Part 1 : Secretary's Overview

Looking Forward

At 30 June 2001, the Department of Transport and Regional Services (DOTARS) comprised 992 staff, 131 of whom were based in the Indian Ocean Territories. It was responsible for a budget of $3.3 billion and administered 48 programs valued at $3086.8 million. Its departmental expenses totalled $196.6 million.

Such an investment is very large. It is right to regularly ask the question: ‘Are taxpayers getting value for their investment in DOTARS?’

There are different ways of answering such a question. One way is to remind ourselves of the large number of portfolio-related events and contributions of the Department which made the news over the year.

In the course of the year, DOTARS:

  • played the major role in advising the Government about the second Sydney Airport;
  • launched a new program to provide noise insulation in the Adelaide Airport environs;
  • coordinated the negotiation and signing of an Open Skies Agreement with New Zealand;
  • supported the Minister in dealing with the groundings of the Ansett 767 fleet;
  • conducted investigations into the Whyalla Airlines crash, the QF1 747 Bangkok runway overrun and the aviation fuel contamination problem;
  • worked on operational aspects of Sydney Airport, particularly airport security for the Sydney Olympics;
  • worked with the Office of Asset Sales and Commercial Support to arrange the sale of Kingsford Smith Airport (subsequently suspended);
  • launched a new National Road Safety Strategy and action plan;
  • maintained the very successful Black Spot Road Safety Program;
  • developed and launched the Roads to Recovery Program;
  • played the leading role in the Government's decision about the Sydney to Canberra very high-speed train;
  • worked on the new proposal for an east-coast very high-speed train;
  • broke new ground in the initiation of the Freight Transport Logistics Industry Action Agenda;
  • was active in urgently arranging assistance to victims of floods in eastern Australia;
  • played a leading role in the facilitation of the Asia-Pacific Space Centre proposal for Christmas Island;
  • organised the highly successful Northern Australia Forum;
  • was innovative in the development of e-government in the form of the ‘more accessible government’ initiative.

However readers will see that not every issue which attracted the public attention was a good news story. One of the most difficult issues dealt with by DOTARS during the year was the audit of the National Highways System Program by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO). This audit report was released on 8 February 2001. It attracted significant media comment which left a misleading impression that the Government had underfunded Commonwealth expenditure on roads by approximately $2.9 billion.

The facts are that the Commonwealth has spent far more on roads than has been distributed through the mechanism of the Australian Land Transport Development (ALTD) Act 1988. Coincidentally, a total of approximately $2.9 billion more has been spent since 1994–95 than would have been available solely from the operation of the ALTD Act. The difficult public debate led to the Department's performance coming under intensive scrutiny. Urgent and decisive action was required.

A range of response measures was taken. As Secretary, I commissioned a major review, with external participation, into the administration of the roads programs within DOTARS. I personally conducted a separate review of the personnel and disciplinary issues raised by the experience. An extensive report was put to the Minister on this matter.

As a result of each of these major reviews, as well as ANAO's recommendations about the program, a wide range of management and administrative improvements was put in train within DOTARS. These include:

  • improved alert mechanisms to highlight significant emerging issues for the attention of the Ministers;
  • improved processes for handling of, and briefing on, ANAO inquiries and reports;
  • a review of the quality of Departmental Chief Executive's Instructions;
  • revision of the Guidelines for Preparation of advice to Ministers;
  • revision of the Guidance to Staff on Obtaining Legal Services;
  • revision of the Records Management Manual;
  • consolidation of all departmental guidance material into a single accessible system; and
  • revised instructions to departmental SES about different aspects of their work performance.

In addition, I have met personally with groups comprising all SES officers and all Executive Level 2 officers within DOTARS to discuss the lessons we should learn from the experience. I am also meeting approximately weekly with small groups of staff across all levels of DOTARS and from all Divisions to reinforce the lessons. As a direct result of the ANAO audit experience, DOTARS has adopted ‘administrative excellence’ as one of three key performance improvement objectives that are highlighted in the Corporate Plan for the year ahead.

Another way to look at the question ‘Are taxpayers getting value for their investment in DOTARS?’ is to consider whether it is contributing on the broad public policy issues of current concern.

