The extended and systematic campaign run by the right-wing media to smear the education component of the Government’s stimulus package came a cropper this morning — badly. The ANAO released its report on the primary schools component of the program and found… a successful and well-implemented program.
This is the program that The Australian has been attacking for twelve months as a scandalous waste of money. The conclusions of the ANAO’s performance review — when the auditors look at a program from top to bottom to see whether it has done what it was intended to do — fundamentally discredit a campaign that has formed a key part of News Ltd’s war on the Government.
The guts of the report — which the media was anticipating to be highly critical of the Government — is encapsulated in the following:
“The task facing DEEWR and Education Authorities was considerable, with infrastructure projects to be delivered in almost every school across the country within very compressed timeframes—as little as a third of the time usually set aside for school infrastructure projects. The program was also established within a new framework for intergovernmental program delivery that was untested for a program of this kind, and a coordination structure that added to the monitoring and reporting obligations on administering agencies.
“There are some positive early indicators that the program is making progress toward achieving its intended outcomes. Lead economic indicators, including construction approvals, show that the introduction of BER P21 contributed to a reversal in the decline in non‐residential construction activity that resulted from the global financial crisis. Education industry stakeholders, including peak bodies, Education Authorities and a substantial majority of school principals have also been positive about the improvement in primary school facilities that will result from the program.”
No performance review by the ANAO — and I’ve been through them — ever gives any program a complete tick. There’s always some suggestion of better administrative practice that the auditors propose, at the very least, even if the program has been effective in achieving its goals. In this case, the ANAO unusually makes no recommendations about what should have been done differently. But it does identify some issues, particularly around how the Department concerned, DEEWR, tried to balance being prescriptive, consultative, fast and flexible in dealing with state educational authorities:
“…in implementing a program of this kind there is a premium on sound governance which balances control and flexibility, and maintains clear lines of responsibility and accountability. DEEWR’s governance arrangements have ensured that BER P21 is delivering improved education facilities to almost all primary schools in Australia, in line with government policy objectives. Nevertheless, administrative decisions taken by the department in establishing BER P21, while designed to drive delivery of the program by Education Authorities, have unduly constrained the flexibility of authorities to determine how the program will be delivered within their jurisdictions.”
“some of the administrative arrangements put in place by the department were unduly complicated and time‐consuming for Education Authorities. It was open to the department to have adopted a more streamlined approach to program delivery in consultation with Education Authorities, while still meeting the policy objectives of the program.”
The auditors thought that DEEWR could have been less prescriptive and used the knowledge of state education authorities more than it did, despite extensive consultation with them. But the audit describes a tension between DEEWR’s desire to ensure the Commonwealth was getting value for money, and the often incomplete nature of the costings provided by state education authorities.
The ANAO carried out an extensive survey of school principals on the program, and the results form an appendix to the report. 29% of principals surveyed suggested they had concerns about value for money. But the ANAO actually says:
“…Education Authorities have employed a range of strategies in an effort to gain value‐for‐money from the use of program funding. For example, Education Authorities have generally engaged independent consultants to provide advice and assurance about procurement activity, including the engagement of independent quantity surveyors to assess project designs as detailed plans became available. A greater focus on the appropriateness of these strategies through consultation, while reducing as far as practicable the use of benchmarks and detailed rules, would have provided DEEWR with assurance while limiting the administrative workload on Education Authorities and the department.”
In short, the ANAO thought DEEWR rode the states too hard on the issue of value for money. It also noted:
“In many cases, concerns from principals and community members about value‐for‐money relate to a misunderstanding of the building standards Education Authorities are expected to adhere to in building education infrastructure. This was pointed out, for example, by the NSW Department of Education in its submission to the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee Inquiry into BER P21: “It should be noted that local quotes are often found to be competitive with those obtained through the Managing Contractors’ tender processes. However, there have been instances where local quotes have been presented to the BER Program Office which at first glance appear far less costly than their estimates but which on further examination did not represent value for money in terms of quality of the product required to meet the Schools’ Facilities Standards.”
Which destroys the credibility of the bulk of media stories about the program, which focussed on claims local builders could provide a cheaper project than those selected by educational authorities.
Among the questions was “are you confident BER P21 program funding will provide an improvement to my school, which will be of ongoing value to my school and school community?”
More than 95% of principals agreed or strongly agreed. Evidently they don’t read The Australian.