This article looks at some features of the new budget format from a user's perspective with a particular focus on the availability of information that Parliamentarians often seek.
The presentation of the 1999-2000 Budget Papers and associated documentation differs considerably from previous years because of the adoption of accrual accounting, and the move from the program structure to the outcomes and outputs framework. While implemented simultaneously, there is no necessary link between accrual accounting and the outcomes/output framework. Nonetheless, they share the goal of making government more accountable by increasing the transparency of departmental activities. The main two sources of information on the Budget remain the Budget Papers themselves and the Portfolio Budget Statements (PBS). The main features of the budget documents and the relationships among the Budget Papers and the Portfolio Budget Statements (PBS) are contained in the Guide to the Commonwealth Budget Papers 1999-2000. While Budget Paper No. 1 contains information at the aggregate level on portfolio activities, more detailed information at the portfolio and outcomes and outputs levels is mostly contained in Budget Papers Nos 2 and 4. They respectively contain information on budget measures (also contained in the PBS), and activities funded by Appropriation Bills Nos 1 and 2. The PBS also contain information on administered expenses which, on average, account for 75 per cent of expenses and are appropriated mainly under special (or standing) appropriations.
While providing information at the outcomes and outputs levels, the new format necessarily entails some loss of information. One is information on expenses on a functional basis. For example, it is not possible to derive spending for manufacturing industry as a whole as was contained previously in Budget Paper No. 1. A second example is where an agency pays for new computer equipment to be used agency-wide (i.e. across several outcomes). This has hitherto been identified separately but now cannot now be, as it is spread across different outcomes. Nor is it possible to identify separately the activities of particular organisations such as the Australian Geological Survey Organisation. Indeed, unless an agency has a separate appropriation, it is often difficult to find information on its activities, which are subsumed within the outcomes/output framework.
One of the major deficiencies of the new presentation relates to administered expenses. In the PBS, details of estimated expenses for 1998-99 are listed-including by the Acts under which special appropriations are paid-but no such listing is available for 1999-2000. Rather, the PBS show a total of estimated administered expenses. For example, DoFA's third outcome is an 'efficiently functioning Parliament'. The PBS contain details of estimated expenses for 1998-99 of $221.9 million. But the PBS do not contain similar information for 1999-2000; not even expenses incurred under six authorising Acts are shown. Rather, all that is shown is the estimated total of $221 million for 1999-2000. This lack of detailed information is a particular deficiency in the case of portfolios where administered expenses account for virtually all of their activities and spending.