Building the Education Revolution - Primary Schools for the 21st Century
The audit objective was to examine the effectiveness of the department's establishment of the P21 element of the BER program. The focus of the audit was on: the establishment of administrative arrangements for BER P21 in accordance with government policy; the assessment and approval of funding allocations; and the arrangements to monitor and report BER P21 progress and achievement of broader program outcomes. An examination of individual BER P21 projects was outside the scope of the audit.
1. The onset of the global financial crisis in 2008 caused a severe loss of confidence, not only in the financial sector, but also in households and businesses around the world. The crisis has been attributed to a range of factors including: the sudden end of the United States housing boom; novel debt financing arrangements; and weaknesses in regulatory oversight. The result was a period of worldwide economic downturn and a prospect of rising unem¬ployment in many countries.
2. In response, many governments around the world have adopted fiscal measures to support employment and economic recovery. There has also been coordinated international action through the Group of Twenty (G-20) countries, of which Australia is a member, to provide liquidity, address regulatory deficiencies, unfreeze credit markets and ensure that international financial institutions are able to provide support for the global economy.1
3. Domestically, the Australian Government announced a series of stimulus measures in late 2008 and early 2009. The largest was the $42.1 billion Nation Building and Jobs Plan, announced on 3 February 2009. To oversee the implementation of the Plan, the Government established a network of jurisdictional and sectoral coordinators headed by a Coordinator-General within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.2
4. The largest component of the Nation Building and Jobs Plan is the delivery of school infrastructure under the Building the Education Revolution (BER) program. The Government decided on school-based infrastructure spending because it has a number of elements that supported stimulus objectives, including:
- it has the advantage of providing stimulus to almost every population area of the country, as the economic slowdown was expected to be geographically widespread;
- school land is available immediately without the need for planning approval, hence no planning delays were envisaged; and
- school infrastructure projects have low import content, which raises the domestic stimulatory impact.3
5. The objectives of the BER program are first, to provide economic stimulus through the rapid construction and refurbishment of school infrastructure and, second, to build learning environments to help children, families and communities participate in activities that will support achievement, develop learning potential and bring communities together.4
6. The program comprises three elements:
- Primary Schools for the 21st Century (P21), which initially provided $12.4 billion (later, $14.1 billion) for Australian primary schools to build iconic new facilities, such as libraries and multipurpose halls, or to upgrade existing facilities, by 31 March 20115;
- National School Pride, which provided $1.3 billion for minor capital works and refurbishment projects in all eligible Australian schools, to be completed by February 2010; and
- Science and Language Centres, which initially provided $1 billion (later, $821.8 million) for construction of new, or refurbishment of existing, science laboratories or language learning centres in secondary schools by 30 June 2010.
7. The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) was given responsibility for implementing the program, working through state and territory education departments and Block Grant Author¬ities (collectively referred to as ‘Education Authorities') to facilitate the achievement of program outputs and outcomes. These Education Authorities are responsible for implementing the program in government and non-government schools respectively, including responsibility for ensuring that individual projects achieve value-for-money.6
8. The BER program is being delivered under the new federal financial relations framework through the National Partnership Agreement (NPA) on the Nation Building and Jobs Plan: Building Prosperity and Supporting Jobs Now.7 The NPA sets out high level governance arrangements for delivery of the BER program in partnership with the states and territories, including: outputs and outcomes; roles and responsibilities; and performance benchmarks. The devolved delivery of the program by Education Authorities has been governed by the establishment of bilateral agreements with state and territory governments and funding agreements with non-government Education Authorities. These documents were drafted by DEEWR and are supported by BER Program Guidelines, with implementation plans submitted by Education Authorities to outline their delivery approaches.
9. The audit objective was to examine the effectiveness of the department's establishment of the P21 element of the BER program. The focus of the audit was on: the establishment of administrative arrangements for BER P21 in accordance with government policy; the assessment and approval of funding allocations; and the arrangements to monitor and report BER P21 progress and achievement of broader program outcomes. An examination of individual BER P21 projects was outside the scope of the audit.
