In our recent report on Awarding of sport grants (Report 6: 2020–21) we emphasised the importance of clearly defining the different roles and responsibilities of ministers and public servants.
The lack of clarity in the awarding of sports grants saw the minister make changes to around one per cent of departmental recommendations, relating to two grant programs. The reasons for these changes were not appropriately documented by the department.
In this blog post, our advice covers departments and statutory bodies—which we collectively refer to as agencies.
What are the roles of ministers and public servants?
- Cabinet sets the policies of the Queensland Government.
- Government ministers work closely with the leaders of agencies within their portfolio to achieve government policy. Ministers are accountable to the Queensland Parliament for the administration of their portfolio.
- The chief executive officer of a department (often referred to as an accountable officer) or the board of a statutory body is responsible for the day-to-day management of their agency and for ensuring services are delivered efficiently, effectively and economically.
The Westminster tradition
The Westminster tradition broadly requires that public servants:
- provide high-quality, independent, and evidence-based advice to the government, and implement the government’s decisions efficiently, effectively and ethically
- ensure that their advice and implementation, or the perceptions of these, are not affected by their personal, financial, political, or other interests, or those of their relatives or friends
- ensure a free flow of information between public servants and ministers.
What does this mean for approving expenditure?
While the Financial Accountability Act 2009 is clear that accountable officers and statutory bodies are responsible for approving their agency’s expenditure, there are some instances when administrative decision-making responsibility sits with the minister or Governor in Council.
An example of this is the Project Commencement Approval Policy, which requires agencies to seek Governor in Council or ministerial approval prior to commencing a high value project, including grant programs. The purpose of this is to ensure the agency’s operations are aligned with government policy.
The Financial Accountability Handbook outlines that departments and statutory bodies should use merit-based processes to award grants, and ministers should rely on agency processes for the delivery of grant outcomes. This is similar to good procurement or recruitment practices, which rely on an appointed panel to recommend the successful applicant or contract. It allows agencies to demonstrate that grants were awarded transparently and equitably.
What needs to be documented?
The agency must appropriately document all advice provided to the minister and feedback received from the minister, particularly when it may result in changes to the department's advice or assessment outcomes.
It is important that the agency’s documentation clearly articulates whether it is the minister’s or the agency’s responsibility to approve the final selection of grant recipients. The decision-making roles must align with financial accountability obligations set by legislation and Queensland Treasury.
Improving everyone’s understanding of their responsibilities
Queensland Treasury is currently revising the Financial Accountability Handbook to provide further clarity on roles and responsibilities in the final selection and approval of grant recipients.
Training, both at induction and ongoing, is also important for a good understanding of the different roles and responsibilities of ministers and departments, particularly those related to financial accountability.
Machinery of government changes are a good opportunity to ensure the whole department is applying consistent policies and has a shared understanding of roles and responsibilities. This aligns with recommendation seven in our recent report State Entities 2020 (Report 13:2020-21) where we recommended departments should promptly conduct a review to ensure consistency of fundamental processes (such as approvals) and compliance with the Financial Accountability Act 2009 and the Financial Accountability Handbook.
- Awarding of sport grants (Report 6: 2020–21).
- Australian Public Service Commission’s Supporting Ministers—upholding the Values provides examples of protocols with ministers and their offices developed by Commonwealth agencies.
- Crime and Corruption Commission’s An investigation into allegations relating to the appointment of a school principal.
- State entities 2020 (Report 13: 2020–21).