Dubious grants and rubbery criteria keep political tool claims alive

By Stephen Easton

Monday September 19, 2016

If your agency’s grants program had few quality applications, a surplus of funds, and was widely seen as a political tool, what would you do? Return the excess funds? Lower the merit criteria?

Would it make a difference if the purpose of the grants was not its ostensible deliverable, but rather to foster a relationship with the recipients?

The Attorney-General’s Department was pinged last year for sloppy administration of funding grants in the dubious-impact Safer Streets program. Promises were made, but not kept, and the latest grants handout, called Living Safe Together, has repeated the same mistakes.

It’s part of the government’s efforts to prevent terrorism, intended to bolster its undercooked register of Countering Violent Extremism intervention services, but do good intentions override principles of good public administration?

At the request of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, the ANAO looked at “whether AGD had applied the lessons it advised the JCPAA that it learned” after it was sharply criticised for its handling of grants under the Safer Streets program.

The sloppy management uncovered in that audit fuelled claims that Safer Streets — a program to fund CCTV cameras based on the perception they reduce crime despite no good evidence to prove it — was a form of pork-barrelling.

According to the latest audit, published last week, the AGD has made some progress since last year but still has a long way to go:

“This is reflected by the continuing deficiencies in AGD’s approach to assessing the eligibility and merit of grant applications, as well as in the advice to decision-makers about those applications that should be funded and those that should be rejected.”

On the positive side, the auditors note the department got some basics right. They commend its timely and “reasonably effective” program design. Published guidelines described a “robust assessment process” with “well-designed merit criteria” but the problem is it wasn’t followed.

Some of the steps in the guidelines were not undertaken and “an additional, unpublished, assessment process [was] employed” at the same time. The actual process of selecting grant recipients and awarding the funding had significant flaws, the audit found:

“Of note was that AGD departed in some important respects from the assessment approach set out in the programme guidelines.

“Only 21 of the 42 recommended and approved applications should have been successful (totalling funding of $1 million of the $1.9 million awarded) had AGD only recommended eligible applications that had been scored as satisfactorily meeting the published merit criteria.”

Perhaps the issue was the bar was set too high, or there just weren’t enough quality applicants, and the department felt the money had to go somewhere. The guidelines said applications had to meet an initial merit criterion to proceed to a full assessment for grant eligibility.

“AGD allowed 46 of the 59 applications that did not satisfactorily meet that criterion to proceed to a full assessment. As a result, four of those 46 applications that had scored poorly against the key policy criterion were approved for funding in April 2015, and a further six were approved by the Minister for Justice in June 2015.”

The report suggests communication with applicants was inadequate about the intention to have recipients of Living Safe Together grants register their availability as service providers in the small, specialised field on the Countering Violent Extremism Directory.

While “a key purpose of awarding grants was to have funding recipients register for the [Countering Violent Extremism] CVE Directory” the AGD failed to explain this clearly to LST funding applicants.

Tender documents provide some information on the directory but a website that once explained it has been taken down and according to the audit: “AGD advised the ANAO in December 2015 that the CVE Directory was ‘being re-scoped as a broader mapping exercise.”

One grant was declined, and 13 of the remaining 41 recipients told AGD they would participate in the CVE Directory, two refused and the other 26 had not made their intentions known when the audit was conducted.

Before it began soliciting applications, the department should also have developed “recipient reporting and acquittals processes” and an evaluation plan, the report suggests.

Department’s response

The AGD accepts the audit’s sole recommendation that it needs to address “continuing deficiencies” in the way it assesses the eligibility of applications for Commonwealth grants and the way it informs the decision-maker on their relative merits. But it believes the LST program was still “successful in meeting its critical policy objective” and told ANAO:

“The department is satisfied that all grant recipients recommended for funding met this policy objective, and that all except one are expected to have achieved their milestones and developed, by the conclusion of the project, the capacity to deliver an intervention service.”

It accepts a need to better document “deliberative decision-making processes” as well as to “establish clear and measurable thresholds for assessment of eligibility” the next time it has bundles of cash to hand out.

While it didn’t’ really learn its lesson last time as well as it promised, the department says it will respond to the new audit by “reviewing and updating its guidance material and training” with regard to the new recommendations. After the Safer Streets audit, AGD says it took several measures:

“It is now mandatory for all staff working in grants administration line areas to be trained in the use of the department’s grants administration ‘tool kit,’ which includes the Guide to Grant Administration, Gap Analysis Checklist, help cards and a suite of standard templates and documents available from the department’s internal data base.”

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