10. The Building the Education Revolution (BER) program formed a major part of the Australian Government's response to the global financial crisis. At $12.4 billion (later, $14.1 billion), the P21 element of the BER program represented a doubling of recent levels of capital investment in schools and the single largest component of the Government's economic stimulus package.
11. BER P21 is a large, high profile program that required rapid establishment to maximise its stimulatory effect. In order for fiscal stimulus measures to have the desired stimulus effect on the economy, they need to be implemented expeditiously to ensure that the additional stimulus flows quickly into aggregate demand. Where infrastructure and public capital works projects can be implemented quickly, Treasury has advised that they are likely to boost aggregate demand in the short term and add to productive capacity over the longer term.8 The focus on quick implementation needed to be balanced with the objective of delivering quality, sustainable and value-for-money primary school infrastructure.
12. Establishment of the BER program involved what the Prime Minister described as a: ‘feat of national organisation and planning [that] we haven't seen since the ‘40's.' 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.
13. 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.
14. To meet the challenging timeframe for the establishment of BER P21, DEEWR moved to ensure that governance and delivery arrangements were in place promptly. The department established a BER Taskforce to develop governance and delivery arrangements. This work comprised: drafting the BER Guidelines (publicly released in late February 2009) and negotiating bilateral/funding agreements with all Education Authorities (executed by mid-April 2009). Within six months from the program's announcement, DEEWR completed three funding rounds, approving 10 700 BER P21 projects in around 8000 schools. This represented a substantial body of work undertaken in a compressed timeframe.
15. The BER Guidelines, which were released in February 2009 and subsequently amended in August and September 2009, established targets applying to Education Authorities in relation to the commencement of BER P21 project activity.9 On the basis of these targets, which were developed following consultation with Education Authorities, DEEWR has advised that around 78 per cent of BER P21 projects met commencement targets.10 Construction on BER P21 projects has, however, progressed more slowly than originally intended by governments. Under the NPA, construction commencement milestones were established for each funding round, with all BER P21 projects to have commenced construction by 1 December 2009. Of the 10 700 approved BER P21 projects, 1995 projects (18.6 per cent) met the construction commencement milestones originally agreed by governments for each funding round.11
16. The original government decision, and subsequent BER Guidelines, also established completion milestones for BER P21 projects, according to school size. Up to 18 months was allowed for the completion of projects in schools larger than 150 students, with seven months allowed for the completion of projects in smaller schools with 150 students or less. Eligibility for BER P21 funding was conditional on schools meeting agreed commencement and completion milestones for building works. While the majority of milestones for project completion are yet to be reached, smaller schools in Rounds 1 and 2 of BER P21 were required to have completed their projects by 20 January 2010 (452 projects) and 28 February 2010 (1630 projects) respectively. DEEWR has advised that only 15 per cent of Round 1 projects (68 projects) and 8 per cent of Round 2 projects (131 projects) in smaller schools have been completed by the respective milestones set by the Government. Education Authorities have been able to seek extensions to the completion dates for BER P21 projects on a case-by-case basis. DEEWR has advised that 250 Round 1 projects (55 per cent) and 260 Round 2 projects (16 per cent) have had an extension to their completion milestones approved. This means that 34 per cent of Round 1 projects and 9.6 per cent of Round 2 projects have been completed in accordance with revised milestones.
