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Published

Actions for Ambulance services in regional New South Wales

Ambulance services in regional New South Wales

Health
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Service delivery
Shared services and collaboration
Workforce and capability

About this report

NSW Ambulance delivers emergency and non emergency medical services and transport to patients in New South Wales, and connects patients who do not need an emergency medical response with the most appropriate health provider.

NSW Ambulance operates as part of a network of public health services. 

This audit assessed the efficiency and effectiveness of ambulance services in regional New South Wales.

Findings

NSW Health is maintaining effective ambulance services in regional New South Wales, despite increasing demand. 

NSW Ambulance and the Ministry of Health use effective governance arrangements to monitor regional ambulance performance. NSW Ambulance and Local Health Districts (LHDs) communicate effectively to manage day-to-day operational challenges. However, the audit identified opportunities to improve the Ministry’s oversight of regional performance, and to enhance information sharing between NSW Ambulance and LHDs.

NSW Health is working to identify opportunities to reduce demand on the NSW Ambulance fleet and hospital emergency departments in regional New South Wales.

NSW Ambulance undertakes holistic service planning to efficiently deliver ambulance services in regional New South Wales.

Recommendations

The audit recommends that:

  • The Ministry of Health, eHealth and NSW Ambulance implement a new NSW Ambulance Electronic Medical Record system
  • The Ministry of Health and NSW Ambulance improve system oversight, monitoring and reporting of ambulance performance at the regional and metropolitan level
  • The Ministry of Health finalise its Transport for Health strategy and undertake a review of all non-emergency patient transport operators across the state
  • NSW Ambulance and LHDs improve strategic engagement with other NSW Health entities.

 

NSW Ambulance is a front line health service provider, delivering emergency and non-emergency medical services and transport to patients in New South Wales. It provides medical help to patients experiencing life-threatening injuries (referred to as high acuity patients), illness, and trauma, and connects patients who do not need an emergency medical response (referred to as low acuity patients) with the most appropriate health provider.

NSW Ambulance operates as part of a network of public health services. For NSW Ambulance to efficiently transfer patients to hospitals, hospitals need to have sufficient capacity to accept new patients. In regional contexts, distance is an important factor in the effective delivery of ambulance services.

The objective of this audit is to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of ambulance services in regional New South Wales, by answering the following questions:

  1.  Does NSW Health work effectively and efficiently to deliver ambulance services in regional and rural New South Wales?
  2. Is NSW Health effectively and efficiently planning and allocating ambulance services in regional New South Wales?
  3. Is the effectiveness of ambulance services in regional and rural New South Wales increasing over time?

The NSW Health agencies included in this audit are NSW Ambulance, the Ministry of Health, Murrumbidgee and Southern NSW Local Health Districts, eHealth NSW and HealthShare NSW.

The Ministry of Health expects Local Health Districts and state wide health services (such as NSW Ambulance) to engage and collaborate with stakeholders throughout service planning, but it is unclear whether the Ministry ensures that this occurs

The Ministry of Health is responsible for setting policy and strategy direction for the overall NSW Health system and provides guidance to all NSW Health entities (including Local Health Districts and NSW Ambulance) to inform service planning. Local Health Districts are responsible for ensuring that relevant policy objectives are achieved through the planning and funding of the range of health services that best meet the needs of their communities.

Service plans describe how services will achieve measurable health improvements and outcomes. NSW Health entities create service plans within a broader framework of system-wide goals, objectives and priorities. The Guide to Service Plans notes the importance of active and inclusive stakeholder engagement and requires that stakeholders should be engaged throughout the planning process. It also notes that state-wide health and shared services impacted by planning should be engaged to assist with the assessment of service requirements and resource implications.

The audit identified several examples of service plans and key initiatives developed within Southern NSW Local Health District which directly related to ambulance services, but where NSW Ambulance was not identified as a stakeholder. These include:

  • A business case for a new MRI service at Goulburn hospital: prior to the establishment of MRI services in Goulburn, there were no MRI services available within Southern NSW Local Health District, with the closest available provider located in Bowral (a private provider) or at the Canberra Hospital. This business case included decreased reliance on patient transport for imaging as a benefit.
  • The clinical service plan for Batemans Bay Community Health Centre (which will provide urgent care services in Southern NSW Local Health District).

Southern NSW Local Health District included NSW Ambulance as a stakeholder in cross-border service planning, including NSW Ambulance as a signatory in a cross-border memorandum of understanding for stroke patient transfers between Southern NSW Local Health District, Murrumbidgee Local Health District, Canberra Health Services and NSW Ambulance.

In Murrumbidgee Local Health District, the audit identified one example of the Local Health District including NSW Ambulance as a stakeholder in planning activities. In an updated terms of reference document for the Cootamundra Partnership Reference Committee, which was established to develop a new Health Service Plan for the Cootamundra Health Service, NSW Ambulance has been included as an invitee to this forum.

No health entities undertake whole-of-system service planning for non-emergency patient transport services in rural and regional New South Wales

Non-emergency patient transport services in regional and rural Local Health Districts are provided by HealthShare NSW (in Hunter New England Local Health District and Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District), Local Health Districts and NSW Ambulance. Both Southern NSW Local Health District and Murrumbidgee Local Health District engage private providers and community transport providers to supplement their patient transport capacity. When non-emergency patient transport services are at capacity, Local Health Districts rely on NSW Ambulance to assist with facilitating patient transfers.

Despite these challenges, there is no whole-of-system approach to service planning for patient transport. Whole-of-system planning would enable NSW Health to better manage risk and reduce reliance on the use of the NSW Ambulance fleet for patient transport in rural and regional New South Wales.

NSW Ambulance undertakes holistic service planning, but it did not engage Local Health Districts as stakeholders in the development of its recent Clinical Services Plan

As a state-wide health service, NSW Ambulance’s service planning broadly reflects the key deliverables articulated in its Service Agreement with the Secretary of Health. The Ministry of Health, in its responsibility for planning key services and as the ‘purchaser’ of ambulance services, ensures that NSW Ambulance service planning gives regard to the broader strategic policy environment.

In 2023, NSW Ambulance developed a new Clinical Services Plan 2024–2029 which includes a focus on supporting innovative approaches to clinical redesign and the delivery of new clinical programs. This includes strengthening collaboration between NSW Ambulance and Local Health Districts (particularly in care models for smaller rural communities and the involvement of paramedics in care and management of patients with chronic diseases).

NSW Ambulance consulted with the Ministry in the development of the Clinical Services Plan. It advised the audit that as the Clinical Services Plan largely reflects the objectives contained in its Strategic Plan, specific consultation with Local Health Districts was not required.

While NSW Ambulance is currently developing a five-year roadmap for the implementation of its Clinical Services Plan, it is unclear how NSW Ambulance intends to implement and resource these objectives in a timeframe that complements similar work across NSW Health.

The Southern NSW Local Health District Clinical Services Plan does not include specific consideration of the provision of patient transport and it is not clear whether it consulted NSW Ambulance during development

Southern NSW Local Health District’s 2023–28 Clinical Services Plan notes development of the plan was informed by local, state and national strategic directions for the health system, as well as outcomes and recommendations of relevant NSW Health and local reviews and inquiries.

Southern NSW Local Health District identified five focus areas in its 2023–28 Clinical Services Plan:

  • Supporting health and wellbeing through primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention
  • Providing care closer to home
  • Ensuring the sustainability of our existing services
  • Planning for growth and ageing in our population
  • Ensuring equity of access to care.

The Southern NSW Local Health District conducted community stakeholder consultation during development of its Clinical Services Plan, which resulted in feedback relating to challenges accessing health services. Community consultation feedback provided to Southern NSW Local Health District included the below key points relating to transportation to access health services:

  • a lack of public and/or private transport to and from health facilities
  • the additional burden on rural residents to access health care, noting that rural communities are often long distances from tertiary facilities
  • difficulties with transportation, noting community transport options are limited and it can be difficult to coordinate timing.

Southern NSW Local Health District’s Clinical Services Plan acknowledges the District consulted with internal stakeholders and other service providers to develop the plan, however, it is not clear whether Southern NSW Local Health District included NSW Ambulance in consultation for feedback. Additionally, while actions to address the areas of focus for the Clinical Services Plan relate to more localised access to care and delivery of care, as well as increased capacity and access, the plan does not include any actions specific to the provision of health related transportation.

Southern NSW Local Health District has committed to improve access to clinical services in rural and remote settings through the delivery of virtual care models

In its 2023-28 Clinical Services Plan, Southern NSW Local Health District commits to establishing a single point of entry so that patients can access appropriate care in ‘the right place, at the right time’ through (among other actions), an enhancement and expansion of its Virtually enhanced Community Care program and establishment of the Virtual Rural Generalist Service.

This audit identified some examples of Local Health Districts partnering to improve access to clinical service in rural and remote settings. In Southern NSW Local Health District, the Local Health District has partnered with Western NSW Local Health District to implement the Rural Virtual Generalist Service in smaller facilities across the District.

