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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Cost cutting and accountability

The Canberra Times highlights the impact of Federal expenditure cuts on the operation of government departments, with important accountability bodies raising concerns about the impact on the conduct of their functions:
"Their plight, hinted at in public well before now, became common knowledge this week when Parliament's Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit held public hearings in Canberra as part of its inquiry into the effect of the efficiency dividend on small agencies. On Wednesday, Commonwealth Ombudsman John McMillan told the committee that the cuts risked ''diminishing our effectiveness as an accountability institution''. Auditor-General Ian McPhee said the funding cuts meant the Australian National Audit Office would have to cut back on the number of audits it conducted this year, from 50 to 45. McPhee said, ''The efficiency dividend is no longer coming out of efficiencies but is impacting directly on the programs that we are delivering. At least five other bodies the High Court, the Federal Magistrates Court, the Australian Law Reform Commission, the Office of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, and the Insolvency and Trustee Service of Australia have registered similar complaints, suggesting this is more a cri de coeur than any orchestrated exercise to pressure the Government into reconsidering its budgetary edicts."
What amounts to an across the board 3.5% cut in operating expenditure this year would seem certain to impact on many administrative functions including freedom of information to some degree. The usual means of achieving cuts, to reduce staff, could exacerbate already poor and unsatisfactory performance in this area in some agencies, partly the result of consistent underfunding over the years.

A bit of lateral thinking might identify some non-staff savings in the FOI and related fields that could come from more routine disclosure of information; no more silly battles over documents the release of which would result in no real harm to important public and other interests; not engaging high cost lawyers to run cases in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, etc,etc.

But reduced costs in this area of government, and a squeeze on agencies such as the Ombudsman don't sound consistent with the claims things are moving in the direction of more open, transparent and accountable government. And a properly resourced Information or Freedom of Information Commissioner is still just a twinkle in Senator Faulkner's eye.

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