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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Paydirt for digging deep on published contract information

Linton Besser's articles in today's Sydney Morning Herald  about Defence contracts result from a three month investigation, and show  plenty of questionable and sometimes worse examples of profligate spending by the Department.

The articles themselves give the lie to the old line that if it's public there's no story. With more information than ever before available on-line, in this case some contract disclosures, those with the time, energy and resources to dig deep, spot the story, build the picture, follow up on the bits that seem odd or out of the ordinary, and put it all together play an important role in telling us "news." However while Besser has mined the published information extensively, the requirement to publish Commonwealth Government contracts should be on firmer footing, in legislation - it isn't  at present - and the searchability of government websites needs plenty of improvement. We are still going to need a Besser to do the digging and to bring to attention such things as Defence spending $30,000 on items simply described as "stuff", revealed in a contract note no-one else noticed that has has been up on the web since September last year, and some apparent phantom contracts-or simple stuff -ups - as well.

All this from Defence- whose up for a similar exercise across all agencies?

The starting point for these stories was the detail about private sector contracts in excess of $100,000 required by a Senate Order to be tabled in Parliament and published annually by Commonwealth agencies on the web . Separately AusTender also publishes contract notes quarterly for all government agencies, extending the range to anything over $10,000. Besser appears to be one of the few who has looked to see what's there and to put the bits and pieces together, leading to important information about how much has been spent by Defence in various categories including travel, gyms, management retreats and horse-back riding, in addition to billions on those massive acquisition projects.  The Herald has helpfully put up on the web  the 750,000 contract notes and a search tool that enables anyone to do their own digging into the $48 billion committed between 1997 and 2009.

To say Government websites aren't as helpful is to put it mildly. The AusTender website has some across government and across agency search capabilities. As an example "Minter Ellison" (if you have patience) produces 585 records.

 However a search at Defence for "contract notes" produces "Your search - "contract notes" - did not match any documents." When you manage to track down the relevant page  searching across the contract notes and the different annual reports doesn't seem possible. You might find, as Besser has, once you download the pdf file for the year and go through the 436 pages, that DHA-Central Office won $71 million in contracts for "Residence Cleaning Services" in the December 2009 quarter. But you won't have any luck trying to find this using the only available search engine and "DHA-Central Office".

It remains to be seen when the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee reports on the Freedom of Information Reform Bill next week whether the Committee has taken an interest in the point I made in submissions that the pro-active 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. The Senate Order is a more substantial basis for publication of contract information than simply a policy commitment by the government on which the AusTender website seems to rest, but enshrining this in the law would be better still, and could ensure more than the current scant details are available, in closer to real time. The $10,000 threshold for AusTender disclosures seems remakably low - NSW routine contract disclosures cut in at $150,000.

As to improved searchability, all you can say is there is a big job ahead here.

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