‘We want to make evaluation a fundamental part of what government does’: the inside story of setting up the Australian Centre for Evaluation

By on 16/07/2023 | Updated on 21/07/2023
A picture of the Australian Treasury Building in Canberra.
A picture of the Australian Treasury Building in Canberra. Picture: Percita Dittmar from Canberra, Australia - Treasury Uploaded by Parkes

The Australian government, led by prime minister Anthony Albanese, has created a Australian Centre for Evaluation to improve appraisal of policy and delivery across departments. In an exclusive interview, Treasury minister Andrew Leigh tells Global Government Forum how the centre will work

The new Australian Centre for Evaluation (ACE) in the Department of the Treasury opened for business this month on 1 July.

The ACE will have eight staff members by the end of July and expects to have grown to 14 by October. Its immediate work will include seeking partnerships with government agencies to conduct impact evaluations on agreed priorities. This will be done using randomised trials and other rigorous evaluation methods.

The ACE will also work with agencies to embed high-quality evaluation plans in budget proposals and oversee efforts to improve evaluation capability across the Australian government. A new logo and website will be launched in late-August/early September.

Establishing the ACE is a key part of the Labor government’s plans to implement the recommendations of the 2019 Independent Review of the of the Australian Public Service (APS) – also known as the Thodey Review – which called for significant reform.

Read more: Minister vows to revive ‘mothballed’ Australian Public Service reform agenda

Under the Albanese government’s plans, the ACE will be used to run high quality evaluations, including randomised trials, to raise the quality of evaluations across government.

The Thodey Review found that the APS’s approach to evaluation “is piecemeal in both scope and quantity, and that this diminishes accountability and is a significant barrier to evidence-based policy making”.

It added: “The main responsibility for evaluations will continue to reside with individual agencies. But the central function should provide guidance and support for agencies on best-practice approaches.”

Dr Andrew Leigh, the assistant minister for competition, charities and Treasury and assistant minister for employment, who is responsible for implementing the ACE told Global Government Forum that a central unit like the ACE would “bring a level of expertise and rigor which has been absent from the system” and set the framework for “building evaluation right in the programme design”.

Filling ‘real gaps’ in government evaluation

There was consideration into setting up an evaluation unit purely for coordination and oversight, but Leigh explained  it was decided “there were real gaps” in doing high quality rigorous evaluation and good quality randomised trials in the Australian government.

“We want a unit that doesn’t just talk about evaluation, but actually does evaluation – so there will be a federal mandate, doing high quality evaluations in collaborations with different agencies,” he said.

Although there aren’t exact numbers for the amount of evaluations completed across the Commonwealth, the government’s AusTender procurement organisation estimates about A$50m ($33.3m) is spent per year on evaluations by private consultants. It is expected that the ACE, with a budget of just over A$2m ($1.3m) per year, could reduce this level of expenditure saving taxpayers’ money.

Whilst evaluations will continue to be conducted by government departments outside of the ACE, the plan is for agencies to approach the ACE for evaluations or the ACE itself will contact agencies.

Andrew Leigh, the assistant minister for competition, charities and Treasury and assistant minister for employment Photo: Andrew Leigh

“There will be coordination both at the political level, where there will be a range of conversations with ministerial colleagues about what programmes they think could be amenable to high quality evaluations; and for the public service secretaries discussing what programmes might be effectively evaluated,” Leigh said.

It is expected that the ACE will engage in a small number of flagship evaluations each year. Leigh suggested that early work could include trial evaluations in education, employment and overseas development assistance.

“We want to make impact evaluation a fundamental part of what the Albanese government does and ensure that we are building a better feedback loop right across government,” he added.

Australia’s May 2023 budget committed A$10m ($6.65m) over four years from 2023-24 for the ACE. The staff have come from the Department of the Treasury and other experts will be brought into the unit.

“There’s been strong interest from people outside who are evaluation experts in being involved. We want to tap the expertise that’s already here in the public service, but also academia,” Leigh explained, “There’s a range of people who’ve been doing evaluations, early childhood programs and international development programs, who we want to be using within the ACE.”

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The intention is that an APS evaluation profession within the public service will be valuable in creating an esprit de corps and building up expertise and skills sets that cut across agencies.

“The challenge for the ACE is showing early its capability to run the high-quality evaluations. That will then in turn make it attractive to other agencies to reach out and say: ‘we’d like to do an evaluation and we can’t think of anyone better to do it than the ACE’,” Leigh said.

The intention is to start with programmes that can be rigorously evaluated in a relatively short amount of time to provide the proof of concept that will show the ACE’s evaluations can add value. Leigh said the ACE won’t be looking at large scale evaluations that will cost tens of millions of dollars taking decades to complete.

“There might be opportunities to evaluate policies that have been in existence for a while and other opportunities to evaluate policies that are just started up. We are open to all of those options, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer,” Leigh added.

Implementing an whole-of-government approach to evaluation

With the opening of the ACE responsibility for evaluation policy and capability uplift was transferred from the Department of Finance to the Treasury.

One of the key roles of the ACE is to promote the Commonwealth Evaluation Policy (CEP), released in December 2021 as part of the aim to “embed culture of evaluation and learning from experience to underpin evidence-based policy and delivery”.

This was part of recommendation 26 of the Thodey Review. A Department of Finance spokesperson told Global Government Forum that since its introduction the CEP “established a whole-of-government policy approach to improve evaluation capability, practice and culture.”

The spokesperson explained: “Combined with the additional supporting guidance provided in the Commonwealth Evaluation Toolkit, this has increased awareness across the Australian Public Service about the need to plan for, and deliver, fit-for-purpose evaluation of policies, programs and services.”

The Commonwealth Evaluation Toolkit is a step-by-step guide available online to help understand evaluations and their importance, how to evaluate, provides templates and reference guides.

“The launch of the policy and toolkit has been supported by information sessions and workshops a supplemented by the development and cultivation of professional networks for public sector evaluation practitioners,” the spokesperson said.

In September 2022 the Commonwealth Evaluation Community of Practice (CoP) was launched as a way of bringing people together to support and promote better practice evaluation across the policy cycle. The CoP Terms of Reference state that it is open to all Australian government officials with a role or interest in evaluation that can access community events, discussion boards and a SharePoint Workspace. According to the Department of Finance the CoP membership has grown to over 400 people with representatives from around 70 entities and companies.

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About Tim Fish

Tim Fish is a government and defence journalist with experience in politics and global travel. With a MA degree in War Studies and work as reporter on public service publications, Tim has expertise and has written extensively on government and international security.

One Comment

  1. Peter Graves says:

    Thanks for this extensive background on Dr leigh’s plans for the ACE. As well as evaluation now being (yet again) a priority for the APS, it would be worthwhile also to examine whether the resulting “Evaluation Reports” are actually – or will be – used by Secretaries.

    During the APS’s “managing for results” era of the 1980s to 1996, there were regular evaluation plans and subsequent reports produced. But not then widely used in the management of those programs.

    A summary of this period provides a few lessons for 2023. It is available in: OECD Journal on Budgeting Volume 2011/3. © OECD 2011 The Performance Framework of the Australian Government, 1987 to 2011 by Keith Mackay. (Keith was the former SES 1 in charge of the Finance’s Evaluation Branch).

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