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Monday, June 01, 2009

Senate questions for Operation Sunlight and budget transparency

Senate Estimates (Finance and Public Administration 27/5/2009 at 88-89) examination of the Department of Finance and Deregulation last week saw questions asked about Operation Sunlight. Nothing new, or startling but here is an edited version.

Senator CAMERON—.. Operation Sunlight was an overhaul of budget transparency. Could you advise me as to how that has operated in the current budget and any issues that have arisen.

Ms Campbell—Operation Sunlight was in play for the last budget as well as this one. In this budget we introduced a significant improvement in the publication of program information in the portfolio budget statements...That was done working closely with all agencies. All agencies have included details of their programs, including financial details and performance information about their programs, in those documents. That has been the most significant change in this budget. I will just go to find a number of the elements that have already been introduced. That one was the most significant in recent times.

Senator CAMERON—Are these the implementation of former Senator Murray’s recommendations as well?

Ms Campbell—Yes. Minister Tanner, when he was in opposition, published a document called Operation Sunlight and then refined it. Once the government was elected, he implemented that operation. He also asked the then Senator Murray to review Operation Sunlight and to make recommendations to further improve the program or to make changes that may have become necessary since Minister Tanner first put the document out. The then Senator Murray’s report was released with the government response in December of last year, and we have been continuing to implement Operation Sunlight, including some additional measures that were
introduced following the then Senator Murray’s review. One of the other significant changes in this budget was the introduction of new outcome statements for a number of agencies. Minister Tanner, in Operation Sunlight, had referred to the fact that some outcome statements were vague and not descriptive and did not really capture, in a definitive manner, what agencies
were expected to deliver. There has been a review of a great deal—in fact the majority—of the outcome statements over the last 12 months, and these have been published in the portfolio budget statements this year. Those that have not been reviewed are generally for organisations undergoing major changes. There are only a handful of those and they will be reviewed over the next few months in time for the next budget.

Ms Campbell—It is an ongoing process but the outcome statements and the program information were both very significant parts of Operation Sunlight. There are a few outstanding items that we will still be working on over the next six to 12 months but the next phase, which will be very important, will be agencies reporting against how their programs have performed. This will occur in next year’s annual report cycle.

Senator CAMERON—One of the changes, as I understand it, is outcome level trend reporting. Have we moved to that yet?

Ms Campbell—No, we have not moved to that yet. We are settling the outcome statements in and asking agencies to look at how they might be able to capture information on the performance of the outcome level. We are very much focusing at the moment on the program level information so that agencies can capture that program information and look at the trends in program information.

Senator CAMERON—When we move to trend reporting, because it is always good to get things in context, how far back would you go?

Ms Campbell—We have not envisaged going backwards at this stage, because it is very difficult to capture information backwards, but we are focusing on moving forward. We are focusing on that at the program level. Next year, in the annual report cycle, those agencies who have detailed the program information in this portfolio budget statement will report against it. Then as time goes by we will be able to capture that information and that trend information.

Ms Campbell—.. in last year’s budget we did introduce just the one set of financial statements in budget paper No. 1, where previously there had been three sets of financial statements. That was introduced last year and streamlined the document somewhat. The bulk of it has been in the yellow documents for each of the portfolios, where they have been able to articulate each of their programs and the expectations of those programs.

Senator CAMERON—Has this focused the minds of the department and the minister to deal with this in a very concise way to get the information out?

Ms Campbell—Operation Sunlight has focused not only the Department of Finance but every department, because it has allowed them to think about what they are delivering and to articulate clearly, and to also capture the program information and to display that for senators and the audience of these documents.

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