Queensland’s Auditor-General is having a big week, with the publication of hard-hitting reports into the latest Queensland Health IT bungle (see today’s Courier-Mail) and the Government’s economic response to COVID-19. The report on the economic response revealed a lack of central oversight of the Government’s $7 billion of emergency measures. As has been widely reported already, in the introduction to the report the Auditor-General Brendan Worrall wrote:
While collating this report, we were unable to obtain information on some aspects of the response measures. Both Queensland Treasury and the Department of the Premier and Cabinet told us that, although they are involved in coordinating the response, they do not have complete information about what the uptake rates of the individual measures are.
We recognise that government agencies have had to work under extraordinary circumstances during the pandemic, rapidly designing response measures to unprecedented events. However, it is critical that the effectiveness of the government’s response is monitored and assessed to determine whether program outcomes have been achieved. This requires fit-for-purpose governance and reporting arrangements at a whole-of-government level.
It sure does. Unfortunately, they don’t exist for the emergency response, and I’m unsure such arrangements are adequate even in the best of times. As leading Australian public policy thinker and entrepreneur Nicholas Gruen has suggested on many occasions, we need to have monitoring and evaluation built into government policy design and delivery, possibly via his concept of an Evaluator-General. According to Nicholas, in a 2018 Mandarin article, the Evaluator-General would be:
…an independent statutory agency having investigative and reporting powers similar to the auditor-general, though in the area of monitoring and evaluation rather than audit…
…However, its role goes well beyond sitting atop government monitoring and evaluation systems. This proposal envisaged as the institution through which a new demarcation would be operationalised between program delivery on the one hand and resourcing expert knowledge on program performance on the other. Thus a line agency might deliver a program – or commission third parties to deliver it – but the evaluator-general would direct and provide substantial resources to the monitoring and evaluation system constituting the program’s ‘nervous system’.
Thus, monitoring and evaluation would be designed and operated in the field by officers of the evaluator-general. For this to work well, they and the delivery agency would need to collaborate closely. However, the evaluator-general would have ultimate responsibility for monitoring and evaluation in the event of disagreement.
Given the multiple problems we’ve seen with the delivery of government programs in Queensland and nationwide over the years, trialling the Evaluator-General concept seems like a good idea. We need to do much better than we have been to ensure public money is spent wisely and effectively.
Incidentally, the ability of members of the public to understand what Government is doing during the crisis has been compromised by its failure to produce a proper state budget and departmental service delivery statements. They provide at least some degree of transparency and accountability.