17. In establishing the program, the Government decided on funding maxima per school depending on school size, and allocated $12.4 billion to BER P21. However, within six months of announcing BER P21, the Government found it necessary to allocate a further $1.7 billion to the program. Essentially, the original BER P21 budget was based on an underlying assump¬tion that BER P21 as a whole would be completed for 90 per cent of the cost of providing the maximum funding for each school. In establishing the program, the approach adopted made maximum per school funding available to all schools. As was evident to DEEWR at the outset, this approach would require greater overall funding than had been formally approved by government. In the normal course of events, particularly when the increase in funding is likely to be substantial, administering agencies would be expected to return promptly to government to outline the case for additional funding and seek formal approval. However, in the case of BER P21, Ministers comprising the Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee of Cabinet (SPBC) advised that they understood schools would be able to undertake a project or a number of projects to fully utilise the amount of funds allocated to the school based on school size; they were aware from the outset that the BER P21 funding envelope represented only 90 per cent of possible expenditure; and it was therefore evident and transparent to SPBC ministers that, depending on the response of schools, a budget estimates variation may be required. Ultimately, additional funds for the program were reallocated by the Government in August 2009 through an estimates variation from the budgets of other economic stimulus measures, including by reducing the Science and Language Centres element of the BER program, and from an existing DEEWR appropriation. In addition, the Government decided to reduce the funding for the social housing program and to close the Low Emission Assistance Plan for Renters (both programs under the National Building and Jobs Plan), and collectively these decisions provided $1.4 billion in offsetting savings to the additional funding for BER P21.
18. The establishment of the BER program, in the context of the financial crisis and need for a prompt government response, meant that implementation issues were more likely to arise due to the limited time available for policy development and program planning. This was acknowledged by the Government at the time delivery arrangements were announced. It was, therefore, important for DEEWR to develop effective arrangements for collaboration both with other Commonwealth agencies and with the Education Authorities responsible for delivering the program.
19. Consequently, 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 to achieve the intended objectives and increased the administrative effort necessary to deliver the program.12
20. A concern to treat all participants in a comparable manner, given the policy focus on individual Australian primary schools, led the department to adopt a largely uniform approach to govern its relationships with government and non-government Education Authorities. These authorities are responsible for large school systems (such as government schools), small school systems (such as Catholic schools), and independent schools. The department used contracts, program guidelines and administrative decisions to establish a range of program-specific rules and requirements to influence the delivery activities of Education Authorities.
21. The adoption of this approach for states and territories expanded DEEWR's role in service delivery and, as such, was not in step with the thrust of recent reforms to the delivery of intergovernmental programs—that is to reduce prescriptive rules on how services are delivered through a focus on mutually agreed outputs and outcomes. While designed to give effect to the objective of the stimulus package, the approach adopted by the department has reduced the capacity of school systems to take account of system priorities and the differing needs of schools in their systems, within the Australian Government's policy parameters for the program. Additionally, 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.
22. As BER P21 has been established, the ANAO has not made any recommendations to DEEWR concerning the implementation of the program. Nevertheless, the findings from this audit underline the need for departments to keep in view the balance between control and devolution in implementing an NPA under the new federal financial relations framework, compared to previous requirements. The audit also recognises that many of the issues arising were a function of the compressed timetable for the establishment of the program, given the prevailing economic downturn.
Key findings by chapter
Institutional arrangements (Chapter 2)
23. Delivery of programs that span Commonwealth, state and territory jurisdictions has been the subject of recent Council of Australian Government (COAG) reforms. The reforms aimed to enhance public accountability for service delivery by clarifying roles and responsibilities between levels of government and improving collaboration. Rather than dictating how things should be done, the new framework focuses on the achievement of mutually agreed outputs and outcomes, providing the states and territories with increased flexibility in the way they deliver services to the Australian people. These aims were articulated in an Intergovernmental Agreement endorsed by COAG, with further high level guidance on BER program roles, responsibilities and monitoring arrangements provided under the National Partnership Agreement on the Nation Building and Jobs Plan. The NPA, which was prepared by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, incorporated more elaborate oversight and monitoring arrangements than adopted for other national partnerships due to the need to ensure timely implementation in support of stimulus objectives.