NSW Ambulance’s workforce planning effectively considers demand, workload, coverage, and capability requirements and it uses this evidence to allocate personnel and other resources to efficiently deliver ambulance services in regional New South Wales

NSW Ambulance has a well evolved and evidenced service planning methodology. NSW Ambulance established a service planning capability in 2010, and the current methodology (developed in 2022–23) includes analysis at the station and local network level of demand projections, staffing levels required, the drivers of effective and efficient supply provision, models of care, specialty resources and capital and infrastructure requirements. It includes a substantial focus on station location and the type of resource required.

Service planning informs (and is informed by) benefits realisation for new programs and initiatives (such as SWEP, SWIFT). NSW Ambulance has also developed a model to assess ‘unmet demand’ which it uses when determining sites for potential resource allocation and supplementation. NSW Ambulance continuously monitors its need and priority for additional or enhanced ambulance services and considers the following criteria:

  • volume of demand in town and surrounding area
  • distance from any ambulance service
  • current response times to emergency incidents
  • modelled improvement in response times if an ambulance station was commissioned
  • assessment of capacity and condition of closest ambulance station
  • capacity of NSW Ambulance volunteer service to provide a response.

NSW Ambulance continuously reviews key inputs into the service planning methodology, in particular its demand project methodology.

The main output of NSW Ambulance’s service planning methodology is the creation of a whole-of-state service model which describes the clinical service levels for each ambulance station. A station’s clinical service level determines both the number of clinical staff required and its specific roster pattern, as well as the staff type (graduate paramedic, specialist paramedic, etc.). NSW Ambulance then creates station rosters in alignment with this model.

In addition to the demand- and activity-based evidence sources NSW Ambulance uses to inform its service planning, NSW Ambulance includes evidence-based analysis in its business cases to support NSW Government funding requests, which also contain thorough descriptions of how the proposed funding would be allocated.

Recent investments in the regional paramedic workforce have allowed NSW Ambulance to reduce the use of on-call rostering and improve the working conditions of regional paramedics

NSW Ambulance rostering practices allow for some stations to utilise on-call resources, which can cause fatigue among paramedics rostered on shift following an on-call period.

Announced in the 2018–19 NSW Budget, the NSW Government announced funding for the recruitment of an additional 750 FTE paramedic and call-centre staff over four years commencing in 2018–19. The Statewide Workforce Enhancement Program (SWEP) was designed by NSW Ambulance to enable improvements in efficiency, coverage, quality, safety and performance across New South Wales and achieve response performance targets.

The SWEP business case detailed the extent to which NSW Ambulance relied upon various forms of premium labour in order to maintain service delivery and to meet community expectations in terms of response performance. The SWEP business case identified that $20 million in premium labour savings after the four-year implementation program would be achieved by reducing over-reliance on overtime.

SWEP resulted in an additional 376 FTE positions across ambulance stations in regional NSW, and allowed NSW Ambulance to reduce on-call rostering:

  • 22 regional/rural locations were converted to a 24/7 operating model removing overnight on-call
  • Removal of on-call at four locations that were previously operating on a 24/7 roster with overnight on-call
  • Reduction in on-call at eight locations.

NSW Ambulance measured premium labour savings achieved by monitoring callouts, crib-penalty payments, and dropped-shift overtime. In August 2022, as part of an internal review of the SWEP program, NSW Ambulance noted that the SWEP program achieved the reduction in premium labour expenditure and improved the working conditions of regional paramedics.

NSW Ambulance anticipates that recent changes to funding arrangements will result in a key program not achieving its intended benefits

In June 2022, the NSW Government announced a $1.76b investment in NSW Ambulance over a four-year period to fund 210 ambulance support staff (including the ongoing establishment of NSW Ambulance’s Virtual Clinical Care Centre (VCCC)), 1,878 new paramedics, 52 nurses, eight doctors, and build 30 stations.

Known as the Strategic Workforce InFrastructure Team program (SWIFT), NSW Ambulance designed the program to meet two objectives:

  • firstly, to improve patient outcomes, and the probability of survival from immediately life threatening conditions.
  • to achieve compliance with WHS obligations through the reduction of overrun shifts, overtime, and increase staff meal breaks.

When it was announced as part of the 2022–23 NSW Government budget, SWIFT was designed as a four-year program. However, recent changes to funding arrangements have changed the SWIFT timeframe and the program will now be delivered over seven years (at the same cost).

One of the key objectives of the SWIFT business case was to improve patient outcomes and the probability of patient survival by achieving response times within 15 minutes for 85% of P1 incidents by 30 June 2026. NSW Ambulance regularly reports and tracks performance on SWIFT indicators, and advises that as at 21 December 2023, the program was on track to meet the target.

NSW Ambulance modelled that the impact of extending the funding window from four years to seven years would add three years of additional demand growth and result in the program failing to achieve the 85% target by June 2026.

Appendix one – Response from agency

Appendix two – NSW Ambulance performance data

Appendix three – NSW Ambulance regional station map

Appendix four – NSW Ambulance key performance indicators

Appendix five – Types of patient transport operational across New South Wales

Appendix six – Scheduled psychiatric interhospital patient transfers

Appendix seven – NSW Ambulance governance bodies

Appendix eight – About the audit

Appendix nine – Performance auditing

 

© Copyright reserved by the Audit Office of New South Wales. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without prior consent of the Audit Office of New South Wales. The Audit Office does not accept responsibility for loss or damage suffered by any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any of this material.

 

 Parliamentary reference - Report number #398 released 27 June 2024.

Published

Actions for Regional Digital Connectivity program

Regional Digital Connectivity program

Industry
Information technology
Infrastructure
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Procurement
Project management
Risk
Service delivery

About this report

The Regional Digital Connectivity program (RDCP) is intended to improve mobile coverage and internet connectivity in regional NSW.

The RDCP includes two funding programs, one for improving mobile coverage and the other for improving internet connectivity. Both programs provide grant funding to commercial telecommunications providers for eligible mobile and internet projects.

This audit assessed whether the Department of Regional NSW (the department) is effectively administering the RDCP to meet program objectives.

Findings

The department's approach to identifying priority areas for RDCP funding was comprehensive and it largely distributed funding in line with these priorities.

The department has not specifically defined the overall objectives of the RDCP. The department has developed business cases that set out each program’s respective objectives, but these do not consistently describe the objectives of the RDCP.

The department also has not developed an overarching investment strategy, which would assist it in addressing potentially conflicting priorities.

Deficiencies in project and risk management have contributed to delays in the department’s implementation of the program.

The department is not monitoring progress against outcomes, which limits its ability to demonstrate that the program is achieving its intended purpose.

The department did not meet its original mobile coverage performance target but met its internet connectivity target.

Recommendations

To improve RDCP administration, the report recommends that by June 2025, the department should:

  1. develop an overarching investment strategy for the RDCP
  2. outline the expected timelines for RDCP projects and ensure that these timelines are updated regularly
  3. develop and report on RDCP outcome indicators
  4. update the RDCP evaluation plan
  5. update the expected benefits of the program to reflect changes in the RDCP.

The Regional Digital Connectivity program (RDCP) is funded through the Snowy Hydro Legacy Fund (SHLF). Under the Snowy Hydro Legacy Fund Act 2018 (SHLF Act), the purpose of the SHLF is to improve economic development in regional New South Wales and to fund infrastructure projects that primarily benefit regional New South Wales. A priority area for SHLF investment is delivering improved mobile coverage and internet connectivity in underserved and remote communities.

The RDCP has been implemented by the Department of Regional NSW (the department) since 2019. The RDCP is broadly split into two funding programs. The larger funding program is for improving mobile coverage and the other funding program is for improving internet connectivity and is referred to as the Gig State program. Both programs provide grant funding to commercial telecommunications providers for eligible mobile and internet projects.

Over $300 million from the RDCP was allocated to improve mobile phone coverage and increase the number of mobile service providers across regional NSW. The mobile coverage program is being delivered through the following sub-programs:

  • Snowy Mountains Highway Safety project – co-funding with Snowy Hydro Limited to build five mobile towers along the Snowy Mountains Highway to improve mobile coverage.
  • Active Sharing Partnership (ASP) pilot – co-funding with private providers to deliver active sharing mobile technology in regional areas.
  • ASP main program – This is the main round of the mobile coverage program. A business case has been developed, but no funding has been distributed through this sub-program.
  • Mobile Black Spot Program Round 5A – co-funding with the Australian Government’s Mobile Black Spot Program to deliver new or upgraded mobile towers in regional and remote locations.
  • Mobile Black Spot Program Round 7 (MBSP7) – co-funding with the Australian Government’s Mobile Black Spot Program to deliver new mobile infrastructure.

