Release of consultant outputs unlikely, inquiry hears

Finance Department bureaucrats have foreshadowed changes to the federal government’s procurement information system which they say will ensure more transparency and better value for money from big consultancy firms.

Acting Deputy Secretary, Commercial Group, Finance, Andrew Danks gives evidence on June 7, 2023

But they baulked at the question of whether all consultants reports and outputs should be published by default, indicating that is unlikely to occur.

During the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee’s hearing into the federal government’s use of consultants last week, Senator Barbara Pocock questioned the adequacy of Austender as a platform for recording “what’s really going on with public sector agencies”.

“Is finance actively looking into Austender and how to move beyond a gazette function, to a proper recording of what’s going on, and a searchable dataset, and more information about contracts and outputs?” she asked.

Andrew Danks, an acting deputy secretary within Finance said  Austender was a “fantastic transparency tool that does give that insight into what the government is spending money on”.

However he acknowledged “it’s the kind of tool we want to keep strengthening and building on transparency”.

Certainly there would be a push for greater transparency, whether it will go to the extent of every consultancy report gets published unless there’s a good reason, I’m not sure if it will go that far.

Andrew Danks

The federal budget contained measures to improve the platform, Mr Danks said, and Finance was currently developing a new supplier portal with additional  transparency requirements.

For example, upgrades to the system will mean agencies will have to identify how may suppliers they’ve gone to for a quote, addressing concerns that many agencies only use one provider on a panel.

Assistant Secretary in procurement and insurance, Gareth Sebar, also told the committee “a range of activities” were in progress.

“We are engaging with Commonwealth entities to provide them with access to more accurate and time-available data so they can analyse their own procurement processes,” he said.

Eventually that information will also be available to the public, he said.

“Our intention is to use that information and provide it to the public…. So there will be, over the next few years additional information being put out on Austender, and that will include improving the information that users can search for, such as businesses.”

‘Care needed’ over consultants reports

However, the committee heard it was unlikely that there will ever be a time where all consultancy reports and outputs are published by default.

“What would be your view of a defacto requirement that all consultancy reports and outputs would be published, that that’s the assumption and you would have to argue against it … the onus being on a defacto expectation that outputs of consultancies will be published on the public record?”” Senator Pocock asked.

Mr Danks replied: “I think we have to be careful. Transparency absolutely is pinnacle for the work that we do but there are times when the government and executive will need to get advice that may not be fully formed.

“Certainly there would be a push for greater transparency, whether it will go to the extent of every consultancy report gets published unless there’s a good reason, I’m not sure if it will go that far.

“But we are on that path to releasing more of that information.”

Mr Sebar added that the Budget also provides for additional funding to improve the training of procurement officers, including assessing value for money when it comes to large consultancies.

 “With a more skilled procuring workforce we will expect there will be a greater focus on value for money,” he said.

The committee also heard last week that the consultancy industry is unregulated and unaccountable to its peak professional standards body.

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