24. In developing the governance arrangements for the BER program, it was important for DEEWR to strike an appropriate balance between: the use of controls to ensure widespread economic stimulus activity across all regions through the construction of quality school infrastructure; and the flexibility needed by Education Authorities to determine the most appropriate delivery approaches to achieve outputs and outcomes at the local level within the overall objectives set for the program. Flexibility was important given the compressed timeframes established for the completion of BER P21 projects. It was also important for DEEWR's governance arrangements and program rules to take account of the differences between government and non-government Education Authorities, specifically the way in which school systems and independent schools are managed. This was necessary to ensure that arrangements and rules were tailored to support the delivery of infrastructure at each school, in accordance with the Government's policy parameters for BER P21, taking into account the range of delivery models that exist for education. A further consideration was the need to quickly adopt arrangements that catered for the intended stimulatory effect of the program and that were, as far as practicable, aligned with the standardised monitoring and reporting arrangements established for infrastructure programs under the Nation Building and Jobs Plan by the Coordinator-General.
25. There has been some inconsistency between arrangements generally outlined and agreed between governments, and the detailed arrangements established by DEEWR to deliver BER P21. While the department has indicated that it has employed a partnership model focusing on BER P21 outputs and outcomes in accordance with government reforms, it has increasingly used prescription to direct how Education Authorities deliver the program through the incorporation of detailed rules in the bilateral/funding agreements and guidelines, and additional monitoring and enforcement of compliance with those rules.13 While generally there is a natural tension between funding bodies and funding recipients regarding the balance of control and flexibility in administrative arrangements, concerns about the level of prescription imposed by DEEWR in its management of the program have been highlighted by all government Education Authorities.
Developing program rules (Chapter 3)
26. Working within the parameters established by government and the NPA, DEEWR quickly established a framework for implementing the program in the form of bilateral/funding agreements and program guidelines. Education Authorities expressed varying degrees of satisfaction with the consultation undertaken at the outset by DEEWR to inform the development of the initial program guidelines.
27. Education Authorities recognised that the tight timeframes for imple¬menting BER P21 precluded the opportunity for the type of consultation usually associated with designing an initiative of its size and complexity. They advised the ANAO that, overall, the guidelines provided a workable framework for delivery of the program. However, there were features of the guidelines, and subsequent revisions to them, that have created difficulties for Education Authorities. These included ambiguous definitions, operational rules not clearly stated, and detailed levels of prescription and control over funding allocation decisions.14 Some of these features have imposed an additional administrative burden on Education Authorities.
28. Generally, Education Authorities representing school systems (both government and non-government) informed the ANAO that they would have appreciated greater flexibility in the guidelines. A common criticism among non-government Education Authorities was that many difficulties could have been avoided if DEEWR had more effectively capitalised on the practices and knowledge within the department in the delivery of capital grants programs used to improve capital infrastructure. In addition the department had not established clear controls over the endorsement of changes to operational rules. As a result, there have been several occasions where the department introduced rules or rule changes that resulted in significant difficulties for Education Authorities, which required subsequent amendment or removal.15
29. Reflecting the time-constrained nature of the program DEEWR relied upon face-to-face meetings, regular teleconferences, phone and email to respond to queries and disseminate decisions quickly. Almost universally, Education Authorities considered departmental officers to be approachable, professional and responsive in dealing with these issues as they arose. With minimal additional effort, the department could have improved its documentation and dissemination of decisions made through these channels. DEEWR advised the ANAO that it has worked to improve its methods for communicating administrative decisions, including through the release of guidance memoranda to Education Authorities.
Assessing and approving funding allocations (Chapter 4)
30. The broad parameters of BER P21 were set by the original govern-ment decision, and the subsequent NPA, which was established within a framework for reform of Australia's federal financial relations system. These specified the indicative funding allocations attracted by schools of various sizes, and provided guidance about how funding allocations to Education Authorities and schools should be determined, including the level of flexibility that would be provided to Education Authorities to prioritise the use of available funding.