Over $100 million from the RDCP was allocated to the Gig State program to improve regional internet connectivity through partnering with multiple providers and using a range of technologies suitable for rural and regional locations. The Gig State program was launched in 2019 and underwent significant changes in 2021 following an Infrastructure NSW deep dive review into the project. These changes to the program are referred to as the Gig State addendum. The Gig State program is being delivered through the following sub-programs:

  • Cobar corridor connectivity – providing fixed wireless internet access to five locations between Narromine and Cobar.
  • nbn regional NSW fixed wireless – co-funding with nbn to deliver new or co-located fixed wireless broadband towers in 56 locations.
  • Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton connectivity – improving internet connectivity in these three towns as part of a NSW Government commitment.
  • Regional Connectivity Program Round 3 (RCP3) – co-funding with the Australian Government’s Regional Connectivity Program to provide additional internet infrastructure.

The objective of this audit was to assess whether the Department of Regional NSW is effectively administering the Regional Digital Connectivity program to meet program objectives. The audit examined:

  • how effectively the department identifies priority areas to target RDCP funding
  • how effectively the department distributes RDCP funding in line with program objectives
  • how effectively the department measures the performance of the RDCP.

The department has not specifically defined the overall objectives of the RDCP

The RDCP is delivered as part of the SHLF. Under the SHLF Act, the purpose of the SHLF is to improve economic development in regional New South Wales and, for that purpose, to fund infrastructure projects that primarily benefit regional New South Wales. One of the priority areas for SHLF investment is digital connectivity, which is being delivered through the RDCP.

While the purpose of the SHLF is set out in the SHLF Act, the department has not specifically set out the overall purpose and objectives of the RDCP and how it will focus the RDCP on achieving the SHLF’s purpose. Such a document would support future business case development, and support the coordination and prioritisation of objectives across the business cases that have already been developed.

While the overall objectives of the RDCP are yet to be defined, there are objectives set out in the business cases for the separate programs but these are not consistently described. The Gig State business case advises that the RDCP’s goal is to enable transformative long-term benefits for regional areas through investment in digital connectivity. This goal aligns with the purpose of the SHLF Act. However, this objective is not set out in the mobile coverage business case, or any other document, and it is not clear how the RDCP is intended to fulfil this objective.

The Gig State business case sets out three objectives for the RDCP that provide further definition to the SHLF Act’s purpose, though it is unclear how these were determined and whether these are intended to cover the entire RDCP:

  • address the digital divide between regional and metro NSW
  • resolve market failures in the regional NSW telecommunications market
  • leverage Government assets and capabilities wherever possible.

The mobile coverage ASP pilot business case sets out a similar set of objectives, though there are some differences, such as the third objective being to ‘leverage Government assets and capabilities to achieve transformative results.’ It is important for the department to clarify the RDCP’s objectives to ensure a unified approach to investment decisions. At the time of the audit, the department’s website had a different set of objectives for the RDCP. They are:

  • build digital infrastructure to increase capacity
  • expand mobile coverage and provider choice
  • improve internet service, speed and quality
  • bridge the digital divide between regions and cities.

The department also provided a 2022–23 ‘division plan’, with goals for the mobile coverage and Gig State programs. These include:

  •  extend and improve internet coverage to deserving locations in regional NSW
  • investigate emerging digital technologies to improve connectivity
  • deliver new and improved mobile coverage to regional NSW communities
  • encourage competition in the regional telecommunications market.

While these different sets of objectives broadly align, there is no consistency across these business cases in describing the objectives of the RDCP. This indicates that there is a lack of clarity about the intended objectives of the RDCP. Further, the origin of the list of objectives in the ‘division plan’ is unclear. This reinforces the need to clearly define objectives for the overall RDCP.

Each business case the department has developed for RDCP programs has defined objectives that align with the SHLF’s purpose

The Gig state and mobile coverage business cases also define objectives for each program. These objectives align with the SHLF’s purpose, set out above. The Gig State business case advises that the purpose of the Gig State program is to:

  • address the digital divide between metro and regional NSW so that the price, quality, and choice of digital connectivity options in metro areas are made available in regional areas of NSW
  • resolve market failures in regional NSW telecommunications
  • leverage Government assets or investment where appropriate to achieve transformative long-term benefits for regional areas.

The ASP pilot business case states similar objectives, though it does not mention the ‘price, quality, and choice’ stated in the Gig State business case. The ASP pilot business case also lists another three objectives:

  • address mobile black spots where people live and work
  • investigate new and emerging technologies to future proof mobile coverage in regional NSW
  • promote consumer choice in the delivery of mobile services.

The ASP main program has a different set of objectives to the ASP pilot and include:

  • reduce the digital divide and enhance social inclusion by improving mobile coverage in regional locations not covered by existing programs
  • encourage competition in the regional telecommunications market to provide consumers greater choice, lower prices and improved services
  • address commercial viability and technical constraints to providing mobile coverage in regional areas
  • improve community resilience to emergency events through improved regional mobile service.

The RDCP program objectives align with relevant whole-of-government strategic objectives

There are several whole-of-government strategies that seek to guide government investment in digital infrastructure. While there is no document setting out the overarching objectives of the RDCP, the objectives set out for the mobile coverage program and the Gig State program align with these whole-of-government objectives.

The objectives align with the 2018 and 2021 ‘20 Year Economic Vision for Regional NSW’. For example, the 2018 ‘20 Year Economic Vision for Regional NSW’ sets out principles for regional NSW investment, including ‘Affordable, reliable and fast internet to support people and businesses.’

The RDCP sub-programs also align with the 2018 and 2022 State Infrastructure Strategies. In particular, the 2018 strategy has a set of recommendations around improving connectivity across NSW and another set of recommendations around investing in technology that improves productivity and social outcomes. One of the roles of the Gig State program is to help to implement the 2018 strategy’s recommendation to support statewide access to 50Mbps download and 10Mbps upload capacity by 2025. These speeds are specifically stated in the Gig State grant guidelines as an eligibility requirement for funded programs.

Both sub-programs of the RDCP also align with the NSW Connectivity Strategy. The NSW Connectivity Strategy has two directions of particular relevance: ‘All customers have metropolitan equivalent digital capacity’ and ‘Connectivity blackspots continually decrease across the State’. The first of these objectives has three strategic directions which are directly relevant to both the Gig State program and the mobile coverage program:

  • remote, rural and peri-urban citizens can access and effectively use digital systems and services for employment, justice, education, health, social, personal and entertainment use
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have equitable access to connectivity that meets their local community needs
  • connectivity services are affordable for citizens no matter where they live, with access to a choice of providers.

Elements of both the Gig State and mobile coverage programs align with these, including the focus on expanding access and affordability.

In regard to regional Aboriginal communities, the RDCP may also contribute to the NSW Closing the Gap Implementation Plan, as the merit criteria in the grant guidelines for mobile coverage and Gig State grants include the extent to which the project will contribute to sustainable procurement and employment outcomes, including supporting Aboriginal businesses and employment. The criteria for prioritising locations for mobile coverage also includes extending coverage to discrete Aboriginal communities as something which could improve the score given to an application. However, this is not set out as an explicit objective of the program.

The department has not set out an overarching investment strategy for the RDCP to address potentially conflicting priorities or identify situations where funding may not align with program objectives

As noted above, the overall objectives of the RDCP have not been defined. The department does not have an overarching strategy setting out program objectives, how funding will be aligned with these objectives, and how the objectives will be prioritised. It is important to set out funding principles to establish how the elements of the stated objectives will be delivered and prioritised. Not setting these out risks funding decisions that do not align with program objectives.

As noted above, the mobile coverage ASP pilot business case lists two objectives around addressing mobile black spots and promoting consumer choice in the delivery of mobile services. These objectives may be potentially in conflict as expanding coverage can be done by funding one carrier to expand their own network, while promoting consumer choice could conceivably be done by funding a carrier to expand their network into areas already covered by only one existing carrier, thus increasing competition in those areas.

The department has not set out the relative weighting of its objectives across the RDCP funding packages and how it will prioritise funding in accordance with them. An overarching strategy would assist the department with prioritising funding in accordance with the objectives of the program, including determining the relative weight of each objective.

In addition, the department has not described the extent to which price reductions in the cost of internet will be prioritised as an objective of the Gig State program. The Gig State business case sets out that one of the objectives of the program will be to provide metropolitan equivalent or better service, quality and pricing for internet services in regional areas. It is unclear how internet pricing fits into the overarching objectives of the RDCP given that it is not mentioned as an objective of the SHLF. There would be value in setting out strategic investment principles and objectives to guide this decision-making and clarify the extent to which internet investment is intended to fulfil this purpose.

A lack of clarity about program objectives may also have impacted decisions about funding priorities. For example, the Gig State program business case sets out a plan to invest in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites through a subsidy program. As noted above, the Gig State business case sets out some objectives for the RDCP, including leveraging government assets. While an investment in LEO satellites through subsidies may assist with bridging the digital divide, it is not clear how this aligns with the objective of leveraging government assets. More clarity over program objectives and a clear investment strategy may assist with clarifying this and similar investment decisions in future. As discussed below, the investment in LEO satellites did not proceed.

