There can scarcely be a more important institution of state than its education department, Victoria’s acting auditor-general began his latest report in which he spills out his frustration and disbelief at the department’s continued failings.
“Yet despite its very reason for being, the department has failed to be a learning organisation for a long time,” VAGO’s acting head Peter Frost wrote of the litany of failures his office has identified since 2009 and over 27 audits. Nearly every function and capability of the Department of Education and Training has gone backwards in performance over the last 15 years, with the audits revealing what Frost described as a culture of complacency, defensiveness and siloing, where underperformance was often rewarded.
Frost struggled to find any area of the department’s administration that wasn’t flawed, but expressed the greatest concern over its leadership’s lack of ability to learn from past experiences. None of these failing are new to the department, he wrote. They keep popping up again and again, without change. Without changes to DET’s leadership, “any efforts to plan and deliver on its mission are unlikely to succeed.”
How do you fix a department with such ingrained problems? Frost says there are, despite DET’s track record, hopeful signs that began with relatively new secretary Gill Callister making an important statement to the Operation Ord investigation by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission. Organisational renewal is on the cards, Callister said. Frost liked what he heard:
“Rightly, these steps focus on addressing structural failings and developing a culture which supports good governance, accountability, collaborative decision-making and a focus on delivering outcomes. For the department, this should be nothing less than a root and branch exercise. In turn the secretary deserves nothing less than a capable, cohesively led ‘centre’ to successfully effect the reformation required to support schools to provide successful teaching and learning for our young citizens.”
It is too early to tell whether the measures will be a success, but deserve VAGO’s support, he wrote.
The avoidable issues that began entrenched problems
DET lacks strong leadership, has a poor culture of communication and does not work cohesively, Frost argued. “This severely weakens DET’s capacity to make informed strategic decisions, implement work plan actions successfully and monitor performance.”
The department’s reliance on committees makes it difficult to identify responsible executive officers and diminishes their accountability, with unclear processes and oversight making it difficult to determine whether they are operating effectively.
Varying quality in staff performance and development plans — and even instances of missing plans — means “it is not clear how DET ensures individual executive officers are being held accountable for delivering the work plan actions they are responsible for,” Frost said.
In addition, the department does not have a consistent project management framework to ensure its work plan actions are adequately implemented and overseen, with reporting “not always reliable”. This impedes its ability to adequately monitor whether its policies, programs and services are delivered on time, on budget and are achieving the desired outcomes.
The auditor-general’s office recommended that the department:
- reduces or streamlines its committee structure, assessing the number, role and performance of each committee;
- modifies the executive officer performance and development process to ensure sufficient performance oversight, including the development of an underperformance policy;
- introduces greater transparency around decision-making processes into its corporate management framework, including better documenting new project proposals and resource allocation;
- introduces a project management framework that reflects better practice and includes guidelines and templates for project management, implementation, monitoring and oversight;
- develops targets for the Education and Training Outcomes Framework, where applicable, so that progress and performance can be properly assessed;
- establishes a central repository for strategic program evaluations and applies the lessons learned from evaluations to current and future programs.