Lest we forget the unknown public servant, working away to better inform us

Have you ever wondered how much taxpayers’ money is wasted by our politicians and public servants? Do you hope that every dollar governments spend is fully accounted for?

And would you like it to be made public not just how much was spent on public servants’ wages, rent, grants, paperclips and other administrative expenses, but how much was being spent on each of the individual programs within education, health, police, courts, roads and all the other government departments?

Better yet, would you like to see what were the outcomes of all that spending on this program and that? That is, hard evidence on whether they were achieving their stated purpose, and by how much things were getting better or worse.

Detailed information on public spending is essential for making governments accountable to voters.
Detailed information on public spending is essential for making governments accountable to voters.Credit: Dominic Lorrimer

You don’t have to be keen personally to spend hours poring over the books to believe that such information must be made available for others to study: the government’s auditor-general, of course, but also the opposition, the media, nosey investigative reporters, academic experts, and even the special interest groups.

All this information is essential to making governments open and accountable to the voters. We take it for granted, but it’s essential to ensure the proper functioning of our democracy.

I’m pleased to tell you that all those things you’ve just agreed we need are being provided. But I need to remind you that 40 years ago, they weren’t.

In those days, government financial reports – state and federal – were a dog’s breakfast of facts and figures. If you were able to form a conclusion from them, it would probably have been wrong.

The accounts concealed about as much as they revealed. This was partly because no one had made the effort to make them more reliable and informative. And partly because this laxity made it easier for bureaucrats and politicians to fudge the figures, making things look better than they were.

But we’ve had much improvement since those bad old days. Many people have played a part in this reform, and much has happened under pressure from professional accounting bodies, the International Monetary Fund and the UN Statistical Commission.

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But if you were to single out one person who drove most of the many improvements over many years, it would be Don Nicholls.

Never heard of him? That’s the way he wanted it. He was a shy, self-effacing Treasury officer, who wore a cardigan in the office and always ate a long pink iced bun for lunch. He joined the NSW Treasury straight from school in 1948, he retired in 1990, and he has just died, at 93.

Don Nicholls, a former NSW and Victorian Treasury official who recently died, drove many improvements in governments’ financial reporting.
Don Nicholls, a former NSW and Victorian Treasury official who recently died, drove many improvements in governments’ financial reporting.

If he sounds boring, know this: when he told his first wife, a writer, that writing seemed easy, she challenged him to enter the SMH short story writing competition. He won it with a story about cricket.

Some people assume only second-class minds join the public service. They’re wrong, and never more so than in Nicholls’ case. He went to a selective school, Fort Street High (one of two I went to), gained an economics degree and an accounting qualification while working and, a year after he retired, he published the tome Managing State Finance, which became the Treasury bible.

Many public servants are intent on ensuring things are done the way they always have been, but Nicholls had a strategic mind and was always thinking of ways things could be improved.

These days, all the states produce multiple performance indicators for their many activities, on a uniform basis, collated and reported annually by the federal Productivity Commission.

Nicholls introduced “program budgeting” to Australian government accounting, and he also consolidated the NSW government’s accounts so they showed the “general government” sector separately from all the businesses it owned, plus a balance sheet outlining the state’s assets and liabilities. Money hidden from view in “special deposit accounts” was brought into the open.

Before Nicholls, the government didn’t even know the value of all the buildings, businesses and land it owned. Since the year dot, businesses have used “accrual” accounting to accurately match the amount they earned during a year with their expenses during that year.

It wasn’t introduced to state and federal government accounting until about 2000. Nicholls played a big part in this, insisting on uniform rules for the measurement of budget deficits and surpluses. (Federal Treasury, however, has stuck with the old “cash” accounting, so it can still fudge the figures.)

Nicholls’ influence spread throughout Australia because he was asked to conduct separate independent audits of the finances of the NSW, Victorian, Tasmanian and South Australian governments. He was, for a time, Victoria’s Treasury secretary.

A lot more Australians are indebted to his influence than they know.

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Source: Thanks smh.com