The Australian Public Service excels in many areas but falls short on some core and critical aspects of its work, according to the latest annual report from the Australian National Audit Office.
The ANAO is tasked with auditing the performance and finances of government agencies. Its focus is on transparency to provide the information necessary to assist the Federal Parliament in holding the executive arm of government to account.
One purpose of such audits is to help the public sector improve its performance.
“The efficient collection of sufficient and appropriate information — to form substantive, accurate, evidence-based conclusions — is critical to our work,” Auditor-General Grant Hehir states.
“Preserving and refreshing the Auditor-General’s information-gathering powers in the shifting environment of the public service remains a key issue for the ANAO.”
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The Auditor-General noted growing concerns over some practices within the sector that make the auditing task difficult.
“I have observed increasing complexities associated with auditing in a contestable environment — specifically the shift towards government and service provider information being held not only as commercial-in-confidence but at increasingly higher levels of security classification,” he said.
“There have also been more issues being raised regarding the protection of personal information. Impediments, or perceived barriers, to this access represent a challenge to the audit process.”
The report states that while the ANAO’s audits point to many areas of high quality and effectiveness within the public service, there continues to be evidence that the sector’s approach to some core activities regularly falls short of expectations.
“This is especially prevalent in the areas of cybersecurity, procurement and grants administration,” it states.
“Cybersecurity has been an audit focus for the ANAO for many years. These audits continue to reveal deficiencies and risks across entities’ cybersecurity environments. We have also observed optimism bias in reporting by entities and little analysis or escalation of the success or otherwise of the policy framework to government.
“Given the extent of audit work undertaken and the evolving risk environment, it is fair to say these observations are disappointing.”
Audits of procurements also continue to identify issues in government administration, with evidence of activities not meeting the intent of Commonwealth Procurement Rules.
“This often includes the absence of open competition. Poor entity practices related to planning, record keeping, contract management, negotiation, risk management and probity raise questions about whether the professionalisation of procurement should be a priority within the public sector.”
Performance audits of grants administration indicate that there has not been consistent compliance with the intent of the Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines, according to the report.
“The ANAO’s audit work has shown that advice to government has not always been robust — including insufficient attention to the authority of decision-makers and poor record-keeping in decision-making without assessment, or rationale for decisions being documented.”