31. Within that framework, DEEWR was required to develop administrative rules to govern the allocation of funding to Education Authorities and their schools. To work effectively, it was necessary for those rules to provide a basis for accountability to the agreed parameters and objectives of the program while at the same time providing sufficient flexibility for Education Authorities to exercise their judgement about how these could best be achieved.
32. The delivery framework agreed by governments and existing government policies allowed scope for DEEWR to provide a degree of flexibility to Education Authorities to prioritise the use of available funding.16 This would have allowed the department to take account of demographic trends, age and quality of existing infrastructure and other factors within their planning frameworks while still meeting the Government's priorities for types of project and distribution and timing of stimulus. The approach adopted, and reflected in the BER Guidelines, has, however, unduly constrained Education Authorities' ability to exercise their judgement about funding priorities across school systems within overall objectives set for the program. This flowed from the strong emphasis on point-in-time student numbers as a basis for determining funding allocations and constraining the ability of education systems to allocate funding according to need; for example, to account for schools with growing or diminishing enrolments or with above or below average education facilities. This increased the likelihood of disparities between funding outcomes for schools with similar enrolments, but which fell into different enrolment bands or which fell into the same band but had different funding needs.
33. Requiring Education Authorities to obtain agreement from school principals to allocate funding less than the funding amounts indicated by their enrolments, or to reallocate unneeded funding to other schools, reduced the ability of school systems (such as government schools) to establish appropriate priorities for the investment across their systems within the policy parameters set by the Australian Government. The decision to delegate to employees (school principals) the authority to veto decisions made by their employers (school systems), introduced a model of accountability that runs contrary to existing arrangements for the delegation of decision-making authority within school systems. On some occasions this has resulted in conflict between principals and their system managers about funding entitlements and priorities, which has created some controversy and attracted negative publicity to the program.
Funding the program (Chapter 5)
34. When the Government announced BER P21 in February 2009, the program was expected to cost $12.4 billion. However, in August 2009, the Government found it necessary to allocate a further $1.7 billion to the program.
35. There was an inherent tension between the Government's policy intention of making maximum payments available to all schools and the total funding provided in its original decision. If all or nearly all schools applied for the maximum available funding amount per school announced in February 2009, then the cost of the program would have exceeded the funding originally allocated. However, the ANAO has been advised that, at the time of the decision on the BER program, SPBC ministers were aware that the BER P21 funding envelope represented only 90 per cent of possible expenditure. Further, ministers advised that they had never intended to hold expenditure to an average 90 per cent of maximum amounts available to each school and that they had envisaged that a budget estimates variation may be required to provide more funding, depending on the response of schools.
36. During the development of the policy proposal, different views on the likely funding requirements flowed from different assumptions about how the program would operate. DEEWR, Finance and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (which was closely involved in finalising advice to ministers) did not clarify and agree policy parameters for the proposal before the costing was finalised. Consequential misunderstanding of the costing basis ensued.
37. DEEWR set about implementing the program with a view to allowing all schools access to maximum funding and it was aware, at the outset, of the demands for additional funding which would inevitably arise. In the normal course of events, administering agencies would be expected to return promptly to government to outline the case for additional funding and seek formal approval. However, in the case of BER P21, as indicated above, SPBC ministers have provided advice indicating that they were aware from the time of their original decision of the likelihood that an estimates variation may be required to provide more funding.
38. Ultimately, the need for the additional funding provided by the Government in August 2009 arose from most schools having sought the maxi¬mum payments available. It did not flow from any deficiencies identified in the procurement processes or other activities of Education Authorities in delivering the program, nor was it the result of more schools seeking to participate than had originally been forecast.
