EMBEDDING INTEGRITY & TRANSPARENCY IN GOVERNMENT
IMPACT AUDITORS GENERAL CONFERENCE
19 APRIL, 2023
I’d like to begin by paying respect to the ancient Ngunnawal people, upon whose land we gather this afternoon.
I thank them for their custodianship and care for this beautiful country.
I extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
And in that spirit of reconciliation and respect I look forward to working together to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart, including a constitutionally enshrined Voice to our National Parliament.
Can I also acknowledge the Australian Auditor General Grant Hehir, and Michael Harris, the Auditor General for the ACT.
Thank you for the invitation to speak today.
I accepted not because I am afraid of you all – I have nothing to hide! - but because it is a great opportunity to share with you some of the work we are doing in our first year of government.
Much of this work and the reforms we are undertaking, have the values of integrity and transparency at its heart.
In this address:
I want to reflect on the vital role that you all play in creating trust and respect in our democracy.
I want to share with you how the values of your office – transparency and integrity – are also values we share as a government. You will see these values in play in major reforms which I will be discussing today.
Those reforms are to the APS and the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission.
And finally, in a nod to the theme of this year’s conference, I want to discuss:
- digital innovation
- challenges and benefits of using AI technology in your work
- and the issues all of us will be grappling with in the near future, with emerging technologies.
One of the first things we did as a Commonwealth after Federation was set up the Audit Act 1901 which created the office of the Auditor-General. The office has existed continually since then.
It’s a first principles thing. You can’t have a government, taxes and the huge machinery that runs our national affairs - both here and abroad -
without a truly independent and fearless scrutineering body such as the Auditor-General.
Such a body must be:
- empowered and resourced
- independent from government and
- made up of people who embody values such as integrity, the need for transparency and fearlessness.
One doesn’t have to look very hard to see what happens to countries where the office of the Auditor General has been eroded or was never properly established to begin with or doesn’t exist.
These are failed states, where lack of transparency and accountability, corruption and lies, mafialike practises and kickbacks destroy democracy, the economy of those states, and ultimately the ability of these countries to function.
Even though the office of the Auditor General in Australia is now 122 years old the values that underpin its establishment are more important than ever.
Australians still highly value transparency and good government and loath corruption, favouritism and deals for mates.
This has driven the political landscape in a very direct way in the last two years, in particular with voters turning specifically to candidates and supporting those candidates that have transparency high on their political agenda.
But transparency and integrity has always been central to the work of Auditors-General.
We too in the Albanese government share the values of integrity and transparency – and we fully support the work done by the ANAO and the Auditor General in respect of their scrutiny of Commonwealth administration and operations, providing impartial and true assessments of the state of the public purse and accounts, and assisting the Australian parliament in fulfilling its accountability role.
I’d particularly like to acknowledge the work of the Auditor General - Grant Hehir in leading tough, fair and insightful audits on large scale projects including the years we saw throughout the pandemic and the processes around that time and rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines.
These audits have enabled the Albanese government to get a much better picture, in greater detail of how money has been spent under urgent circumstances on complicated projects and how we might be able to target public resources more effectively in the future.
The Albanese government
When we were elected after almost 10 years of Coalition government, the Prime Minister gave me three portfolios: Finance, Women and the Public Service.
These are big portfolios in their own right but there are also synergies that work across government.
With my Finance Minister’s hat on I have a keen interest in embedding the values of transparency and integrity throughout the machinery of government if only for the fact that it makes good economic sense.
Recent reports by the IMF show the link between corruption and poor economic performance of a nation. The more transparent we are, the more prosperous.
Societies where corruption is allowed to go unchecked are societies where there is
- greater inequality,
- lower trust of governments and institutions, and
- greater frustration and hardship experienced by citizens.
We cannot presume that Australia is a world away from the states that fail. We must be forever vigilant – and assert our values time and time again, over and over.
We have seen recently a stark example of trust being severely diminished in Government.
While the Robodebt Royal Commission has yet to hand down its findings, I have followed the hearings closely.
This scheme had devastating consequences. These consequences were to individuals caught up in the system, individuals who faced enormous stress, anxiety and depression due to debt notices issued erroneously, carelessly and cynically, individuals who in some cases, took their own lives and the families left behind with their pain and so many unanswered questions.
We also heard in evidence before the commission of the moral injury caused to public servants who had to enforce Robodebt – despite speaking up against it and raising concerns.
And we know the broader effects too on the general public - that is, even if you were not directly affected by Robodebt – it would have eroded your opinion of government.
We are awaiting the findings of the Royal Commission, and the government and relevant ministers will have more to say after that.
But I know that we cannot afford to take the trust of the Australian people for granted.
To this end, with my APS Minister’s hat on - we have undertaken a number of integrity measures and APS reform.
These reforms have been high on my agenda and something that I started working on as soon as I was given the role.
