Fair Warning

Commonwealth Auditor-General Pat Barrett has issued a timely reminder that widespread moves towards contracting out of government services in no way relieve agencies of their obligations to transparency, responsiveness and accountability. In his report Government Sector Accountability — The Impact of Service Charters in the Australian Public Service, Barrett reminds public servants that citizens retain the right to know whether public resources are being properly used, and what is being achieved with them.

Barrett welcomes initiatives by the Howard government in pursuit of public service reform, but clearly remains concerned about the way increased involvement of the private sector in the delivery of public services is challenging traditional notions of accountability. Accountability, he rightly points out, is central to good corporate governance of public sector organisations. “Despite the introduction of changed arrangements for the provision of many services to public sector clients, all public sector organisations are required still to be transparent, responsive and accountable for their activities,” Barrett says.

Growing reliance on contractors for delivery of public services can provide real benefits to governments and the citizens who pay for them. The danger comes when increased reliance on contractors to perform basic governmental functions compromises the basic premise that officials must and can be accountable to taxpayers for the basic work of government. Politically-motivated use of “commercial-in-confidence” between purchaser and provider to avoid public scrutiny is a case in point.

Barrett notes the introduction of client service charters is a significant development towards ensuring more complete accountability to citizens on the operations of the public sector, particularly those that impact on them personally.

Under the circumstances Barrett is calling for a cultural change in the public sector if public servants are to focus more on achieving required results and on being accountable for their performance.

He says the APS could have been more effective in constructing robust control structures aimed at assuring achievement of defined outputs and outcomes, as well as being more responsive in providing efficient client-oriented services.

The issue remains just as challenging in the US, where Dan Guttman, co-author of The Shadow Government and lecturer on “Government by Contractors and Other Third Parties” at the Johns Hopkins University, says more than half a century after the US government began to shift to increased reliance on contractors, some fundamental questions remain unanswered. “We are at a fork in the road: Is the basic tenet of government accountability through an official workforce realistic?” he asks. “Since it increasingly has been dishonoured in practice, are we knowingly discarding or attenuating the accountability principle, or are we losing sight of it through a failure of focus?”

Guttman warns that unless proponents of contracting consider the big picture, courts may be called upon and affect outcomes. Programs created in the name of ensuring flexibility, he says, may become grist for litigation, and governmental constraints may be imposed judicially on private actors called on as alternatives to official bureaucracies.

These are big questions which governments cannot afford to ignore — in the interests of their own survival.