Search This Blog

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Cut back on published contracts in the name of cutting red tape?

In order "to pursue the deregulation agenda and reduce red tape for agencies in their reporting processes" Department of Finance officials in Canberra told Senate estimates this week of a proposal to increase the threshold for publication of information about government contracts online on Austender from $10,000 to $20,000. 

The change would mean non publication from 1 July of contract details that represent four per cent by value of total contracts but a much higher percentage in terms of the number of contracts.

While the administrative burden for agencies would ease, what it means for transparency is also clear: less not more. 

What other cutbacks on the publication of information in the name of the deregulation and reduce red tape agenda are in the pipeline remains to be seen. 

Austender publication of contract information quarterly is a Department of Finance requirement that rests on policy not legislation. A Senate Order requires reporting of contracts over $100000 including on the extent of use of confidentiality provisions. The Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee has a current reference on this.

Former Finance Minister Penny Wong pointed out in Estimates the lack of consultation with the parliament about the Austender proposal and raised the possibility of changes down in the Senate Order threshold if the Austender level is raised.

The Auditor General and others have been calling for rationalisation and improvement in the systems for years. Poor search capabilities are another issue.

Disclosure obligations for contracts (grants and a range of other information we expect or should expect agencies to make available as a matter of routine) should be incorporated in legislation as a publication requirement - a highly desireable Freedom of Information reform waiting to happen.

The Q&A in Estimates follows. 

Senator WONG: I was out of the room, Mr Tune, but I think in an answer to a question from Senator McKenzie you indicated an intention to increase the contract value for publication on AusTender; is that correct?
Mr Tune : Yes, I did, I think.
Senator WONG: From $10,000 to $20,000?
Mr Tune : Yes, that is right.
Senator WONG: Has that commenced?
Mr Tune : Mr Sheridan can help us.
Mr Sheridan : No, Senator, it hasn't yet. We are working through that decision at the moment and, if it is agreed, we would intend to do that from 1 July this year.
Senator WONG: Okay. Can you on notice, then, provide to me all contracts between $10,000—is $10,000 the current threshold?
Mr Sheridan : It is.
Senator WONG: between $10,000 and $20,000 over the last few years so I can get a sense of how many this means. I also indicate to you—through you, Minister, and Mr Tune—that, if those are proceeded with, you should anticipate that the Senate will probably have to consider some form of order to require publication via other means. So it might be sensible to have some dialogue before that, because it is certainly a reduction in transparency.
Mr Tune : We have had some consultation, I think, haven't we?
Mr Sheridan : We haven't, at the moment. We know that it represents four per cent by value of total contracts and would reduce the number of contracts that agencies had to publish by about—
Senator WONG: I do not think you have had any dialogue with us.
Mr Sheridan : No, I do not believe we have.
Senator WONG: I am flagging it because, obviously, transparency has been very important for the Senate.
Ms Mason : We are happy to consult. I think the current order requires publication of contracts over $100,000—the Senate order.
Senator WONG: Yes. We can change the Senate order to reflect what the old AusTender requirement should be, subject to us getting sufficient support from the chamber. So I am making a point: rather than proceeding down this path, it might be sensible to try and resolve the matter.
Ms Mason : And we are happy to consult.
Senator WONG: Thank you.
CHAIR: In an attempt to be helpful, I understand we had a presentation the other day in which tenders and contracts over $10,000 were disclosed.
Senator WONG: They are proposing to not disclose.
CHAIR: Oh. I beg your pardon. Sorry.
Senator WONG: That is okay!
CHAIR: That was the presentation that we had, wasn't it?
Ms Mason : The presentation that we were present for showed the existing system, which discloses AusTender contracts which have an expected value of more than $10,000. The proposal, in order to pursue the deregulation agenda and reduce red tape for agencies in their reporting processes, is to increase that threshold from $10,000 to $20,000. As Mr Sheridan has reported, the loss of transparency from that is very small indeed for the benefit that it would deliver to agencies, but we are more than happy to consult about that proposal.
CHAIR: But it is in excess of what the current Senate order is, which is $100,000.
Ms Mason : That is correct.
Senator WONG: Because the Senate order contemplated what AusTender does anyway.
Mr Tune : We are keen to actually align the two things.
Senator WONG: Not if there is going to be a reduction in transparency. But I am just flagging it with you. Anyway, I have done that. Thank you.
Mr Tune : As I said, we very happy to consult.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:00 pm

    The statement that the contracts in question "represent four per cent by value of total contracts but a much higher percentage in terms of the number of contracts" is interesting. Are there any publicly available statistics on the value and number of contracts across the public procurement spectrum, i.e. what the range of values and numbers of the other 96% would be?