In a recent talk as part of the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA)'s Secretary series, Grant Hehir, Auditor-General of the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), spoke about his observations of the Australian Public Service (APS) and his role as an independent and impartial public official. The role of the Auditor-General is seen as fundamental to good government and crucial to functioning of the APS, through their scrutinisation of Commonwealth administration.
The Auditor-General spoke passionately about the public service, the role of the ANAO and his reminiscences about a time when the APS was truly Frank and Fearless.
The Auditor-General spoke to a small audience of Australian Public Servants and an even larger audience of consultants from firms of all sizes. What struck me throughout his thirty or so minute address, was his focus on the value of the compliance that the ANAO and other oversight bodies brought to the APS, particularly in the area of procurements.
In his discussion on procurements he mentioned worrying statistics of systemic non-compliance, including
- 35% of procurements being deemed to be only partially effective
- 10% of procurements being deemed to be ineffective
- 90% of audits have adverse findings relating to record keeping
- Overall poor engagement with risk management
- Overall high level of tolerance for legal non-compliance as long as it "gets the job done".
At no point did he mention the natural compliance of the APS (or the general human inclination to "do the right thing"). His focus was firmly on the effect of forced compliance, deterrence, and oversight. This made me question, what about the "carrot" to supplement this "stick"? What is the Employee Value Proposition (EVP) of the APS right now? What is the "carrot" in procurement, contracts" and wider commercial activities, and more specifically, h ow can we work to bring our clients along this journey to reduce our reliance on the "stick", that unfortunately often ends in negative audit outcomes.
The statistics above are frightful, but do they highlight incompetence, dissidence, and a lack of care, or do they highlight an APS that needs targeted skills development and focus on what good procurement looks like?
As the Auditor-General outlined, procurement and contract management is an "add-on" for most roles. Something that people in the APS are supposed to magically know how to do, in addition to their day job, without any formal learning and development, as well as no broader recognition for this bespoke skillset. As a result, it is no surprise that officers are either teaching themselves as they go or looking for 'shortcuts' and not properly following often complex governance protocols thereby compromising transparency and accountability.
The Commonwealth Procurement Rules (CPR)s provide a solid grounding for government procurement, yes, they absolutely require updating to ensue ongoing relevancy, but their foundation is solid and fit for purpose. However, without learning, development and professional recognition it is probably only the "stick" of the ANAO that drives procurement compliance, and the "carrot" has been chewed up, spat out and decomposed.
So, what can we do? Other than investing in additional audit resources? The Auditor-General felt that ongoing procurement audit will drive better practices as poor procurements activities are exposed with Departments named and shamed. This clearly isn't working. Given the high number of audit reports by the ANAO with much the same findings and and even greater number of audit reports by the ANAO with much the same findings and an even greater number of reviews, internal audits, and other findings to show that our system of "stick and only stick" isn't working, I'm not sure doing the same over and over again will achieve something new. What's more, we've had the JCPAA reviewing the audits with even more scathing findings and stronger recommendations, to no avail.
Perhaps it is time to focus on regenerating the "carrot", doing things once and doing it right, giving the time and space, and most importantly, recognition, to do procurements right the first time, openly celebrating success and rewarding officers for their skillset. It's a rules-based process after all. if machines can do it, so can we, but when it comes to humans, the carrot is certainly much more appealing than the stick and surely has more lasting nutritional value!