The full report by the Auditor-General is a big read at 124 pages. Their summary says:
Overall, we have concluded that the current system for providing support to Ministers has flaws at each of the levels we examined. The system functions but, cumulatively, the problems are significant.
At an operational level, our testing of transactions did not show any pattern of major spending irregularities. We found only occasional examples of transactions that we considered were arguably or clearly outside the rules. We also concluded that the basic design of the financial management processes is sound, and the finance team within Ministerial Services is regarded as responsive and helpful.
So what are the problems, if the process is okay and the transactions are basically okay?
The legal status and purpose of the rules (which are set out in a document that we refer to as the Executive Determination) are confused and create ambiguity. The rules have a number of technical deficiencies, and the rule on travel expenses is unworkable in practice.
Their most important recommendation is:
On occasion, Ministers have challenged the role of the Department’s officials and whether they should be questioning Ministerial spending. In my view, the responsibility of the Department for the proper administration of Vote Ministerial Services needs to be put beyond doubt. This is an important first step, if major improvements are to be achieved.
Given the political context of the Department’s work, this has the potential to be a fraught question. That is why I have taken the unusual step of making a recommendation directly to the responsible Minister, in this case the Minister responsible for Ministerial Services. I am recommending that the Minister formally confirm to the Department and all Ministers that he expects the Department to play this role, and that Ministers should support the Department’s officials as they carry out their responsibilities. The end result should be a stronger system that better supports and protects Ministers, by enabling officials to catch and correct mistakes early and as a matter of routine.
I’ve worked both directly for Ministerial Services, and in a ministerial office. The problem highlgihted by the AG is that if a Minister and their SPS both insist something should be paid for, it is a brave official who queries it strongly. Ministerial Services is rated on how well it keeps Ministers happy, which can conflict with their role as rule keepers also.
What the AG is saying is that the PM has to give his political support to Ministerial Services, and back them to do their job, even if it means upsetting a Minister and/or staff.
The AG is pretty scathing (but in polite diplomatic ways) of the Ministerial Services handbook. She says it does not clearly set out what is a legal obligation, and what is just preferred practice etc. Also not enough practical advice and examples are given to senior private secretaries for running ministerial offices.
The AG also refers to the overlap between parliamentary and ministerial entitlements and spending. I have long advocated that some of the parliamentary agencies shoudl be merged together – the Parliamentary Service and Ministerial Services at a minimum. Arguably the PCO, Office of the Clerk and DPMC could all also be included in a super-parliamentary agency.
I am sure there would be huge cost savings from merging Parl Serv and Min Servs together. But even more importantly there would be better decision making, more consistency, IT systems that don’t have to learn to work with each other etc etc.