The department comprehensively identified priority areas that require improved mobile coverage for the mobile coverage program

As outlined above, the final business case for the mobile coverage ASP pilot program identifies three objectives for the mobile coverage program, including addressing the digital divide between metropolitan and regional NSW, and resolving market failures in regional NSW telecommunications. The department identified priority areas for improved mobile coverage in line with these objectives. The department refined its approach to prioritising locations for the mobile coverage ASP main program which resulted in a more comprehensive analysis of potential sites.

The department developed and implemented a structured process using a range of criteria to identify and prioritise suitable locations for funding. Before allocating funding to its mobile coverage program, it was necessary for the department to determine areas that required additional mobile coverage. The department undertook this work for both its mobile coverage ASP pilot program and the ASP main program as part of designing the grant programs. A key source of information it relied on for identifying priority areas for the pilot program was the Australian Government’s National Mobile Black Spot Database. The database identified around 4,000 mobile black spot locations across NSW. This database is no longer in use as it relied on community reports of mobile black spots which were unverified.

For its mobile coverage ASP pilot program, the department applied a series of filters to the mobile black spots identified in the database. It removed metropolitan areas, areas within a 10km radius of an existing mobile tower site, and areas that had already been selected for funding under either Commonwealth or State funded programs, such as the Connecting Country Communities Fund. This left the department with a list of around 1,200 potential sites.

The department then mapped the 1,200 identified black spot sites to their respective 383 unique locations and assessed and prioritised the mobile black spots and locations against a range of economic, community and feasibility criteria. Under the economic criteria, the department prioritised areas that had higher numbers of employed persons and higher proportions of land being used for agriculture or farming. Under the community criteria, the department prioritised areas based on the increase in the population that would benefit from expanded coverage, the increase in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that would benefit from the coverage, the increase in the kilometres of highway and main roads that would benefit that were within five kilometres of a mobile black spot, and areas with more square kilometres prone to bushfires or flooding that would benefit. Under feasibility criteria, the department prioritised areas that were closer to government and nbn infrastructure. This process resulted in 50 prioritised locations containing 307 black spot sites across 34 Local Government Areas in NSW.

For its mobile coverage ASP main program, the department undertook a detailed coverage analysis to identify locations with no and limited mobile coverage. It identified these using the latest publicly available coverage maps from the three mobile network operators and the distance of locations from existing sites/towers as published by the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the Radio Frequency National Site Archive databases. Using this data as the key source of information in determining mobile coverage resulted in a more comprehensive outcome than relying on the National Mobile Black Spot Database. The department did not use the National Mobile Black Spot Database, as this information was considered unreliable and had not been updated since 2018, and the coverage maps were more reliable.

The analysis focused on locations with small populations, road corridors, and tourism locations. It identified 257 locations with no or poor coverage consisting of 68 small population locations, 117 road corridors and 72 tourism locations. The department then analysed these possible locations against a range of criteria. These included maximising the number of people and businesses that would be supported, increasing the extent of existing coverage, determining whether coverage would support government strategies or Premier’s Priorities, other positive social impacts, focusing on the greatest length of road and most heavily used roads, and maximising the number of tourism businesses and points of interest impacted.

The department conducted analysis based on these criteria and shortlisted 24 small population locations, 24 road corridor locations and 12 visitor economy locations. These locations were taken forward for concept design, cost estimation, and economic and financial appraisal as part of the final business case.

The department’s initial approach to prioritising Gig State funding was based around larger regional centres

The department undertook a two-stage process for identifying priority areas for Gig State program investment. The first involved the identification of larger NSW towns that would benefit from additional internet coverage and where data centres could be located, and the second involved a selection of more remote locations to receive additional funding.

The department did not undertake an initial detailed analysis of internet coverage across NSW to prioritise funding for the Gig State program. Undertaking this work would have been in line with the Gig State program objectives of addressing the digital divide between metropolitan and regional NSW and resolving market failures in regional NSW telecommunications. In order to meet these objectives, it was important to first establish the extent of the digital divide and market failure before seeking to resolve it.

Instead, it categorised NSW towns according to their relative size and importance from a connectivity perspective. It prioritised towns with larger populations and more business users to maximise the potential benefit of the infrastructure. The department also prioritised locations that were closer to other telecommunications infrastructure, and it also considered proximity to other potential elements of the Gig State network for greater connectivity and to ensure that it was taking a whole-of-State approach to investment decisions. This process identified 14 major regional towns.

The department then prioritised two of these regional towns, Dubbo and Wagga Wagga, due to the higher prices paid by NSW Government agencies in the two locations for average internet bandwidth usage when compared to other regional and metropolitan population centres across NSW. The costs to government were considered a proxy for how much business users are likely to be charged for connectivity services in regional NSW towns. The department conducted surveys in both towns indicating that business users were paying higher prices than their metropolitan counterparts for higher-grade connectivity. This aligned with the department’s Gig State program objectives which related to providing price, quality and choice.

The department also included five satellite towns along the road from Dubbo to Cobar (Cobar corridor) in the Gig State final business case as well as the towns of Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton. The department’s prioritisation of funding for these locations was not based on any detailed analysis of need. The department identified that as part of its initial plan to expand the internet connectivity from Dubbo to Cobar, it would be able to connect a number of towns between those two at a reduced cost. There was no analysis of alternative options for expending this money, such as expanding coverage to other areas, or to determine the extent of coverage required in each town. The Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton project was prioritised as a result of a $5 million NSW Government commitment. This project is discussed further below.

The department strengthened its approach to targeting Gig State funding in 2021

The department reviewed and updated its approach to the Gig State program in September 2021. As part of this, it revised its approach to targeting funding, including the use of additional data and identifying areas with greater digital connectivity issues. This represented an improved approach compared to the original business case and aligned more closely with the changes that were made to the Gig State program in 2021, outlined in the Gig State addendum, which focussed more on the delivery of fixed wireless services rather than data centres.

The department carried out an analysis of areas that only have satellite internet coverage (i.e., no fibre or fixed wireless internet availability) to identify areas suitable for different types of technology such as fibre optic cables, fixed wireless and LEO satellites. This was more in line with the Gig State program objectives of addressing the digital divide and resolving market failures. It identified that these locations had challenging digital connectivity issues that were not likely to be resolved without government intervention. This process identified around 1,000 locations. This list was then refined by looking to maximise the number of premises and businesses, maximising the density of premises, prioritising locations with other Government assets, mobile sites and other technology available in the area, and locations close to an existing exchange to leverage existing infrastructure.

The location list was then prioritised based on scoring criteria for economic drivers, feasibility, risk and stakeholders. The economic criteria included the number of residential and business premises, the number of businesses, and the estimated construction costs for the infrastructure. The feasibility criteria included availability of existing and planned infrastructure. Stakeholder related criteria included identifying synergies with other government led programs, as well as sites that scored low on Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) scores and the Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas. These criteria are appropriate and align with the objectives of the Gig State program.

The department’s process resulted in a list of 23 prioritised areas. These were generally areas with a higher density of premises and affordable access to infrastructure for power supply and data transmission.

The department considered socio-economic data when planning for Gig State and mobile coverage programs but did not use this to inform its pilot mobile coverage program

NSW Government Business Case Guidelines (TPP18-06) state that one of the main reasons for government action is promotion of equity where the distribution of economic costs and benefits is considered inequitable. It is therefore important for the department to consider socio-economic data in the planning of the RDCP.

The department has included some socio-economic data and ADII scores in the profiles it developed for each Local Government Area. It applied socio-economic data to identify additional priority areas for new and improved internet coverage through the Gig State program. However, it did not apply this data to identify priority areas across the pilot mobile coverage program of the RDCP. It improved its approach when developing the ASP main program by including socio-economic data as a component of its scoring for prioritising locations.

The department considered socio-economic data when selecting locations for grant funding. The mobile coverage grant guidelines and the Gig State grant guidelines both include merit criteria that consider whether the proposed solution would address disadvantage within a community. Both guidelines ask the grant applicants to consider the Index of Relative Socio-economic Advantage and Disadvantage.

The department engaged with key stakeholders when developing the RDCP

Under TPP18-06, NSW Government departments are required to identify and consult with key stakeholders as they can contribute to the development of the investment proposal by providing their expert opinions, research, and evidence.

The department identified key stakeholders, developed stakeholder engagement plans, and used feedback gained through consultations to design and adjust the RDCP. Key stakeholders have been involved on the RDC Steering Committee and the RDC Project Control Group ensuring that they have an avenue to provide input into the overall RDCP. This includes the Commonwealth department responsible for telecommunications infrastructure and telecommunication providers.

The department engaged with stakeholders when developing the ASP pilot program. As discussed below, the department transitioned the program from a one-stage pilot program, where telecommunication providers would be procured to provide the solution, to a two-stage program where the department would first work with telecommunication providers to identify technical solutions and then carry out the procurement. This involved significant engagement with stakeholders to identify the technical solution and procurement model.

