Australia's federal government auditor has found that departments were most likely to misuse confidentiality provisions to prevent public disclosure for contracts when they related to information and communications technology goods and services.
In a report published late last week, the Australian National Audit Office detailed a probe into 190 sample contracts from six agencies where confidentiality provisions had been used to prevent the deals being made public.
Despite the requirement for agencies to report contracts worth over $100,000, they are in some cases able to avoid this by claiming that doing so would threaten national security or reveal trade secrets of contracted companies.
The ANAO found that 73 of the contracts (or 53 per cent) had been incorrectly kept secret and did not in fact even contain confidentiality provisions.
With a total of $127 million, 40 of those 73 contracts, related to the acquisition of ICT products or services.
The ANAO found an even higher incidence of misuse of confidentiality provisions. While confidentiality can be employed to, for example, protect national security or prevent the disclosure of a supplier's profits margins under a contract, 73 per cent of contracts audited did not meet requirements for the usage of such provisions.
Of the six agencies' confidential contracts audited, Centrelink and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), two of the nation's largest purchasers of ICT goods and services, made up the bulk, with the two agencies responsible for 136 of the 190 contracts that were not publicly disclosed for confidentiality purposes.
In Centrelink's case, just 15 of the 66 it said contained confidentiality provisions actually did, while only half of DIAC's supposed confidential contracts contained such provisions.
Meanwhile 73 per cent of Centrelink's confidential contracts failed to meet the requirements for confidentiality according to the ANAO — a figure on par with DIAC, the Federal Court and the National Archives of Australia, which also had contracts audited.
The ANAO put the misuse of confidentiality provisions down to ignorance of the correct usage of confidentiality rather than an attempt to conceal expenditure; however, it was concerned that the misuse of confidentiality would undermine the Senate Order, used by government to review spending and direct government policy.
Other agencies audited were the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, and the Australian Research Council.