New government unit to save millions on consultants
At a time when the relationship between the Australian public service and consultancy firms is under fierce scrutiny, a new unit is looking at keeping more work in-house.
What has been dubbed the Commonwealth Evaluation Unit will essentially be responsible for checking public programs are working as they are meant to.
Perhaps surprisingly, the practice of making sure energy efficiency programs are saving households money, or training schemes using robot babies are preventing teen pregnancies, is applied fairly sporadically in the Australian public service.
Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury Andrew Leigh, who has recently added to his workload by taking on the role of assistant employment minister, said it's far more common to see evaluation techniques used in countries such as the US, Sweden and Britain.
Under such a regime, Dr Leigh said the tax office could send out two different sets of letters to people who hadn't paid their taxes, to see what language was most effective.
"It's using that real scientific rigour in order to better assess what policies work and which don't."
The unit, a Labor government election promise, received $10 million in the May budget and is expected to save millions more in private consultancy fees.
Government contract data suggests the Commonwealth spends upwards of $50 million a year outsourcing the work of evaluation to consultants.
The government's reliance on private consultants has long been a controversial topic that's been reignited since consultancy giant PwC was caught leaking confidential government information.
The incident, which involved a former partner leaking multinational tax avoidance policy information to clients interested in dodging the laws, is now the subject of a criminal investigation by the federal police.
As well as raising concerns about trust and accountability, the saga has also revived interest in the public sector's dependence on consultants.
Centre for Public Integrity research released earlier in the week shows the volume of contracts with PwC, KPMG, EY and Deloitte - known as the "big four" - surged 400 per cent in the past decade.
Dr Leigh said Labor had a "big agenda" around in-house consulting and trying to build up capability in the public service "on things that matter to the development of policy".
"I don't think we should be outsourcing policy development, I don't think we should be outsourcing evaluation," he said.
The assistant minister said policy evaluation was also a big social justice issue because vulnerable groups were most reliant on government programs.
He cited a famous incident in the US known as Scared Straight. Under the program, delinquent youths were put behind bars for a day, but randomised trials actually revealed that kids in the program were more likely to re-offend than those that weren't.
"The danger is that if you don't do a good job of measuring what works, it's some of the most vulnerable people who suffer," he said.
The new unit will sit within Treasury but work closely with other agencies.