On the House: Under the microscope

The Audit Office report into the Coalition's whole-of-government outsourcing program should make fascinating reading -- if it asks the right questionsFinance Minister John Fahey and his mandarins are rumoured to be at least "a little nervous" about the outcome of the Audit Office's examination of the multi-million whole-of-government outsourcing program.

They may well have cause for some anxiety. Since the Government launched the program in 1996 in the face of the grave concerns of many departmental secretaries, it has been dogged by controversy.

There have been claims local SMEs have been marginalised by the clustered approach to IT outsourcing, arguments about the process and major questions raised about the program's ability to meet the objectives set for it. Now the Government seems to have retreated from a focus on savings to one of "value for money", seemingly undermining its whole justification for the program.

Amidst the controversy, Fahey and his spin-doctors have worked hard to massage the information coming out of Canberra. They have met the protests of SMEs with media gags and used claims of "commercial-in-confidence" to keep other details from scrutiny.

But while the ANAO reports to parliament and has a reputation for being independent and thorough, it is not clear whether its examination will ask all the right questions.

The ANAO says it plans to examine the documentation that has underpinned the actions of 20 Commonwealth agencies in relating to IT outsourcing, with its ensuing report to be tabled early next year.

Yet it will steer clear of any comment on the policy considerations behind the program, sticking instead to the activities of agencies involved, the private companies contracted and the activities of the Office of Asset Sales and IT Outsourcing.

The issue of public accountability is of major importance. Unless the ANAO digs deep enough, taxpayers might never know whether contractors are meeting the terms of their contracts, in either industry development or SLAs.

Yet the Australian Information Industry Association has announced its intention to write to the ANAO to highlight its concerns about commercially sensitive and in-confidence information being accessed by ANAO from government agencies during the course of the audit. It says it will ask for reassurance that the ANAO will be extremely cautious about the information included in the final report.

Industry's concern is understandable, but government is not business and it ought to be fully accountable to the taxpayers that employ it. That means vendors that accept government money must also be prepared to be accountable to taxpayers. The ANAO must be free to delve as deeply as necessary into all such commercial arrangements in the interest of that accountability.

In the best of all possible worlds it would also consider the decision to label IT "non-core" government business and the effect that potentially may have on government's ability to steer its own administration.

It is hard to see how any government which truly understood the strategic importance of IT could call it "non-core", when the business of government is essentially the collection, management, interpretation and communication of data.

Sue Bushell is a Canberra-basedpolitical correspondent

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