The department has assessed the suppliers of internet and mobile connectivity to determine their capacity and willingness to participate in RDCP sub-programs

As part of procurement planning, when building a business case, NSW Government agencies are required to analyse and engage with the market. This involves developing a profile of the market, the capabilities of suppliers, innovative and emerging technology, and factors that influence the market such as customer preferences and competition.

The department considered the capacity of telecommunications suppliers, their level of interest, and willingness to participate in the program when developing the business cases for its mobile and internet coverage programs. In addition to doing this when constructing initial business cases, the department adjusted its approach when market factors changed, as evidenced by the changes it made to its Gig State program in 2021. In September 2020, the nbn announced an expansion of its fibre network nationally, with a focus on regional improvements. This meant that internet coverage for some of the locations included in the Gig State business case would be addressed by nbn and continued investment was not needed in those areas. The initial Gig State business case also planned an initial investment in data centres in regional NSW. Following this, a private market operator also announced plans to construct 14 regional data centres across NSW. This meant that the planned Gig State data centres were no longer required. The department changed it approach to avoid duplication by ceasing its planned internet coverage expansion into regional centres, including the data centres, and prioritising a range of new sites for coverage.

Conflicts of interest and probity procedures have largely been followed, although there were some gaps in declarations

Maintaining a record of conflict of interest declarations is important to provide a higher level of transparency, and therefore control, over officials in high-risk roles. Disclosing an interest before it becomes a conflict of interest also reduces the likelihood that an official will be tempted to conceal or favour the interest.

Conflict of Interest declaration forms have been completed for staff involved in the mobile coverage program, Gig State program and the Australian Government co-funded Regional Connectivity Program Round 3 (RCP3) and Mobile Black Spot Program Round 7 (MBSP7). Whilst the list of declarations is extensive, it is unclear whether it includes all relevant staff from the department, the NSW Telco Authority and consultants involved with the program.

In relation to the mobile coverage and Gig State programs, there was no declaration recorded for one consultant and three staff from the department, including the program sponsor. These omissions have the potential to create risks that conflicts of interest go unmanaged. The department advises that the register is now complete for all those working directly on the program. It also advises that, due to the breadth of programs senior staff oversee, conflicts of interest are managed by the department's Governance team centrally through a Declarations App.

Four declarations of a ‘real, potential or perceived conflict of interest’ were made under the RCP3 and MBSP7 grant programs, which were co-funded with the Australian Government. No declared conflicts were made for the other programs. The identified conflicts of interest have documented actions to manage them, and there is evidence to indicate that these were implemented. For example, a senior staff member and a consultant excluded themselves from parts of a grant process due to declared conflicts.

The NSW Grants Administration Guide states that officials must seek probity advice for all grant opportunities that are complex, high-risk or high-value, to support the design, application, assessment and decision-making phases. The department followed appropriate probity processes throughout and these probity reports did not find any material breaches of probity in the grant processes.

There have been delays in all streams of the RDCP which may have been reduced through proactive project and risk management

The business cases set out expected timelines for each program of the RDCP. The department has not met any of these expected timelines, with some projects delayed by over a year compared to their initial planned timelines. Some of these delays have been caused by changes to the department’s approach to the mobile coverage and Gig State business cases. While some of these changes were outside of the department’s control, others could have been anticipated and better managed by a stronger approach to project management and risk management.

Exhibits 1 and 2 set out the status of each Gig State and mobile coverage project reviewed as part of this audit as at April 2024 and the planned completion date for that project at the outset of the program. Note that this does not include projects co-funded by the Australian Government due to the department’s limited ability to influence the process. This also excludes projects which have not yet distributed funding, such as the mobile coverage ASP main program.

Exhibit 1: Status of Gig State projects as at April 2024.
ProjectCurrent statusPlanned completion
Cobar corridorSolution designJune 2022
NBN fixed wirelessFeasibility studiesEarly 2024
Other provider fixed wirelessContract negotiationEarly 2024
Wamboin, Bywong and SuttonConstruction (paused)

Original business case:
June 2022

Gig State addendum:
Mid 2023


Source: Audit Office analysis.

Exhibit 2: Status of mobile coverage projects as at April 2024.
ProjectCurrent statusPlanned completion
Snowy Mountains Highway Safety programCompleted March 2023Early 2022
Active Sharing Partnership pilotConstructionJune 2023

Source: Audit Office analysis.

As can be seen from Exhibits 1 and 2, each project in the RDCP has been delayed past its initially planned completion date, and the Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton project has been delayed past both its original planned completion date and also the revised completion date in the Gig State addendum.

Some of these delays can be accounted for by the fact that the department revised its approach to both the mobile coverage ASP pilot and the Gig State programs. While some of these changes were outside of the department’s control, others could have been anticipated and managed by more proactive risk management. In the case of the mobile coverage program, some of this change in approach may have been foreseeable. The March 2021 mobile coverage ASP pilot business case set out a one-stage tendering process with construction planned for completion in June 2022. The department revised this approach in July 2021, when it changed to a two-stage process involving a technical stage and then a grant process. This was the result of additional research by the department that identified that the market may not have sufficient interest in the initial proposed approach. Undertaking this additional research earlier may have allowed for this alternative approach to be identified sooner.

In addition, the department only allowed two months in the business case for contract negotiations with providers for the mobile coverage ASP pilot program, however this has taken a significantly longer time and in one case has been ongoing for over twelve months. Given the complexities of the funding deed negotiations, this may also have been foreseeable. The department advised that some delays in the mobile coverage program can be attributed to the proposed merger of major mobile network operators which delayed funding deed negotiations.

As with the mobile coverage program, the Gig State program was also delayed by a change in approach, though this was driven by market changes. As part of the original Gig State business case, the department intended to deliver data centres in regional NSW, as well as expanding internet coverage. The business case was approved in December 2019 and the department intended to complete the Gig State program in June 2022. Little progress had been made by the time that the Gig State program underwent a significant change in scope following a review in September 2021. The department removed some aspects of the original business case, such as the construction of data centres in regional NSW, and changed the approach to other parts of the business case. The revised business case, called the Gig State addendum, delayed the planned delivery date of some projects into 2022.

The most significantly delayed sub-program has been the expansion of internet access to the towns of Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton as part of the Gig State program. In January 2019, the NSW Government announced $5 million of funding to provide internet access to these towns. The department ran a tender for this work in mid-2021 with a plan to start construction in late 2021. However, this tender resulted in no contract being awarded due to no providers being willing to provide the project within the proposed $5 million budget. The department started working on technical solutions with providers in late 2021 and gave them until May 2022 to identify solutions and potential budgets. The contract for Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton was executed in June 2022, with an expected completion date of June 2024, though given delays with construction this date will not be met. As discussed below, if the department had provided better advice to Government on the expected costs at the planning stage, it may have reduced the delays in this sub-program.

The department has not effectively managed RDCP timelines

The department has provided limited evidence of effective project management in place to monitor overall progress against program timelines, such as regularly updating a detailed project plan. The department may have identified and managed the above delays sooner through a stronger project management approach.

The department set out timelines at the outset of each of the sub-programs. This was not always done in detail but for all the sub-programs at least key milestones were mapped. While this was done at the outset, there is no evidence that the department regularly updated timelines across the various sub-programs to ensure that these projects were on track and to monitor expected completion dates.

The department provided regular updates on project status to relevant governance committees. This included providing information on upcoming milestones and associated delays. However, holistic monitoring of program completion dates and the impact of delays on subsequent milestones was not presented to the governance committees. As a result, there has been little monitoring and oversight of how projects are tracking against their target end dates.

Gaps in the governance framework have limited the oversight of the implementation of the RDCP

There are three key committees that oversee the implementation of the RDCP: the SHLF Steering Committee, the RDC Steering Committee, and the RDC Program Control Group. These three committees are intended to provide oversight of the implementation of the RDCP, however there are deficiencies that limit the effectiveness of their oversight.

The SHLF Steering Committee is intended to provide oversight of all programs funded through the SHLF, including the RDCP. Despite an intended meeting schedule of quarterly, the committee only met once in 2023 and three times in each of 2021 and 2022. While the Committee did receive reports on each of the programs funded through the SHLF at these meetings, this reporting did not identify any key risks for these projects that might affect achieving the objectives of the SHLF. This reduces the level of oversight that the SHLF Steering Committee can provide for these projects.

The RDC Steering Committee provides oversight of the RDCP and is intended to act as an escalation point for key issues in the program. While the committee receives regular reports on the components of the RDCP, including on program risks, there are some gaps that limit the oversight it can provide. The committee operated throughout 2021, 2022 and 2023 without finalised terms of reference, which were finalised in February 2024. Prior to this, it was unclear how often the RDC Steering Committee was intended to meet, but it met only four times in 2023 compared to six in 2022.

The RDC Steering Committee terms of reference include a role for the committee in making key decisions around program strategy and implementation. Prior to 2023, the committee was involved in many key decisions. For example, in 2022 it endorsed decisions around the ASP pilot grant guidelines. By contrast, a review of meeting minutes since the start of 2023 shows that the RDC Steering Committee has not made decisions or provided endorsements for any key decisions. The committee was not involved in endorsing the MBSP7 and RCP3 grant guidelines in 2023 and was not involved in strategic decision-making about the budget reprofiling in 2023 and the decision to remove the LEO satellite pilot from the Gig State program scope.