The NACC and Independent review
As discussed earlier - the potential for corruption within government contributes to the decline in trust that the public has in democracy.
With this in mind - and with significant public and political support, the government has created the National Anti-Corruption Commission – or the NACC for short.
As you are no doubt aware – the NACC seeks to prevent, detect, investigate and respond to serious or systemic corruption in the Commonwealth government through:
- the timely investigation of corruption issues;
- the capacity to publish detailed reports on the investigations; and
- educating the public sector (and the public) on how to prevent corruption from occurring in the first place.
The NACC will be independent from government.
This means the government will not be able to tell the NACC what to investigate (or what not to investigate), or how to do its job.
The NACC will be able to investigate alleged corruption and report on what it finds.
I’d like to acknowledge the work of the Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus in his work in driving this important reform as one of the first acts of an Albanese Government once we were elected.
The Government expects the NACC to begin operations in mid-2023.
I also see a strong connection rather than an overlap between the office of the Auditor General and the NACC.
The NACC is complementary to the integrity regime of which the ANAO has been a frontrunner.
The NACC bolsters the mission of the Auditor General’s office and the ANAO in providing systems and processes to make sure taxpayer money is spent wisely and that public officials are accountable.
As you’ve heard - winning back people’s trust is a key challenge facing our government and its institutions.
The trust that Australians have in government departments and services is dependent on many things including whether the departments are efficient, well run and provide the service that they are meant to provide.
Australians have spoken loud and clear – particularly at the last Federal election. They care about integrity. They don’t want to see government departments run as if they were in an episode of Utopia.
- that the taxes they pay are well spent,
- that there is no advantage given to one supplier over another,
- that the allocation of public money doesn’t have a political agenda behind it.
The work you do is crucial for establishing and maintaining that trust.
The Auditor General plays a key part in this strengthening of trust in our democracy and it looks under the bonnet of our government services and departments – sometimes uncomfortably.
And makes sure things are operating as efficiently, transparently and as well as possible.
The reforms to the APS have been designed to ensure an efficient and transparent APS and we hope will make your job as auditors easier.
A large part of the APS reform agenda announced last year after I became Minister is about being transparent and accountable to the public.
Our reform agenda has four priority areas:
- First: An APS that embodies integrity in everything it does
- Second: An APS that puts people and business at the centre of policy and services
- Third: An APS that is a model employer.
- And fourth: An APS that has the capability to do its job well.
I will discuss the first two priority areas.
Integrity and transparency must be a core part of APS business.
I want greater transparency on what Australians are saying about the Government and their experiences of public services.
Each month, a thousand people are surveyed across the country on their trust and satisfaction with public services and this information is published quarterly.
To achieve greater transparency the national Survey of Trust in Australian Public Services results available in a new annual report with more of the detail, including information about individual service delivery agencies.
Knowing the whole of APS experience helps us identify services not meeting expectations.
Knowing how people’s own life experiences intersect with the services we provide, will impact on how we better support them and In order to strengthen policy development and planning, the APS will start a process of developing long-term insights.
These will also be published and available to the public.
These insight briefings will bring together experts from the public service and include consultation with
- the community,
- industry and
- the not-for-profit sector
On specific longer term policy challenges to help identify solutions.
Transparency drives improved performance and is central to democratic forms of government.
I support these measures as a key tool to ensure people and businesses remain at the centre of policy and services.
We will also make sure that the Public Service Act, contains the values and principles that reflect the responsibility that public servants are entrusted with.
This requires changes to Act itself. One such change is: we will ask the Parliament to enshrine the value of stewardship in the Public Service Act.
As referenced in the Thodey review, stewardship can encompass building a service that is committed to the public interest sustains genuine partnerships and is the holder of institutional knowledge throughout changes in government and societal shifts.
As servants of the public, we are all responsible and accountable for leaving the APS in better shape than we found it.
And also, hopefully for leaving the APS in better shape for an audit!
People at the heart of the public service
The second priority for reform is an APS that puts people and business at the centre of policies and services.
To this end, the Government is working with the leaders of the APS on a vision for partnership
- between the public service and people,
- communities and businesses,
- the not-for-profit sector and universities,
- states, territories and others.
Engagement and co-design with our partners must become a natural and early impulse in the way we work.
We need to make it clear how we’ll bring services together to make interactions with us easier and outline how we design policies and programs with the people they impact, in mind.
This vision will include a Charter of Partnerships and Engagement that makes a promise about how we work to ensure the public service is a trusted and transparent partner that puts people and business at the centre of policy, implementation and delivery. And a partner that’s open and accountable in its engagement.
The future and technology
The theme for this year’s conference: “Technology as a tool, and technology and the impact of the auditor,” is a topic to be exploring. And it’s only going to grow in importance.
It’s hard to envisage the future and how it’s going to be different from the way we live today. But we must start to imagine that future and we must prepare.
We have already seen the incredible work done by the Australian Public Service when change happened fast.
