. Format and communication of the annual report

(a) Clear text and logical order of contents.

(b) Provision of reports in a modest standard, consistent with effective provision of information in a non-stereotype form.

(c) Provision of appropriate highlights sections emphasising the major events affecting the achievement of objectives such as legislative changes, key financial and non-financial data, and major new projects planned or undertaken.

(d) Adequate general design of report, including use of good typography, appropriate and clear illustrations, charts and graphs. Appropriate length and detail of narrative comments so that significant major items are not obscured in a large amount of detailed matter.

(e) A clear identification of the entity on front cover, and of the period to which the annual report relates.

Senator VIGOR —I thank the Senate. The Government guidelines could certainly lead to excellent reports if the spirit of providing information were followed. The reports would be more useful if they were available before the Estimates debates or if they contained financial information about the operation of programs. Those things are in the guidlines. However, generally-this is not true of all departments but it is of many departments-the reports do not always take up these matters properly. I would like to get more useful and timely information made available to the Parliament and to the people of Australia. I note that when the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) presented the first annual report awards in 1983 he said:

Information about government operations is not, after all, some kind of `favour' to be bestowed by a benevolent government-or to be extorted from a reluctant bureaucracy. It is quite simply, a public right. The people of Australia have a right to inform themselves fully-subject to the normal protections-about the way those they have elected to govern them discharge that responsibility.

Those are fine sentiments. I want to encourage their fruition. Guidelines are not enough to achieve that. In 1984, the annual report judgment panel pointed out the persistently poor reporting of financial matters. These figures and those on departmental staffing did not square with the Public Service Board's Statitstical Yearbook, nor with Estimates committee material. Only a handful of departments commented on the activities and achievements of internal audit units. Mentions of departmental problems in Auditor-General's reports were not taken up. The adjudicating panel said: `Financial reporting tends to have a token quality'. It also said:

Equally, reports pay little regard to statements of objectives as determined by Parliament or Ministers.

That is what the Public Service thinks of us. Assessing the reports of 1983-84, the next panel said that whilst standards of financial reporting showed significant improvements on past years, even the best reports were not providing sufficient information. I encourage departments to provide details of the year's highlights, to list the objectives and problems encountered in achieving them, and to let us know of important structural changes. An index certainly makes a report a more useful reference document. I would like to see a figure for the cost of internal review and another for the cost of Administrative Appeals Tribunal cases under the Freedom of Information Act.

In my amendment I have set out a basic minimum for reporting on financial and staffing areas. However, I would like to see departments volunteer a lot more information than that. I would also like to see Ministers table reports in the Parliament well before the passage of 15 sitting days from the time they receive them. That is the requirement made by my amendment.