The RDC Program Control Group did not have terms of reference until February 2024. The purpose of the RDC Program Control Group is to oversee and support the strategic direction and implementation of the RDCP. This should be carried out through regular meetings and reporting, however the control group only met six times in 2023 despite an intention that they would meet monthly. The expected meeting frequency has since changed to every six weeks.

The RDC governance committees routinely discuss risks, but the department did not identify or mitigate all key risks at the outset of the program

The department has a structured approach to risk management for the RDCP, though this risk management approach has not always succeeded at mitigating key risks. The RDCP program team identified a number of key risks at the outset of each program and designed mitigations for them. In addition, the RDC Steering Committee and RDC Project Control Group both receive risk reports and discuss risks at meetings where appropriate. This reporting indicates a proactive approach to risk management throughout the program.

However, not all key risks were successfully mitigated or identified at the outset of the program. For example, one of the key causes of delays with the mobile coverage program has been protracted contract negotiations. Despite the fact that the program team understood the complexities of the mobile contract negotiations that would be required, this was not identified as a risk at the outset of the program. Later in the program this was identified by the RDC Program Control Group and Steering Committee as a key risk. While the risk was identified, it was not sufficiently mitigated, as demonstrated by the delays that resulted from the contract negotiations.

Other risks were not identified at the outset of the program. For example, the Snowy Mountains Highway Safety program was delayed due to the need to get development approval from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. There is no separate risk register for the Snowy Mountains Highway Safety program, and the potential for delays due to approval processes is not mentioned in any of the overall mobile business cases. Stronger initial project management may have allowed for this to be identified.

The Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton internet coverage program has been delayed numerous times throughout the course of its delivery. One of the key delays in 2023 was that, after the contract was signed and building works had commenced, it was discovered that challenging ground conditions with a higher than anticipated rock concentration around the towns was delaying construction. Potential delays from construction issues were not foreseen in the Gig State program risk register. While the specific issues relating to ground conditions may not have been easily foreseeable at the outset of the program, the department’s evaluation of potential providers in 2021 noted that rock was present and could have an impact on the cost of the program. It is reasonable to expect that this would have led to additional risk mitigation at the time, detailing the potential impact of the rock concentration on both cost and timelines. When the issue was eventually discussed in the RDC Project Control Group in 2023, the only mitigation for the risk was to review and monitor the existing and future schedule. This was not sufficient to mitigate the risk.

The department conducted cost-benefit analyses for all RDCP sub-programs, but did not implement the element with the highest return on investment

The ‘NSW Government Guide to Cost-Benefit Analysis’ requires that a cost-benefit analysis (CBA) be undertaken for capital, recurrent or ICT projects valued at more than $10 million. Undertaking a CBA provides a benefit-cost ratio (BCR) which helps to determine if a program will provide a net benefit to the people of New South Wales. A BCR greater than one indicates that the benefits will exceed the costs. For programs funded through the SHLF, such as the RDCP, there is no requirement for a program to achieve a BCR of greater than one.

The department conducted a CBA for the Gig State and mobile coverage programs, as well as all the sub-programs under both programs, including revising the CBA for the Gig State program after it was reviewed in late 2021. The BCR for the mobile coverage and Gig State programs are shown in Exhibit 3. Only the Gig State initial business case achieved a BCR of one, meaning that it delivers benefits equivalent to its costs. However, when this program was amended in 2021, this BCR reduced to 0.62. When combined, the RDCP does not have a BCR greater than one, meaning that it represents a net cost to New South Wales. However, as noted above, there is no requirement for the RDCP to reach a BCR of one.

Exhibit 3: BCR for each RDCP program.
Business CaseBCR
Mobile coverage project pilot0.59
Mobile coverage ASP main program0.19
Gig State1.00
Gig State addendum0.62

Source: Department of Regional NSW.

The highest BCR was calculated for the planned investment in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites which is an element of the Gig State addendum, but this investment did not go ahead. LEO satellites can be used to provide digital connectivity to isolated properties. They sit closer to the Earth’s surface than a geostationary satellite and can transmit data with lower delay and improved connectivity. This LEO satellite pilot was identified to deliver a BCR of 2.62, including approximately 40% of the benefits attributable to the Gig State addendum. The Gig State addendum anticipated that the pilot would commence in 2022, however the department did not proceed with this. The 2023 budget reduced the funding for the Gig State program, and the department decided to discontinue the proposed pilot. The department advises it plans to revisit the LEO satellite project in mid 2025.

The RDCP’s grant guidelines largely comply with mandatory NSW Government requirements

In September 2022, the NSW Government released the revised ‘Grants Administration Guide’ (the guide) which, among other things, sets out mandatory requirements for NSW Government grant guidelines. Premier’s Memorandum ‘M2022-07 Grants Administration Guide’ makes it mandatory for agencies to follow the requirements of the guide for all grants released from 19 September 2022.

The guide states that clear and consistent grant guidelines must be prepared that contain the purpose and objectives of the grant, selection criteria (comprising eligibility and assessment criteria) and assessment process, grant value, opening and closing dates, application outcome date, the source agency, and the decision-maker.

The department developed grant guidelines for grant schemes funded by the RDCP. The guidelines explain the application and selection process, eligibility criteria and assessment criteria, and key dates. These include:

  • Mobile Coverage Project – Active Sharing Partnership Grant Guidelines (September 2022)
  • Gig State Grant Guidelines (October 2022)
  • NSW Government Co-Investment in RCP3 and MBSP7 Program Guidelines (July 2023).

The guidelines for these three grant programs largely align with the requirements of the guide, but there were some gaps. The ASP pilot and Gig State program guidelines both note the contact person for complaints, but the RCP3 and MBSP7 guidelines do not state this. While the RCP3 and MBSP7 guidelines set out the relevant decision-maker and the role of key individuals in the assessment process, the guidelines for the ASP pilot did not identify the decision-maker and the Gig State Grant Guidelines did not provide the membership of the assessment panel making the recommendations.

The department’s grant programs were designed to target identified priority locations

Across the RDCP sub-programs, the department designed grant programs in a way that targeted funding towards its priority locations and other locations that met its eligibility criteria. The department has not been prescriptive about locations that would be funded through grant programs, but designed the programs in a way that encouraged providers to co-fund either the target locations or those that fit the criteria that the department was interested in funding.

For the Gig State grant program, the department released a list of preferred locations to potential applicants. The grant guidelines make clear that any proposals to build infrastructure to provide coverage to these areas would be given preferential treatment. The merit criteria are also aligned with this as the department awarded additional points for providing coverage to the target areas. Locations outside the preferred list were also eligible, provided they met the grant program’s objectives and eligibility criteria.

Similarly, for the mobile coverage ASP pilot program, the department released a list of preferred locations to potential applicants. The grant guidelines similarly encouraged potential applicants to follow this target list, both in terms of eligibility and also in terms of the way that the grants program provided additional points for providing coverage to the target areas. In addition, applicants could consider locations outside of the preferred list provided they met the grant program’s objectives and eligibility criteria set out in the grant guidelines.

For the co-funding opportunity with the Australian Government’s RCP3 and MBSP7 programs, a list of target locations was again provided. Applicants could consider locations outside of the target locations provided they were still eligible under Australian Government requirements for the RCP3 and MBSP7. Alternative solutions that provide mobile coverage on road corridors and mobile solutions for First Nations communities in other remote and very remote NSW locations could also be considered, however, funding was to be allocated to target locations and target transport corridors as a priority.

The department was not able to demonstrate a similar approach for the co-investment in the Mobile Black Spot Program Round 5A. The Australian Government developed eligibility criteria for the program, which align with the department’s mobile program objectives.

The department has selected grant recipients in line with its funding priorities

The department developed grant guidelines and an assessment methodology for the Gig State program and the ASP pilot program to guide its assessment panel, and applicants, through the process. The department assessed the applications for the Gig State and the ASP pilot grant programs against the eligibility and merit criteria contained in its guidelines, and in accordance with its assessment methodology. This resulted in the department funding locations that aligned with its target locations or areas that were in line with the purpose of each grant opportunity.

For the Gig State grant program, the department determined that projects were to be located in one of the 93 regional NSW Local Government Areas (LGA) identified in the grant guidelines. Eligible locations were in areas where internet access was via satellite services only and there were no committed or planned projects for fixed services in the area. The assessment panel for the Gig State grants recommended projects in 34 eligible locations from four applicants, for funding totalling $58.3 million (excl. GST), intended to bring improved connectivity to around 13,900 premises.

For the ASP pilot program, eligible locations were areas of regional NSW, where there was no existing handheld coverage provided by any Mobile Network Operators (MNO) or existing handheld coverage was provided by only one MNO. The assessment panel for the ASP pilot grants recommended 32 projects for funding totalling $30.4 million (excl. GST), intended to improve mobile coverage across ten regional LGAs. All other projects were considered not suitable for funding or ineligible.

