02 September 2009

Advisory panels or accountability?

As the question implies, there is an important choice to be made here. Governments never tire of telling us in sombre tones that they are about holding officials accountable, but they dot the landscape with unaccountable amateur advisory bodies that cut across the chain of command and provide the perfect out for any agency head that wants to deny responsibility.

If the Secretary to a Department is uniquely responsible for advising the Minister on the business of the Department (admittedly a difficult case to argue in light of the weak provisions of section 57 of the Public Service Act 1999), then there is no case for panels that advise the Minister. Nor is there a case for Government selected individuals to be inflicted on the Secretary or other agency head. If the Secretary feels in need of external advice, that is a different matter (provided the Secretary gets to choose the advisers): that advice is an input to the Department’s advisory processes and the Secretary remains clearly accountable for the advice that goes to the Minister.

To take a topical example, what are we to make of the report by Fleur Anderson on the front page of today’s Australian Financial Review, to the effect that:

The Rudd Government will pay for advice from private-sector consultants to help frame next year’s budget measures to avoid mistakes and unexpected controversies such as the backlash this year over changes to employee share schemes.

It is assembling a hand-picked panel of tax experts to provide confidential advice on government tax and superannuation measures before they are publicly announced, instead of relying exclusively on advice from Treasury and government officials.

Apart from the prospect of these insiders gaining privileged access to valuable information and the potential for extraordinary conflicts of interest, several questions arise:

(1) Do we have a Treasury or don’t we?

(2) What does the Government do if there is a conflict of advice between the Treasury and the hand-picked experts?

(3) If the Government prefers the advice of the experts, who is accountable for the outcome if it all turns to custard? Presumably not the Government, and presumably not the hand-picked experts either.

(4) How will the Government establish what the advice of the experts actually is? Presumably these will be people of strong views, and there will be differences of opinion. It will be interesting to see how the spectrum of views is handled, recorded and conveyed.

(5) Budget security is no small matter. What security clearance processes will be undertaken on these individuals before they are given access to this most sensitive of government information, what training in the handling of classified information will they be given, and what assurance will there be that the selected advisers will actually respect the mandated information handling procedures?

This does not seem to me to be very well thought through. It should be fun to watch.

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