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Over budget and under pressure: Auditor aims another massive spray at public service

Queensland’s auditor-general has launched a scathing attack on the culture of the state public service, saying its leaders are unwilling to learn from past mistakes, and fail to manage contracts effectively which causes delays and overspend.

Oct 31, 2022, updated Nov 01, 2022

In an extraordinary blast, Brendan Worrall has taken aim at the lack of willingness among bureaucratic leaders to accept or implement change in the way they operate.

In a report to state parliament, he says there are systemic problems across both the state and local governments in Queensland, chiefly because the benefits of innovation and transparency are not valued by public service leaders.

“My experience has been that entities are either unwilling to learn from the past or each other, or lack the systems or corporate knowledge to understand the reasons for past failings,” a clearly frustrated Worrall says in the report.

“In some instances, the fear of repeating past failures is resulting in entities missing opportunities to implement new systems and technologies.

“There is also a lack of information and data sharing within and between entities that would enable them to learn from the mistakes of others and prevent them from reoccurring.”

The auditor-general sent a copy of his bombshell report to Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and each of her ministers as well as 56 departments and public agencies for their feedback before it was tabled.

Just two directors-general – the Education Department’s Michale De-Ath and Employment, Small Business and Training’s Warwick Agnew – bothered to do so.

Worrall, who has been the state’s auditor-general for five years and whose appointment has another two years to run, pointed to the recent Coaldrake review of public service culture and accountability which stressed the need for effective leadership.

“The Coaldrake review noted the government is not meeting the public’s rising expectations that it is accountable and transparent, and acts with integrity,” he said.

“To do this, public sector entities must uphold high standards of governance and must not see governance as mere compliance.”

Among Worrall’s major worries about the culture of the public service is its attitude to the 94 reports and 325 recommendations he has tabled in the parliament since being appointed.

“While I always ask entities if they agree with the recommendations in my reports, I cannot force implementation,” he writes.

“Real change requires the resolve and action of public sector entities themselves through a culture of learning and self-improvement, rather than being forced into action by my public reporting.”

He said he hoped the public service recognised the value of his work, welcomed scrutiny and acted to foster a culture of change and continuous improvement.

However, he pointed to the lack of care shown in the makeup of audit committees within departments – as well as in local councils – as an example of chronic failure.

“The independence of audit committees is critical,” he said.

“Too often, I find audit committees of departments with large numbers of internal members (meaning staff employed by the entity).

“This, in effect, renders them merely a management committee, and makes it difficult for them to independently challenge management’s actions and hold management to account.”

Contract management was also a clear concern, with Worrall saying a lack of skills and attention to forward planning had resulted in “delays, overspend, and, in some instances, systems that are not fit for purpose”.

He warned that, with the government set to send more than $52 billion on infrastructure projects alone over the next four years, better contract management was crucial.

“It is therefore critical that entities examine past mistakes and use these learnings as the building blocks for future contracts. This is even more important as Queensland prepares for the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games,” he said.

Worrall’s report, tabled by Speaker Curtis Pitt in parliament on Monday, follows months of controversy over the Palaszczuk Government’s attitude to transparency and accountability, culminating in Peter Coaldrake’s report.

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