The department provided a list of preferred locations for both grant programs. Applicants received a marginally higher score against assessment criteria if they put forward a preferred location but the location they identified could still be accepted if it was not in a preferred location but met the eligibility criteria. Funding was allocated to the majority of the Gig State program preferred locations identified in the Gig State business case addendum, but funding was allocated to only two of the 23 preferred locations identified in the business case for the ASP main program.

For the grants co-funded by the Australian Government (RCP3 and MBSP7), the department prioritised and selected grant recipients based on whether they met the eligibility criteria. It developed an assessment methodology to guide the assessment panel through this process. A probity advisor was present at both assessment panel meetings.

The department intends to further verify the RCP3 and MBSP7 application’s compliance with the RDCP objectives and eligibility criteria, following the assessment of applications by the Australian Government. Once verified, deeds will be negotiated and issued.

The department did not advise Government on the full cost of the Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton project, leading to a protracted and difficult process

The department’s process for awarding the grant to construct a fibre network for internet connectivity in the Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton regions was complex. The department appears to have estimated the initial costs of this program to be significantly higher than the funds allocated to the project. The department did not advise Government of this, and conducted the tender process based on the budget of $5 million committed by the Government. This budget proved insufficient, and the department had to request additional funds to contract the project. Not providing this advice to Government at an earlier stage means that the process which followed was more complex and protracted than it may have been if the department had provided this advice.

In January 2019, the NSW Government announced that it would provide $5 million to upgrade internet in the Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton region based on costings undertaken by a local community organisation. The department included this cost in the Gig State business case in December 2019 and also the Gig State addendum in September 2021. Documentation from late 2020 indicates that the department conducted an initial estimate that the full cost of the Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton project would be up to $16.3 million. It is unclear whether this was conducted before the Gig State business case was completed. The department was unable to provide the analysis that led to this initial cost estimate to the audit team. However, this indicates that the department was aware that the cost of the project would be greater than $5 million but did not provide this advice to Government. The additional cost was to be funded from the remainder of the Gig State business case.

In mid-2021, the department commenced a tender process with a budget of $5 million in January 2021. Only two applicants responded to this initial request for tender, and only one was evaluated as meeting the technical and construction requirements of the project. The cost estimates provided in the complying tender response were significantly higher than $5 million. As a result, the department did not award a contract following this tender.

The department then planned to undertake an in-depth analysis into alternative technology options. It noted the most promising option in terms of speed of delivery, quality of service, and value for money was LEO satellites. The department was unable to provide a copy of this analysis and so it is unclear the extent of the work undertaken to find alternative solutions for Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton rather than the construction of a fibre network to the premises.

After the initial market approach resulted in no contract being awarded, the department altered its procurement approach. A closed Expression of Interest (EOI) was sent to both respondents to the request for tender in November 2021 seeking a recommended technical solution, a proposed delivery method and timeframes. Both respondents achieved satisfactory scores for the EOI and were invited to submit a detailed design. As the department had determined through the tender process that the budget of $5 million was insufficient to ensure that it could provide internet services across the Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton region, the budget limit for the procurement was increased.

Both respondents submitted a detailed design and in May 2022 the department received approval to negotiate. The unsuccessful respondent scored marginally higher against the selection criteria. However, the assessment team considered that their proposal contained too much unmitigated risk. In May 2022, the department received approval to proceed to the negotiation phase with the successful proponent. Following this negotiation, a $9.5 million grant was awarded to the successful respondent to connect 1,352 premises. Around 140 premises were not included in the scope due to the significantly higher costs in connecting these premises.

The project cost has since increased to over $12 million, in part due to challenging terrain and ground conditions. Additional funding of around $1.7 million was also approved to connect an additional 134 properties that were identified during the detailed design phase. The department advises that these were initially missed due to boundary changes, incorrect council records and quality issues in the geospatial databases. It indicated that this is a separate group of properties to the 140 premises that were excluded due to higher connection costs.

The fact that the Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton project has a total cost of over $12 million, more closely aligned with the department’s internal cost estimate, indicates that fully advising Government of the costs may have saved significant time in the delivery of the project.

The department monitors the progress of its grant agreements but has not formalised its acquittal process

The department receives progress reports and milestone reports from grant recipients to assist in monitoring the progress of RDCP projects and assess if works provided match the requirements listed in the grant funding agreements. It also advises it has regular meetings with grant recipients, although no minutes are kept of these meetings.

The projects that have progressed to the construction phase are:

  • Mobile coverage to Brewarrina and Wilcannia through the mobile coverage ASP pilot
  • Improved internet to Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton.

The department receives regular progress reports for both projects, including some photographs and technical drawings. The reports provide information on progress against milestones and any changes to expected completion dates.

The department receives quarterly progress reports on improved internet for the Cobar corridor and the 56 other sites scheduled for fixed wireless internet, which are yet to progress to construction. The current scheduled completion date is March 2025. It also receives monthly reports on progress with mobile towers it is co-funding with the Australian Government as part of the Mobile Black Spot Program Round 5A.

The department provided few acquittal process documents or milestone acquittal documents, apart from the site qualification report for the Cobar corridor and its evaluation of the detailed design for the Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton project. The department advises it has an acquittal process in place for processing milestone reports, however it is yet to formalise this process. The three projects which have progressed enough to require acquittal are Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton, Wilcannia and Brewarrina, and the Cobar corridor.

The department has provided funding deeds for each project it has funded. Whilst the deeds include milestones, they do not include the dates for each milestone making it more difficult for the department to track the progress of each project.

The department’s approach to reporting its expenditure on consultants is inconsistent and does not always meet reporting requirements

Under the Annual Reports (Departments) Regulation 2015 agencies are required to report any consultancy engagements over $50,000 in their annual reports. The NSW Procurement Board Direction PBD-2023-05 Engagement of professional services suppliers defines a consultancy agreement as a type of professional services agreement where a person or organisation is engaged to provide recommendations or professional advice to assist decision-making by management.

The department has several professional services agreements as part of the RDCP, some of which are consultancy engagements within this definition and some of which contain elements of the contract that would be considered a consultancy agreement. For example, one of the major consultancy agreements involves providing strategic advice across the Gig State program, as well as providing advice on market engagement, and reviewing technical advice. This aligns with the definition of a consultancy agreement as the contracted organisation is providing professional advice to assist decision-making by management.

The department has not reported any of its agreements used as part of the RDCP in its annual reports, despite having several agreements that exceeded the $50,000 threshold which may fall into this definition.

The department advises that the agreements are categorised in the General Ledger as contractors and as such, are not required to be reported in the Department’s Annual Report. This interpretation is not in accordance with NSW Treasury and NSW Procurement Board requirements. It also identifies one contracted consultant as a ‘consultancy’ in its contract variation documentation but has not reported this expenditure in its annual reports.

Further, the department has not applied its interpretation consistently. For example, it has reported the preparation of some strategic and business planning documents as consultancies in its annual reports and not others.

The department is not monitoring the outcomes of the RDCP

Measuring outcomes of a program is important to determine whether that program is fulfilling its intended purpose. While many elements of the RDCP are still at an early stage, there is value in monitoring the outcomes of those elements which have completed construction to inform project implementation. There are no outcome measures for the effectiveness of the RDCP as a whole, and only limited measures for the mobile and Gig State programs. The department has the following outcome that it has set out for the Gig State program:

  • Improve the digital connectivity (accessibility) in rural and remote NSW communities.

When developing the final business case for the Gig State program, the department utilised the ADII scores to identify the digital divide between Metropolitan Sydney and rural NSW. The ADII uses data from the Australian Internet Usage Survey to measure digital inclusion across three dimensions of access, affordability and digital ability. While the department utilised the ADII to determine the baseline for accessibility of digital connectivity in regional and remote NSW communities, the department is not using the ADII to measure whether the program has led to improvements in these communities. This limits the department’s ability to determine whether the RDCP has met its objectives.

At the time of the Gig State business case being developed, rural NSW ADII scores were reported, allowing the department to utilise the figures as a baseline, but since 2020 these are not publicly reported. The department is in the process of determining how it can use ADII scores to measure the performance of the program over time.

In addition to the Gig State program outcome measure, the department has one outcome measure for its mobile coverage program:

  • Square kilometres with improved mobile coverage in regional NSW.

This outcome measure will not allow the department to understand the impact of the RDCP’s mobile coverage program. While measuring the number of square kilometres of coverage will allow the department to determine whether the mobile towers it is funding are achieving the intended extent of new mobile coverage, it will not allow the department to measure the quality of service, price of coverage, and other key information that could measure the impact of the new coverage.

