I have been creating research tools which allow the public to explore government spending for the past decade at AusGov.info. These efforts currently focus on Commonwealth grants and now analyse the use of Ministerial Discretion in selecting recipients.
The data comes from grants.gov.au which is the whole-of-government repository that went online in January 2018, requiring all Commonwealth government agencies (aka Non-Corporate Commonwealth Entities) to regularly submit their most recent grants to that site for publication and as such, imposing a common set of fields and publication timetable across those grants.
Commonwealth tenders have been available in a similar repository for decades. It says something about the politicisation of grant administration and/or the inertia of whole-of-government change, that it took so long for such a uniform approach to be applied to grant decisions.
This is reflected in the lamentations of a 2008 Strategic Review of Discretionary Grants Programs commissioned by the Department of Finance:
...the amount of spending on discretionary grant programs by the Commonwealth Government is disputed and difficult to measure. The first element of this review revealed shortcomings in the availability of data on discretionary grant spending that makes it "impossible to compile a comprehensive and reliable picture of grant program activity across the Commonwealth".
I have been working with Commonwealth grants data since 2015 and took part in lobbying toward introducing the grant repository. Work such as mine is cited as reasons for increasing transparency in the publication of government spending decisions, however the decision to implement such a mechanism would have been preceded by a history that predated and dwarfs such individual efforts.
Prior to the establishment of the grants repository, each agency published grants on their own sites, choosing what information to include or leave out (with some limitations) and in different formats and on different timetables. This made research on grants published prior to 2018 very difficult.
This problem still exists with grants published by organisations like Sport Australia because the guidelines for publication required of these organisations are different to government agencies. This is due to them not being governed directly by the government and includes organisations like the ABC, Australia Post and Sport Australia. These organisations are Corporate Commonwealth Entities.
Grants made by Corporate Commonwealth Entities constitute a small fraction of all grants and they are not required to report their grants in the same way as is required of government agencies. However recent changes have come into effect due to the Sport Australia scandal. Where ministers intervene in selecting grant recipients, those specific grant decisions must now also be reported to grants.gov.au.
Since 2018, grants made by government agencies (Non-Corporate Commonwealth Entities) number over 133,000 covering more than a thousand programs.
Grants can be awarded in different ways depending on the needs of the program but regardless of the selection process advertised, Ministers can override that to direct grants to certain recipients. In addition to these sporadic interventions, there are also programs where every grant is made by Ministers.
Just less than a third of the programs published since 2018 have every grant decided by the Minister and another sixth of that number were decided largely by a different process with some decisions overridden by Ministers. The remainder and majority have no Ministerial Discretion reported for selection of recipients.
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