During the Covid 19 pandemic, all of the public service changed in some way from those working in policy in the Treasury, to those working with the public at Centrelink. They all had to move quickly to adjust to a rapidly changing reality.
They showed the best of the public service - adaptability, lateral thinking and the ability to continue to deliver under pressure.
These attributes will no doubt serve us well, when facing a rapidly changing technological landscape including how we wrangle the opportunities and risks of the future – including the use of artificial intelligence.
AI isn’t just in the future - it is here, and it will change how work is done in departments. And it will change the work of the Auditor General’s office.
In relation to AI and the work of the Auditor General – there are challenges and opportunities ahead.
Recent developments in AI, in particular the rise of applications like Chat-GPT have governments around the world watching this space closely, and the Albanese government is monitoring it too.
The Minister for Industry and Science recently commissioned the government’s pre-eminent scientific body, the National Science & Technology Council to deliver advice to government on the opportunities and challenges that are ahead.
And as a country, we have longstanding strengths in these areas.
Australia was one of the first countries around the world to adopt National AI Ethics Principles, and the first country to appoint an e-Safety Commissioner.
Technology that works for us and not the other way around is something we value.
The Digital Transformation Agency - which I oversee as Minister in charge of Data and Digital is also developing and implementing guardrails for the public sector to best manage technology that is developing at speed.
This technology is likely to have a profound impact on how agencies do their jobs.
The Digital Transformation Agency has been working with many partners to help develop this guidance which will support government agencies in their consideration and application of AI and associated technologies.
AI and the APS – where we currently stand:
AI is currently available in several commercial or bespoke products used across Commonwealth Agencies.
Agencies looking to adopt established technologies which use AI still have an obligation to manage the benefits and risks associated with the use of these technologies.
Because AI is not one thing, but a constellation of technologies that support different kinds of automation.
Some of this is new, like Chat-GPT, offering more powerful ways of generating new content, others have been with us for some time.
These agencies need to pay particular attention to the governance and ethical implications of adoption and application of AI systems.
Usage may also be authorised by law, particularly where discretion is used to determine an outcome.
In many decisions, human insight and intelligence as well as knowledge of context and history is a crucial part of decision-making and should not be outsourced to AI.
Whilst a lot of focus is on ChatGPT and those that come after it AI capabilities are also part of business as usual in in several agencies including:
- chatbots, virtual assistants and agents in service management
- document and image detection and recognition for border control and fraud detection
- data mapping to geographical areas
- free text recognition and translation
And embracing this technology is important – but we must also develop guardrails in conjunction with the work done by the DTA.
Impact on Auditor’s work
I’m sure you’re going to hear at this conference, in greater detail, how your work will be impacted by AI technology. And I’m sure you are already sensing the pace of change.
As you are no doubt aware, as Auditors, you can now use machine learning tools as part of discovery processes in both legal and accounting fields and you can use big data management to sort and categorise information quickly so you get the information you need.
But in each case human involvement is needed as the responsible person to verify accuracy.
AI will become very useful as an assistant to identify areas of special attention.
From there, humans can then take a second look and apply their judgement.
This could have the impact of making your processes faster, to enable you to then do what you do best and that is to apply judgement to a situation.
With AI technology, information can be processed more rapidly and it can make reporting easier.
We are already seeing what can be done with sophisticated technology used by agencies such as the ATO.
We have seen the benefits of being able to use technology that sifts through large amounts of information and that has the ability to data match and do all this in a short amount of time.
On the flip side - we are now seeing a move from information processing to information generation with applications like ChatGPT.
There is potential for this technology to do parts of the auditor’s job.
The challenge for auditors – and anyone using AI in this way – is confirming the accuracy of the way that information is synthesised.
There will still questions around: is this information correct?
Is the synthesis transparent and traceable?
Auditors will need to ensure that they have the necessary resources and technology to effectively audit AI systems.
They will also need to have clear guardrails on use of AI and to adjust their roles to where they can add most value and provide that all important human input.
As a Government, while we continue to use long standing AI technologies we will also need to find ways to pilot and test emerging technologies.
I’ll be working across government with Minister Husic and the Attorney General Mark Dreyfus, in considering some of these issues.
We need to understand what technologies are higher risk, and which fit into the business as usual category.
People will start to use this technology in their personal lives it will quickly become and everyday thing for everybody. We will need to identify how they can be used to deliver better services while still protecting people, information, data and our public service values.
Any use must be weighed up with the need to retain public trust in our processes and decision making, while maintaining human accountability.
Since 1901, the office of the Auditor General has done its job and - Fulfilled its function, no matter what the government of the day, and the technology of the times.
It is those values embedded in the office of the Auditor General that will remain unchanging transparency, integrity, independence, and scrutiny – and I for one am glad that this is the case.
Thank you for fulfilling your very important role in keeping the government and the APS accountable and I look forward to working with you over the course of this government’s life.