Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The Australian Government's entitlements issue is an opportunity for a Gov 2.0 solution

Practically everyone in Australia has followed the entitlements issue triggered by media reports of House of Representatives Speaker, and Liberal politician, Bronwyn Bishop's helicopter trip from Melbourne to Geelong over the last three weeks.

While at times other politicians were reluctant to criticise Bishop's expenses, on the basis that most politicians spend quite a bit of money in meeting the requirements of their positions, the public and media was almost universally negative towards the rolling revelations of expenses that seemed either not in the public interest, or more expansive than necessary in her role.

Now that Bishop has resigned her position as Speaker, with a decade of her expenditures being reviewed by the Department of Finance, and the Prime Minister has announced a new review of parliamentary expenditures and entitlements, including those of senior public servants, it's a good time to look at how digital technology could help Parliament and politicians to regain and build public trust as well as explain how and why politicians spend money in carrying out their duties.

There's a real opportunity to make it easier for politicians to submit expenses, improve the speed at which they're made public, and provide a mechanism for explaining the value of their legitimate expenditures, while making it much harder for inappropriate use of entitlements.

It's hard to believe, in today's world of electronic banking, myTaxmyGov and online accounting platforms like Xero, that parliamentarians still have to, by and large, manually collect their receipts and invoices and physically complete paper forms to claim and verify their legitimate expenditures.

The technology to digitally photograph and submit expenses directly into an online system is widely available, as is the capability to digitally verify that all expenditures are accurate and appropriate.

It is also easy to then make these expenditures visible to whoever needs to see them, and to conduct various forms of analysis and reporting (both automated and manual) to identify and query exceptions (such as extremely high cost taxi fares) and, of course, to repay any out-of-pocket work expenses that a politician may have incurred.

While off-the-shelf tools are not really designed for the type of visibility expected of politicians, it wouldn't be too hard to develop a digital system for capturing, querying, reporting and paying these expenses, with the ability for the public and the media to view, in near-real time, all expenses incurred by parliamentarians in their day-to-day roles.

It wouldn't be much harder to allow expenses to be analysed and compared, as the media is already doing in articles like this, to understand the relative spending by MPs and, over time, by Ministers in the same or similar portfolios. This would provide for better comparisons and consideration over time.

What would be truly visionary would be to build in mechanisms for the public to flag certain expenditures and request an explanation, allowing politicians (and their teams) to explain what they are doing and why - improving the democratic compact between politicians and their constituents. This could be based on a minimum threshold of 'please explain' requests and require all requesters to be registered in the system to minimise the risk of nuisance enquiries.

On top of this, the system could provide information on entire itineraries and politicians and their teams could include information on the outcomes of their expenditures. For example an overseas study trip that resulted in a report to parliament and a change in legislation could have these outcomes and outputs linked to the expenditure, helping to verify how valuable it was.

Some might see the above type of approach invasive, taking the view that, once elected, a politician should simply be trusted to do the right thing.

While I can sympathise with this perspective, the reality is that it hasn't been shown to be effective in the real world. Some elected politicians have been shown to misuse or misunderstand their entitlements, and the damage this does to the integrity of the parliament is extreme.

Trust in politicians is low - not just because of questions over their expenditures, but also because of broken promises, failed programs and continual infighting.

Redeeming the reputation of parliament can't be achieved simply by expecting the public to let bygones be bygones and start trusting politicians again, it must be won through positive examples and actions - as Malcolm Turnbull demonstrated in his tram and train trip from Melbourne to Geelong.

Creating a digital parliamentary expenditures system with full near-real time transparency would be a strong visible sign that politicians are committed to serving Australia, not to their own enrichment.

It would also help dispel misunderstandings about how and why politicians spend money and improve the understanding of how expensive it can be to be a politician - particularly one with a large electorate or significant travel requirements.

Of course there's still the need to review the entitlements system itself - or at least adopt the recommendations from the last review of entitlements, however with some shrewd application of Gov 2.0 thinking and digital tools, Australians could be confident in how their politicians behave, not simply confident in the rules that they are expected to follow.

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