Performance monitoring and reporting (Chapter 6)
39. The responsibility for monitoring and reporting performance under the Nation Building and Jobs Plan is shared at the Commonwealth level by the Treasury, the Coordinator-General and DEEWR. The Treasury has responsibility for modelling and reporting on the economic effect of the plan, as well as other stimulus measures. The Coordinator-General is responsible for overall monitoring of the plan and performance reporting, with the monitoring of each element under the plan assigned to administering agencies—DEEWR in the case of the BER program.
40. The Coordinator-General established an economic stimulus plan reporting framework by early April 2009, following consultation with jurisdictional coordinators-general and sectoral coordinators. The framework required administering agencies, including DEEWR, to report against a range of measures. This, in turn, required DEEWR to obtain regular progress reports from Education Authorities.
41. To inform its monitoring and compliance activities and meet its reporting obligations to the Coordinator-General, DEEWR developed a Building the Education Revolution Monitoring and Performance Information Plan and associated framework. The department commenced development of the plan in July 2009, with the plan finalised in late 2009. The reporting arrangements established by DEEWR under its plan were broadly consistent with the requirements of the Coordinator-General. However, the department has sought, through monthly reports, some project delivery information from Education Authorities that would be more appropriately obtained through implementation plans, consultation with authorities, and risk-based compliance work. This approach would ensure that DEEWR gained appropriate assurances over project delivery strategies employed by Education Authorities, while focusing routine reporting on the measurement of program progress. Further, the plan and framework were not in place sufficiently early to inform the department's initial consultations with the Coordinator-General on the appropriateness of monitoring arrangements, or to guide departmental monitoring activity over the establishment and early implementation phases of BER P21.
42. The design of the monitoring arrangements agreed between the Coordinator-General and DEEWR for BER P21 did not adequately reflect the devolved nature of the program implementation or acknowledge that detailed monitoring at the project level is most suited to arrangements between Education Authorities and schools. Under current arrangements, Education Authorities have provided DEEWR with a broad range of data, some of which the authorities were not well placed to collect or interpret, which the department and the Coordinator-General have been unable to use effectively to inform an assessment of program progress. A substantial majority of Education Authorities questioned the usefulness of some of the monitoring arrangements they were expected to undertake for the BER program. In particular, arrangements established to monitor the effect of the BER program on employment have relied on data collected at the project level. This data cannot be aggregated in any meaningful way to inform an assessment of progress against BER program employment outcomes that would complement the macroeconomic modelling for the broader Nation Building and Jobs Plan undertaken by the Treasury. In instances such as this, where it has not been possible to obtain valid data to effectively assess progress against measures and outcomes established for the BER program in Schedule D of the NPA, it would have been prudent for DEEWR, in consultation with the Coordinator General, to advise government accordingly.
43. While there have been a number of reports produced on the BER program to date, including those prepared by the Coordinator-General and DEEWR, in addition to information reported directly to parliamentary hearings, these reports have not specifically assessed performance against measures established under the NPA. As a consequence, the reported performance does not provide stakeholders with insights into key stimulus indicators, such as the amount and timing of BER P21 funds that have been injected into the economy or the number of jobs created in local communities under BER P21. Furthermore, some of the indicators of program performance used by DEEWR and program stakeholders, such as the small number of concerns or complaints received by the department about the program, presented a limited measure of program performance.
Indicators of program progress (Chapter 7)
44. The size of the BER program coupled with the need to balance economic stimulus objectives with value-for-money considerations has led to public debate about the performance of the program. In balancing these objectives, tensions have arisen during the establishment phase of the program. These tensions have contributed to difficulties (in some cases) in obtaining rapid agreement about the amount of funding that should be allocated to different schools, and about the optimal use of funding by Education Authorities. Furthermore, the use of template building designs (as a means of meeting challenging construction deadlines and mitigating the risks of delays arising from design and procurement at the school level) have been less popular and have ultimately affected stakeholder views regarding value-for-money achieved under the program. The responsibility for achieving value-for-money for building works under BER P21 is, however, the responsibility of the Education Authorities having regard to the program guidelines.
