Back in August last year, political historian Rob Carr suggested the federal government’s Safer Streets program was nothing more than pork-barrelling in electorates held by the Coalition, pointing out there was little research to support it.
Carr was writing in The Saturday Paper, which was recently described in Estimates as “articulately written” by the well-read Attorney-General George Brandis, whose department has now been sharply criticised for its administration of the program by the Australian National Audit Office.
The pork-barrelling accusation was also levelled by Labor MPs, particularly shadow justice minister David Feeney, who asked the ANAO in July 2014 to take a look at the program, which spent tens of millions mostly on closed circuit television and street lights in what were described as “crime hotspots” by the Coalition.
Feeney was concerned about the way the program was established, how projects were being selected and eligibility for the funding, suggesting the selection process lacked political neutrality. After making preliminary enquiries with the Attorney-General’s Department, Auditor-General Ian McPhee decided to audit.
McPhee found program guidelines “provided a reasonable basis for the implementation” of the first round of the $50 million program, which quarantined $19.3 million to fund specific election promises:
“This included specifying eligibility criteria and other eligibility requirements that were consistent with the programme objectives, and setting out six selection criteria that were appropriate for the first round.”
But he found several “significant shortcomings” in how AGD implemented its eligibility checks and application assessments making funding recommendations to Justice Minister Michael Keenan. The audit found “the merit assessment process … was handled particularly poorly by the department”:
“Under the grants administration framework, selection criteria are applied to assess all eligible, compliant applications in order to determine their merits against the operational objectives of the granting activity. As the first Safer Streets programme funding round operated through a closed, non-competitive process, candidate proposals were not required to be ranked according to which of them had demonstrated the greatest merit. Rather, the task for the Attorney-General’s Department was to be satisfied that only those eligible proposals that met the six criteria to a satisfactory level were recommended for funding.”
This did not happen. AGD often completed its assessments without all the information and without fully addressing the criteria. According to ANAO:
“Instead of pursuing the information that applicants had not provided or assessing the application as not satisfactorily meeting the relevant criterion, the department made generous assumptions about the quality of many of the proposals that had been submitted for assessment.”
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This included making assumptions that: projects were located in crime ‘hot spots’ or that there was otherwise a need for the project; the project would result in reduced levels of crime without this being evident from the application; or that a grant would provide a value‑for‑money return to the Commonwealth notwithstanding (for example) that the department was unaware of the number of CCTV cameras that would be installed for the amount of grant funding sought.”
This generous approach meant AGD told Keenan to give the money to all but one applicant. The risks and weaknesses that were identified in applications were not sufficiently relayed to the minister, nor the limitations of the department’s assessment process.
Later, the audit report’s summary states:
“… it was common for the department to assign criteria scores of five out of 10 or more to applications notwithstanding that the assessment records had outlined that insufficient information had been obtained to properly inform the department’s work. In these circumstances, assessors often recorded that they had made assumptions about the application, rather than pursuing (or further pursuing) the information that applicants had not provided so as to make an objective assessment against the relevant criterion, or assessing the application as not satisfactorily meeting the relevant criterion.”
The audit also found “shortcomings” in funding agreements that have been signed by the department:
“Of particular note is that it has been common for agreements to not adequately set out what the proposed project would deliver and where. This situation makes it difficult for the department to adequately oversight the delivery of the funded projects, or to assess whether those projects have been successful in preventing, detecting and deterring crime in crime ‘hot spots’.”
These funding agreements “…will not allow the department to adequately oversight the delivery of funded projects, and assess whether those projects have been successful in preventing, detecting and deterring crime.” The audit office also points out that a lot of work has been done on the grants administration framework since 2007, and AGD should have applied it:
“Under this framework, a broad range of material was available to inform the design and implementation of grant programmes such as the Safer Streets programme, including: the Commonwealth Grant Guidelines (now the Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines) and associated guidance issued by the Department of Finance; the ANAO’s grants administration Better Practice Guide and various performance audit reports of individual grant programmes; and Parliamentary Committee reports (particularly those produced by the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit).”
According to ANAO, the government announced funding for nearly 56% of the Safer Streets projects before the department had even received or assessed the applications. The AGD has agreed to four of McPhee’s five recommendations.
Top photo: Safer Streets promotional photo from Liberal MP for Deakin Michael Sukkar (middle right) with Justice minister Michael Keenan (middle left).