5 - A way ahead
The Commission was asked to undertake a full-scale review of the spending of the Commonwealth Government to ensure value for money and the elimination of wasteful spending as well as to examine opportunities to improve efficiency and effectiveness. It was given a broad remit.
The Commission has taken a methodical and structured approach to this task, focusing attention proportionately on those areas most likely to have the biggest effects on budget sustainability and government efficiency.
There are 64 recommendations in its Phase One Report and a further 22 recommendations in the Phase Two Report. As outlined in both Reports, many of the Commission’s recommendations can be implemented incrementally over time.
That said, the Commission has not examined everything the Commonwealth Government does. The Commission undertook its task in full knowledge that it would not be possible to examine every area of Commonwealth activity as part of a single, one-off review.
The reform process needs to be ongoing.
The Commission’s Reports provide important directions and set out a number of processes that should be embedded into government. These processes should lead to more effective government and are intended to continue well after the National Commission of Audit is completed.
The Commission has emphasised the importance of a credible medium-term fiscal strategy that provides certainty over the role of government and fiscal policy in the economy. Adhering to the strategy will require a disciplined approach over many years to reassess government spending priorities, return the Budget to surplus, and begin to pay down debt.
We have also made a case for reforming the Federation to clarify roles and responsibilities and improve financial arrangements so that governments can have greater control over their budgets and activities and thus be more accountable to their citizens.
The routine production of more meaningful information on government programmes and key performance indicators will improve transparency about the activities of government. It will also strengthen the evidence base for ministerial decision-making.
Similarly, a systematic approach to programme evaluation, linked to the Budget process, is aimed at ensuring ministers have robust information to guide key decisions about whether to expand existing programmes or reallocate funds to higher priorities.
A broader challenge is to foster a culture where the public sector systematically identifies what has worked and areas where further improvements could be made.
The effectiveness of individual government agencies is central to delivering effective and efficient government. While supporting the highly-devolved financial and management framework, the Commission has recommended separate processes to independently and comprehensively ‘audit’ the operations of selected portfolio agencies. This would provide another avenue to drive performance by introducing external, objective scrutiny of an agency’s operations.
These measures to improve performance assessment and evaluation will form part of an ongoing process to drive better government. However they will only be effective if ministers own and act on their findings.
Ultimately, governments need to play their part by clearly articulating their own policy priorities.
The Commission’s Report maps out a path towards responsible government.
Throughout its deliberations, the Commission has been guided by the idea that Australia deserves responsible government.
It is an aspiration worth having.