Auditors, by definition and presumably inclination, are professionally passionless.
“Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday used to say on Dragnet all those years ago.
But it must be hard always resisting the urge to show your occasional frustration, particularly when you’re dealing with the public service.
That thought came to mind while reading through the Queensland Auditor-General Brendan Worrall’s latest report, tabled in State Parliament last week.
The tone is professional and dispassionate but still, more than once the phrase, “through gritted teeth” popped into my head.
The report tracks the current status of the 447 recommendations the Queensland Audit Office made to government agencies and local governments to improve their performance in the years between 2015–16 and 2017–18.
The QAO selected those years to give agencies enough time to act on its recommendations.
But not time enough apparently. The report, which asked agencies to self-assess the progress of implementation, found that even some recommendations issued five years ago hadn’t been acted on.
It also found that 26 per cent of recommendations were only partially implemented and six per cent had been effectively ignored.
It also discovered gaps in monitoring the progress and implementing, and the outcome of its recommendations.
“One local government reported that it had limited awareness of the recommendations that we had made to it and had not taken any real action to address them,” the report notes.
And although some entities reported they had fully implemented recommendations, they didn’t explain the outcomes despite being asked to do so.
“They need to do so to determine whether their actions have resulted in more efficient processes or more effective services, and to help focus future efforts,” the report says perhaps through those metaphorically gritted teeth.
To my ear at least, I also detect a sense of frustration in Auditor-General Worrals’s foreword to the report:
“While we have a role in helping parliament hold entities to account, the desire for continuous improvement and a culture of change ultimately must come from within entities themselves.
“We ask them if they agree with the recommendations in our reports to Parliament, but we cannot force them to implement them.
“We cannot make them implement our recommendations, but we can track, report, and share insights on their progress.
That’s what the QAO is doing with this latest report, which it plans to update annually.
“Performance monitoring and reporting practices required the most improvement across the 50 entities we audited,” the QAO says.
More than a third of the 101 performance monitoring and reporting recommendations made in eight separate QAO office reports to Parliament were still in progress or not started.
“While doing the right things to achieve the intended results and doing things right to make the most of limited resources are both important parts of public service delivery, so is proving they have been done,” the report notes.
The QAO found that some entities simply weren’t monitoring the implementation of recommendations or hadn’t evaluated the outcome of their implementation.
“This means they do not know whether their actions have delivered the intended results,” the report says, adding, with perhaps a hint of frustration, “this is a gap they need to address”.
“Entities that do not measure their performance are not managing effectively,” it concludes, with a final muted huff.
The QAO also found agencies and council were also dragging the chain with regard to recommendations involving governance, strategic planning and interagency coordination and information sharing.
It said that although agencies had implemented more than 80 per cent of its good governance recommendations, the Health Department hadn’t implemented some recommendations from a now-five-year-old audit on the efficiency of Queensland public hospital operating theatres.
Health Department Director-General John Wakefield makes it clear in his attached response to the QAO report that this isn’t a fair cop.
He argued, among other points, that hospitals had in fact done a lot of work on the QAO’s issues and that the time provided to complete the self-assessment did not allow for the size and complexity of the health system.
“Additional time would allow for greater consultation and increased likelihood of a consistent outcome,” he says.
The QAO also found that 45 per cent of its strategic planning recommendations were still in progress or not started.
Most of them were from its audit on forecasting long-term sustainability in local government.
One of the biggest areas of chain dragging was in interagency coordination, with little more than half of recommendations implemented.
“Interagency coordination and information sharing is critical for the effective delivery of public services, particularly if it relies on multiple entities,” the QAO says.
“It reduces duplication and enables better, more efficient services.”
But, with perhaps a hint of resignation, it notes that “It is not surprising that these recommendations are the least progressed, given they require multiple entities to work together”.
And with what is perhaps the most sobering observation of all, the QAO notes that:
“We have found entities’ governance structures are often not well suited to deliver whole-of-government services.”
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