How the public is kept in the dark about what consultants tell the government

by Bill Browne

Less than 20% of consultants’ reports to government are published

Consulting firms receive lucrative contracts to write reports and give advice to the government. But more than 80% of the time the reports and advice are not published – even when the government depends on the advice to justify its policy decisions.

An example of dubious consulting work was the Boston Consulting Group review of Australia Post, about which former Australia Post director said:

[CEO] Christine [Holgate] was right to oppose the BCG report. The brief they were given was with a preconceived answer in mind. She wasn’t asked to contribute, and the data was rubbery.

When these reports are not in the public domain, it becomes impossible for the public to interrogate their claims or test their methodology. This allows consulting firms to get away with analysis that is compromised, lazy or outright erroneous.

It is worrying to see that, two years on, the vast majority of consultants’ reports remain secret. Questions on notice asked by Senator Barbara Pocock show that only about 15% of consultants’ reports are published. Of those that have so far responded, only the Department of Industry published all seven of the reports it commissioned. No other department published more than one in five of the reports it commissioned. The Department of Home Affairs published none.

Just as worrying are the departments and agencies that failed to answer, or revealed that they do not keep track of how many reports they commission.

The Department of Social Services simply replied that “Details on each consultancy engagement is published on AusTender”, which is true but beside the point. The Australian Tax Office said it would be an unreasonable diversion of resources to find out the answer to the Senator’s question. The Attorney-General’s Department and Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water answered that they did not capture this information or it was not available. The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations was formed after the time range in question.

The Australia Institute has recommended a Senate standing order for the production of documents to require the government to publish reports and advice from consultants. That would ensure that the public gets to see the advice that public money paid for. Consulting firms have a history of giving poor advice, which makes it particularly important for their claims to be open to public scrutiny.

Source: Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration (2023) Answers to questions on notice, Commissioned reports. 

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