4. Electronic delivery of documents to the Parliament

The Committee’s inquiry into the continuing need for and suitability of the printing standards invited broader consideration of the extent to which the Parliament currently accommodates, and takes advantage of the effectiveness and opportunities offered by, an increasingly digital-first environment. This broader issue relates both to the costs of producing Commonwealth documents and value for money; and the handling, storage and accessibility of tabled papers, including documents in the PPS (terms of reference (b), (d), (e) and (f)).

The need to accommodate digital-first approaches

The submission of the Department of the Senate stated that in order to achieve the significant advantages to be gained from the online publication of the Parliament’s records, including enhanced scrutiny and accountability, it is also necessary to consider “the question of appropriate requirements for receipt and publication of tabled documents more broadly”.1
As discussed elsewhere in this report, the current printing standards are largely premised on the receipt of printed documents. While there remains a requirement for hard copies of documents to be used by parliamentarians and for archival purposes (that is, tabling copies), the current requirements and processes do not reflect the reality that the majority of documents presented to the Parliament are created digitally and accessed by most users online.

Provision of documents to the Parliament

The current processes for coordinating and managing documents presented to the Parliament are not well calibrated to the digital environment. For example, annual reports and other documents authored by executive departments and agencies are physically delivered to the chamber departments under embargo by the PM&C Tabling Officer. This process ensures there is a tabling copy and that parliamentarians are able to access hard copies of documents.
However, while the PM&C tabling guidelines require digital copies of tabled documents to be provided, these are generally provided only after a document has been tabled. This involves significant delays in the documents being available to parliamentarians and others who wish to access them on the APH website. Even in the case of the PPS, which has been a digital collection since 2013 (becoming a digital-only collection from 2017), there can be significant delays between the tabling of a document and it becoming accessible on the APH website.
The delay in documents being accessible on the APH website may not only create delays for parliamentarians and others wishing to access documents but also requires larger numbers of stock copies to be held by the departments in order to cater for potential demand. The submission of the Department of the Senate stated that:
so long as there are delays in providing digital copies, arbitrary numbers of printed documents remain necessary, so that senators and members may examine them and refer to them in debates and committee processes. It is therefore highly desirable that documents are received in digital form prior to, and available for publication at the time of, tabling in either House.2

Development of a digital delivery system for documents

The Department of the Senate drew attention to current efforts to develop and implement a system to facilitate the delivery of documents under embargo to the Parliament in digital formats:
the Senate department is working with other parliamentary and executive departments to develop a pathway for the delivery of government documents in digital format, for publication on a parliamentary repository.3
Referring to the exploratory discussions with DPS and the chamber departments, PM&C confirmed that “there is the potential for a significant move towards electronic tabling, perhaps better described as online publication of government documents that are tabled”.4
The Department of the Senate noted that a mandatory requirement for the provision of digital documents to the Parliament would promote executive accountability.5 This sentiment was supported by the Department of Parliamentary Services:
The transition to the ePPS provides important public benefit in providing direct and enduring access to information relating to the activities and role of the Australian Parliament and of the Executive Government6

Committee comment

The Committee acknowledges the progress Parliament has made in recent decades in relation to the online publication of its work, particularly the work of its committees. This has been a fitting response to the increasingly online environment in which the Parliament operates, and a clear demonstration of how digital approaches enhance scrutiny and accountability and drive productivity and efficiency gains through greater accessibility, portability and timeliness of Parliamentary information.
The Committee considers that the presentation of documents to the Parliament from ministers, departments and agencies is a critical accountability process, and the technical capacity of the Parliament to receive such documents in digital form, supported by appropriate administrative processes and requirements, is key to harnessing the benefits and efficiencies offered by the digital-first environment.
Therefore, in conjunction with the implementation of an interface that enables tabled papers, and in particular the ePPS, to be readily searched, priority should be afforded to current efforts to develop and implement a system of embargoed delivery of digital documents to the Parliament. This system would complement the provision of hard copy documents for tabling and their use by parliamentarians by ensuring that tabled documents are available online immediately. It may also provide a substantial foundation for moving towards digital tabling of documents (that is, without the need for provision of a hard copy for tabling), if the Houses were to approve any such arrangement in future.
A mandatory requirement for the provision of digital documents to Parliament prior to tabling would be necessary to ensure the effectiveness of the digital delivery system.
In this regard, the Committee notes that the Department of the Senate has received funding for a project to develop a system for the digital delivery of documents. The proposed project is in its early stages and an initial meeting between officers of the departments of the Senate, House of Representatives and Parliamentary Services has been held. The Committee endorses the project and the progress of work made so far.

Recommendation 4

That the parliamentary departments and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet develop a system for the embargoed delivery of digital documents to Parliament; and that once in place, the system be accompanied by a requirement for government departments to deliver digital documents prior to tabling.

  • 1
    Department of the Senate, Submission 8, p. 1.
  • 2
    Department of the Senate, Submission 8, p. 3.
  • 3
    Department of the Senate, Submission 8, p. 2.
  • 4
    Mr Peter Rush, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Committee Hansard, 22 June 2017, p. 3.
  • 5
    Department of the Senate, Submission 8, p. 2.
  • 6
    Department of Parliamentary Services, Submission 7, p. 1.

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