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Policy costing and budget analysis

The general election on 18 May 2019 had a major influence on our policy costing and budget analysis work during 2018–19. The period ahead of a general election typically sees an increase in demand for costings and budget analysis as parties work to settle their policy platforms. We experienced a surge in demand for costings as parties finalised their election platforms and requested updated costings following the release of budget updates. With an election announcement being a possibility for much of the year, this increase in demand was evident right from the start of the period. For the full 2018–19 year we responded to 2,970 requests, almost twice the number we delivered in the previous year.

Table 1 provides further information on the number of costing and budget analysis requests we responded to over the course of the year and in the previous year. This highlights the heightened activity in the fourth quarter of 2018–19 during the lead-up to the election and following the election as we prepared the election commitment report. Appendix B provides further detail on the PBO’s output of policy costings and budget analysis over the past five financial years.

Table 1: Completion of costing and budget analysis requests













Requests completed in period







Average time to completion (business days)







Median time to completion (business days)







* includes 427 costings prepared for the purpose of the election commitment report

Note: The table identifies the number of ‘options’ contained in requests completed by the PBO, noting that a single request can contain multiple options.

The demand for costings in the lead up to a general election demonstrates the importance parliamentarians place on having an accurate understanding of the impact on the budget of their potential election commitments. Parliamentarians use our confidential policy costing services during both their policy development phase and when finalising the policy details accompanying a specific announcement. As a result, almost all material policy announcements by non-government parties in the lead-up to the election had been previously costed by the PBO. This helped to focus public debate on the details and merits of each policy proposal, and largely avoided debate on the accuracy of individual costings. That parties used our costing services so intensively is evidence of not only the trust placed in us by parliamentarians, but also the expectations of the Australian public that policies will be costed before they are announced. In each case where a PBO costing was cited as part of a policy announcement, we checked the published information against the costing we provided to that parliamentarian and ensured that the PBO’s work had been accurately presented.

The relevance of the PBO’s contributions is demonstrated by the number of times we were mentioned in the media in the lead-up to the 18 May election (Figure 4):

Figure 4: Media mentions in 2018-19 Media mentions in 2018-19

In 2018–19, the PBO recorded 1,045 media mentions (2017–18: 1,023) across print, online and social media, television and radio, blogs and other media. These related to policy costings, PBO research and PBO functions more generally. Of the 387 media mentions during April and May 2019, approximately half were references to policy costings we had provided. Media mentions of our costing work usually indicated that the costing estimates were regarded as reliable and that the PBO is regarded as impartial and independent.

In an election year the funding we receive from government is supplemented so that
we can expand our resourcing to support the additional demand for our services. We employed several strategies to allow us to meet the heightened level of demand encountered during the 2018–19 year.

  • We expanded our participation in the Parliament of Australia graduate program by increasing the number of graduate placements we provided and increasing the length of these placements. This allowed us to temporarily expand our existing workforce while contributing to building the capacity of employees within the APS.
  • We engaged in secondment agreements with other Commonwealth agencies and parliamentary departments to temporarily increase our resourcing and access highly-skilled staff with relevant experience in costings, election monitoring and report drafting.
  • We re-balanced our internal resourcing to focus more on our costing and budget analysis work with an associated reduction in our research activity. This was supported by skills development activities, initiated in 2017–18, to ensure we had a highly-flexible workforce to respond to the changing demand.

Our ability to manage the additional workload, and the changing nature of that workload, is reflected in the completion times shown in Table 1 and Figure 5. As a consequence of the increased demand for our services, our average completion times during the first three quarters of 2018–19 were higher than the previous year. By the fourth quarter, additional staff were in place and a significant amount of our costing work related to ensuring that every election commitment was costed and included in our election commitment report (discussed above). By that time, we had generally either seen the costing previously or were aware of it through our monitoring of election announcements. This meant that we were able to very quickly prepare costings in quarter four to support the final party platform announcements by non-government parties and our post-election report publication. Our full-year average completion time was at a level consistent with previous years. This is a very strong achievement, considering the increased level of demand compared to previous years.

Figure 5: Median response time for policy costing and budget analysis requests Median response time for policy costing and budget analysis requests

There is significant variability in the complexity of the requests for costings that we receive. This results in our median completion times continuing to be much lower than our average (mean) completion times (see Table 1). We are able to respond to a large number of requests within a short period of time, with some highly-complex requests taking much longer.

Over this past year, we increased our engagement activities with parliamentary parties to allow us to manage the increased demand for our services and the increased complexity of some of these requests. We engaged on a weekly basis with parties with a significant number of active requests to ensure that we prioritised our effort on the requests that they considered most urgent. In doing this we also continued to use the framework that we outlined in our information paper, PBO costing processes, timeframes and prioritisation framework (released in February 2018) to prioritise the large number of requests we received.

During the caretaker period ahead of an election, the PBO is required to respond to, and make public, a request for costing a policy as soon as is practicable and we aim to respond within five business days. One request was received within the 2019 election caretaker period, which the PBO responded to within five business days. The parliamentarian subsequently clarified a component of the request, requiring the PBO to issue a revised response. The revised response was not provided within five days of the clarification. This was a result of the high volume of requests in progress at that time.

A cornerstone of our provision of trusted costing and budget analysis services to parliamentarians is our ability to maintain the confidentiality (where asked to do so) of those requests and our responses. We set ourselves the highest standards in this regard and have in place a range of controls, including information security awareness training, to ensure we meet this expectation. This allows parliamentarians to use us in the policy development process without the risk of the information becoming public, and enables the parliamentarian to release a final policy (with an understanding of its associated costs) once they are ready to. In 2018–19 we continued our outstanding record in this regard and did not breach the confidentiality of any requests.

The PBO conducts a survey of its parliamentarian stakeholders once in each term of Parliament to obtain feedback on our performance. A survey was not conducted in 2018–19 as one was undertaken in 2017–18. We continued, however, to hold regular discussions with our stakeholders to inform improvements to our services, and we received very strong appreciation for the quality and timeliness of our work. In particular, we received specific feedback from our stakeholders on the level of support we provided to them ahead of the 2019 election. We also engage directly with the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit (JCPAA), representing our stakeholder base of parliamentarians, to report on our costing and budget analysis request and completion data, and to discuss our performance.