45. In spite of the slower than expected implementation of the construction phase of the program referred to earlier in this report and delays in the completion of projects in smaller schools, lead economic indicators show improvements in non-residential construction activity. Further, DEEWR has advised that 97 per cent of BER P21 projects had commenced by 28 February 2010.
46. Education industry stakeholders, including peak bodies, Education Authorities and a substantial majority of school principals have been positive about the improvement in primary school facilities that will result from the program. Over 95 per cent of principals responding to the ANAO's survey indicated that they were confident that BER P21 funding would provide an improvement to their school, which would be of ongoing value to their school and school community.
Summary of agency response
47. The proposed report was circulated to relevant departments and stakeholders with a special interest in the report (as defined in the Auditor?]General Act 1997) on 22 March 2010. A subsequent version of the proposed report, which incorporated amendments resulting from early feedback from recipients, was circulated on 13 April 2010.
48. Section 19(5) of the Auditor?]General Act requires that the Auditor?]General must, in the final report, include all written comments received from recipients of the proposed report, or an extract of the proposed report. Written comments for inclusion in the report were provided by DEEWR, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the former Commonwealth Coordinator-General. These comments are included in full at Appendix 1 to the report.
49. Where considered appropriate, the report has been amended in the light of comments received. In addition, where relevant information was provided by those people interviewed by the ANAO, this has been taken into account in the preparation of the final report. DEEWR also provided a summary of its formal comments, which is reproduced below.
Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations
The ANAO recognises the significant achievement by the Department to establish the Primary Schools for the 21st Century (P21) element of the Building the Education Revolution (BER) Program. Within seven months of the Government's decision to establish the Program, three funding rounds had been undertaken and around 10 500 projects were approved for 7900 schools. This represents the largest and fastest school modernisation program in Australia's history.
Building the Education Revolution was a central plank in the Australian Government's response to the recent global recession. The ANAO identifies that the lead economic indicators show that the Building the Education Revolution has contributed significantly to the reversal in the decline in non-residential construction activity that resulted from the global financial crisis. The BER Program has so far contributed $12.3 billion to the original and seasonally adjusted value of ABS Building Approvals over the eight months to February 2010. This is 76 per cent of the total allocation of $16.2 billion to the program. The Building the Education Revolution program represents 31.3 per cent of the total value of non-residential building approvals (in seasonally adjusted terms) over the year to February 2010. BER represents a significant proportion of infrastructure stimulus projects and will achieve stimulus activity in every community in Australia. Projects are, on average, required to be delivered within half the time usually allowed for school infrastructure projects.
In its report the ANAO notes that the P21 element has doubled recent levels of capital investment in Australian primary schools. The ANAO indicates that there are signs that the Program is achieving its intended outcomes of supporting jobs and improving school infrastructure [paragraph 13]. Indeed, the ANAO's survey of school principals highlights that over 95 per cent of respondents were confident BER P21 would deliver ongoing value to their school and community [paragraph 7.33].
The Department specifically notes that the ANAO has not made any recommendations in this audit.
The Department has a different perspective from the ANAO on some issues.
The reporting regime including the collection of jobs information was developed by the Commonwealth Coordinator-General in consultation with the state coordinators-general and was considered the most appropriate approach. Once the reporting framework had been agreed between coordinators-general, it was the responsibility of education authorities and the Department to implement it according to their requirements. This included leaving estimates of overall numbers of jobs created by the Economic Stimulus Plan to Treasury.
The Department notes that the ANAO seeks, in part, to assess DEEWR's and education authorities' performance against a superseded performance measure when looking at the progress of projects. The correct measure of progress is that which is contained in the BER Guidelines. The Program guidelines, approved by the Minister for Education, required that all projects should commence by 1 December 2009. As at 28 February 2010, 97 per cent of P21 projects had commenced.