In the year under report, the Government's focus on regional Australia continued to be very sharp indeed. DOTARS provided support for the Government as it sought to respond to the needs and aspirations of regional Australian communities. This involved both initiatives within DOTARS, such as its design and administration of the highly successful Regional Solutions Program, as well as its catalytic role across other portfolios. In the latter role we sought to mobilise the attention and resources of the full range of relevant Commonwealth portfolios to improve economic opportunities and service levels throughout regional Australia. At year's end, we were working hard in support of the Government to produce a major Regional Policy Statement, which was subsequently released in late August. The Department also organised the highly successful Northern Australia Forum, and was directly involved in arranging assistance to victims of floods in eastern Australia.

Transport reform and safety issues continued to have a high profile in the public policy debate. In recent years, the rate of change in the transport sector has accelerated. This includes:

  • changes to ownership of major private sector transport infrastructure assets, including historic investments in the Alice Springs to Darwin railway, and major decisions on very fast train initiatives;
  • the progressive movement towards easier cross modal freight movements;
  • the increasing use of new intelligent transport systems;
  • rail and road freight transport reforms;
  • a new National Road Safety Strategy and action plan;
  • the new Roads to Recovery Program;
  • initiation of the Freight Transport Logistics Industry Action Agenda.

The Department's role in relation to these developments is to facilitate productive reform or investment in the interests of the nation.

Whether taxpayers are getting value for their investment in a department can also be gauged by the quality of arrangements for internal governance, leadership, management and administration. During the year DOTARS focused on improvement in each of these areas. This was because we believe that good results (the outputs for which the taxpayer funds us) are most likely to be delivered through good processes. Moreover, quality of process in a public sector agency is an important community expectation in its own right.

To ensure best practice, a major review of governance arrangements within DOTARS was launched. This review utilised the National Institute of Governance from the University of Canberra and will provide a governance template which, albeit relevant to any mainstream government department, is tailored to our own circumstances.

The year also saw a lot of activity to improve the quality of internal corporate services, while at the same time reducing the proportion of the Department's total budget allocated to these services.

Following an external audit, the Department was pleased to have its highly valued accreditation as an ‘investor’ in people confirmed. We radically revised the Secretary's Statement of Future Skills Requirements to better define the skills and requirements of most value to us now and into the future. Also in the area of people management, we launched a major initiative towards improved leadership and citizenship at all levels: the Leading in DOTARS Program.

A special focus this year has been on improving our information technology services and beginning the process of serious information management. We recognise that we need to be giving particular attention and resources to our information technology and knowledge management arrangements now, because in five to ten years time the new information technologies will have transformed will have transformed the administrative environment for both public and private sector organisations. We intend to make the most of the enormous opportunities which e-government and government online offer.

Value for taxpayer's money can also be assessed by a department's service to the Parliament and hence the community. In the year under report, DOTARS:

  • provided advice to the Ministers in relation to 769 parliamentary and parliamentary committee questions and 5743 ministerial representations;
  • dealt with 24 parliamentary committee reports and appeared before seven parliament committees and three senate estimates hearings; and
  • published 277 documents including the major Transport Directions series.

Ultimately, however, a Department's worth lies in its dynamism. We will continue to work in 2001–2002 to our revised objective ‘a better transport system for Australia and greater recognition and opportunities for local, regional and territory communities’.

Between the end of the reporting period and the presentation of this report, the environment has already changed dramatically. The tragic events in the United States of America of 11 September 2001 and the collapse of Ansett Airlines a few days later will have dramatic effects on the Department's work program and priorities for 2001–02. These effects will be felt well beyond the aviation industry, including in other transport sectors and regional policy. More than ever, the resources of DOTARS will be called upon to provide expert and responsive support for our Ministers.

May I take this opportunity to salute and thank the people of DOTARS. It is a cliché, but true nonetheless, that an organisation is only as good as the people who make it up. The people who make up the Department of Transport and Regional Services continually impress me with their professionalism, commitment, loyalty to the Government of the day, and willingness to go the extra mile.

In my view, the taxpayer's investment in DOTARS, an investment that mobilises the talents and commitment of such people, is a very good investment indeed.

Ken Matthews

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