While the Department welcomes the ANAO's survey of school principals, it has reservations about the methodology adopted in relation to “concerns and complaints” and notes that it and the state and territory education authorities have received a relatively small volume of complaints considering the size of the P21. As at 15 April 2010, there were 59 complaints made to DEEWR relating to P21. Information collected from state and territory education authorities in December 2009 indicated that were approximately 30 complaints across all jurisdictions. All together this represents less than one per cent of P21 projects. In addition, the capacity to respond to complaints is being enhanced through the creation of a BER Implementation Task Force which was announced on 12 April 2010.
The ANAO has quoted selectively from Education Authorities in regard to the application of the inter-governmental agreement on federal financial relations. The Department is of the view that it has implemented the program in accordance with Government's policy and the NPA, which required unprecedented speed of construction in every community in Australia.
1 On 15 November 2008, the leaders of G-20 countries attended the Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy to determine appropriate, coordinated action to restore global growth and achieve necessary reforms in the world's financial systems. Subsequent G-20 Leaders' Summits on the global financial crisis were held in London, in early April 2009, and Pittsburgh, in late September 2009.
2 The Coordinator-General is responsible for working with administering agencies at the Australian Government and State/Territory level to support and monitor the implementation of key infrastructure and stimulus measures.
3 Gruen, D., 8 December 2009, The Return of Fiscal Policy: speech to the Australian Business Economists Annual Forecasting Conference, Canberra, p. 4.
4 Council of Australian Governments, 2009, National Partnership Agreement on the Nation Building and Jobs Plan, Canberra.
5 In October 2009, the Government agreed to rephase $500 million of BER program funding from 2010–11 to 2011–12, with the Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations provided with flexibility to allow construction completion deadlines to be varied where this would assist with the achievement of value-for-money outcomes. The rephasing means that some BER P21 projects will be completed after 31 March 2011.
6 Block Grant Authorities (BGAs) are bodies that represent non-government schools in the states and territories for capital funding purposes. There are 14 BGAs, one for each of the two territories that represents both the Catholic and independent sectors, and two in each state (one for independent schools and another for Catholic schools).
7 The new framework for federal financial relations, which commenced on 1 January 2009, aims to provide clearer specification of the roles and responsibilities of each level of government so that the appropriate government is accountable to the community. It also aims to provide more transparent reporting of outputs and outcomes to drive better service delivery and reform.
8 Treasury advice, 9 April 2010.
9 Project commencement was defined as: the undertaking of any action, post any design phase that incurs an expense covered by BER funding for that project.
10 DEEWR has further advised that, as at 28 February 2010, 97 per cent of BER P21 projects have commenced.
11 The delay in commencement of construction activity, in part, reflects the ambitious targets established for the program and the fact that implementing the number and range of construction projects for BER P21, from initial conception to completion and use, is complex, and entails time-consuming design, procurement and coordination among a large number of stakeholders. Delays also resulted from some of the approaches adopted for the establishment of the program.
12 The Australian Government provides Education Authorities with an administration payment of 1.5 per cent of total jurisdictional funding to cover the discharge of their responsibilities under the NPA.
13 For example, see paragraphs 28, 32–3 and 41–2.
14 DEEWR was making decisions on a case-by-case basis on matters such as what could be included in fit-out for BER-funded projects, including types of seating and facilities such as air-conditioning and grey-water irrigation systems.
15 An example was the inclusion in the program guidelines of a deadline for the commencement of on-site continuous construction.
16 The Government articulated its intentions about how allocations to schools would be determined in three key ways. The Government's stated objectives for reform of federal financial relations (discussed in Chapter 2) is that states and territories should be provided maximum flexibility to set their own funding priorities. The NPA between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments implies that flexibility would be provided, stating only that funding amounts would be ‘based' on school size according to ‘indicative caps' or ‘indicative funding allocations.' However, the Government decision (made before the NPA) provides less flexibility, requiring that allocations to schools be based on their size, and could be varied, but only in exceptional circumstances.