In December 2023, the NSW Telco Authority released the NSW Digital Connectivity Index (DCI), which provides an overview of connectivity in each LGA and suburb across NSW. Each LGA and suburb is given a score out of 100 for access, affordability and demographics (as a proxy for the ability to use technology). The DCI includes several data points, including coverage from telecommunications providers, mobile signal strength, and internet speed. Given that the DCI includes useful data points and can allow for data to be inspected at the suburb level, there is an opportunity for the department to use this to identify the impact of its program both at a statewide level and in regions targeted for funding. However, the department has no plans to utilise the DCI to measure program performance.

In addition to not collecting data to measure the overall effectiveness of the RDCP, the department is also not collecting data to measure whether a number of the objectives of the Gig State and mobile coverage programs are being achieved. For example, both programs aim to reduce the price of digital services in regional areas, however there is no measurement of price in place to determine whether this is being achieved. Similarly, there is no plan in place to measure the speed of internet services or signal strength for mobile services, despite improvements in these things being part of the objectives of both programs as set out in their business cases.

The department is also not measuring whether there are improvements in competition in the mobile market through the mobile coverage program, despite one of the objectives of that program being to encourage competition in the regional telecommunications market. The department also has no plans to measure its contribution to the Closing the Gap target to understand the impact of the RDCP on Aboriginal communities. This is despite it identifying that seven locations with current or pending funding will support discrete Aboriginal communities. Four of these locations are part of the ASP project for Wilcannia and Brewarrina, and the other three are funded through the MBSP7 project.

The department has some output performance measures in place for the RDCP, but these focus on contracted outputs rather than outcomes

The department has identified performance measures for the program in reporting templates, in its final business cases for the Gig State and mobile coverage programs, and in its evaluation plan for the RDCP. These performance indicators measure the outputs of the program rather than the outcomes that would demonstrate whether program objectives have been met.

The measures that the department uses to report to NSW Treasury as part of its budgeting process have changed over time. Until June 2023, the department used two key output measures to determine the progress of the RDCP:

  • Number of premises covered by signed contracts to deliver upgraded internet connectivity.
  • Number of sites with signed contracts for new mobile coverage.

As noted, these are output measures and will not enable the department to determine whether the project is delivering its intended purpose. Since July 2023, the department has used two output measures:

  • Number of premises covered by signed contracts to deliver upgraded internet connectivity.
  • Contracted square kilometres for new and improved mobile coverage.

These four measures relate only to contracted coverage and do not provide a clear picture of ongoing progress with the construction and connection of new mobile and internet projects. Projects can have long lead times for a variety of reasons such as acquiring access to land, designing a solution and the time required to construct the solution. In addition, only measuring contracted coverage will not enable the department to determine whether these outputs are being delivered and will not reflect delays in those stages, nor will it enable the department to determine whether the towers are achieving their intended purpose. While there is value in measuring contracted coverage as an early lead indicator of performance, there is also value in reflecting the current state more accurately through measuring the progress of the construction of each project.

The department did not meet its original mobile coverage performance targets but met its Gig State program target

As noted above, the department had three metrics that it was using to measure the RDCP until June 2023. The department successfully achieved its Gig State program target but did not achieve its mobile coverage program targets. Exhibit 4 shows the results against targets for the RDCP measures. As can be seen, the result for square kilometres of improved mobile coverage delivered was significantly below the target.

Exhibit 4: Performance targets and results to June 2023.
MeasureTargetTarget dateResults
Square kilometres with improved mobile coverage in regional NSW36,00June 2023718
Number of premises covered by signed contracts to deliver upgraded internet connectivity2,500June 202313,330
Number of sites with signed contracts for new mobile coverage25June 202324*

* This comprises two towers funded through the ASP project and 22 towers co-funded through the Australian Government’s Mobile Black Spot Round 5A. This does not include five small towers for the Snowy Mountains Highway Safety project as the department has identified these as a temporary service.

Source: Audit Office analysis.

The department revised its performance measures after June 2023. This included revising output targets for the mobile and Gig state programs. The updated performance targets can be seen in Exhibit 5. The mobile coverage program performance measure was changed to measure the contracted square kilometres of new coverage rather than the actual square kilometres of new coverage. At the same time, the target value increased from 36,000 square kilometres to 60,000 square kilometres. The target value for the Gig State program was also updated compared to the 2023–24 target.

Exhibit 5: Revised 2023–24 performance targets.
MeasureTargetTarget date
Contracted square kilometres for new and improved mobile coverage60,000December 2028
Number of premises covered by signed contracts to deliver upgraded internet connectivity15,000December 2025

Source: Department of Regional NSW.

The department had nearly achieved its December 2025 target for contracted upgrades to internet connectivity by June 2023. As can be seen in Exhibit 4, 13,330 premises were covered by signed contracts to deliver upgraded internet connectivity as at June 2023.

In early 2023, the department estimated that it would have 12,279 square kilometres of new or improved mobile coverage delivered by December 2025. The department advised that it is likely to deliver on this forecast as early as December 2024, through its co-funding of two ASP locations and 22 locations under the Commonwealth’s Mobile Back Spot Program 5A.

There is uncertainty around whether the data the department is using is reliable to measure its performance

The department is collecting or planning to collect data from grant recipients to determine whether they are delivering the intended projects to the required quality. The funding deeds contain obligations on the quality and extent of the services to be provided by grant recipients and require that the contracted organisations report to the department on the construction and the extent of coverage (new ground covered for the mobile towers and number of premises connected for internet coverage). This aligns with the output measures set out above. The department is not collecting information that it could use to inform outcome measurement as part of its grant funding deeds with each grant recipient.

Grant recipients provide the department with the data that it has requested in line with the terms of the funding deeds. This information is collected through a regular schedule of status reporting. These status reports include information on progress with internet or mobile coverage, including the number of premises that will be able to connect to a service.

Information on the availability of fixed fibre connections to premises should be reliable, as with the Wamboin, Bywong and Sutton project. However, data on the availability and quality of fixed wireless internet connectivity and mobile coverage is likely to vary with terrain. While the department is collecting this information, it currently has no plans or a formal process to undertake validation testing following each project completion. This means that the department will not be able to provide assurance that the information collected is accurate.

The department has not updated the expected benefits of the program despite significant changes in scope

In September 2021, following a review of the Gig State program, the department prepared an addendum to the original Gig State business case to change the program from capital expenditure to operational expenditure, and set out a range of other changes. The department’s addendum to the business case noted that the approach to delivering benefits would remain the same, and it did not revisit the benefits realisation register nor attempt to recalculate expected benefits. Given the significant scope changes in the business case addendum, it is likely that there would have been an impact on expected benefits that would justify recalculating the program benefits.

This was not the only time where significant changes in the Gig State program’s operations did not result in an updated benefits realisation register. As noted in the introduction, the RDCP budget was reduced in the 2023 budget, and the remaining budget was extended out to 2028. As discussed above, the change in budget coincided with the department’s decision to discontinue the LEO satellite pilot, which was anticipated to deliver 40% of the financial benefits of the program. The change in budget profile for the program has likely led to a change in the benefits profile of the program, however the department has not updated its program assumptions in line with this change.

The department has documented key lessons learned from its funding rounds to date

Documenting lessons learned from early delivery of any given program is important, particularly pilot programs, to ensure that these can be incorporated into future program development. The department has documented lessons learned across the two programs of the RDCP, including the early grant rounds.

For its Gig State program, the department documented lessons learned in relation to the management of grants, industry engagement, the grant guidelines, the assessment of grants, and the time that the grants went to market. These lessons include reinforcing positive experiences, such as releasing a list of preferred locations to applicants, which the department believes served to encourage funds to be directed to those areas. The department also identified potential improvements, including how it communicated with industry and the data that it would request from future applicants. There have been no grant programs run through the Gig State program since these lessons were documented so it is not yet clear whether the department will implement changes as a result of these lessons learned.

As noted above, the mobile coverage ASP pilot program was delivered across two phases: the first phase involved working with industry to determine potential technical solutions, and the second phase was a grant program to deliver the preferred solutions. The department commissioned a lessons learned report of the first phase of the ASP pilot program with the intention of using this to inform the mobile coverage ASP main program business case development. The lessons learned report and the mobile coverage ASP main program business case were both completed in the same month, however, meaning that lessons could not be fully incorporated into that business case. The department has also identified additional lessons learned specifically in relation to the grant process. There have been no grant programs run through the mobile coverage ASP main program since these lessons were documented so it is not yet clear whether the department will implement changes as a result of these lessons learned.

In addition, the department has conducted an internal audit on the governance of the RDCP. The internal audit had largely positive findings about the governance structures and the grant guidelines. The internal audit did not make findings on the governance issues outlined above, such as not having finalised terms of reference. However, the internal audit did note that not all probity advice had been documented and some had been provided verbally, which increased the risk of grant processes not being undertaken with integrity.

The department has planned evaluations for all grant programs within the RDCP

The department has a draft evaluation plan for the RDCP that includes evaluations for each program to validate whether they have achieved their objectives, as well as finalised evaluation plans for each of the programs. Both process and outcome evaluations are planned. Process evaluations ensure that planned processes were followed and that lessons are learned for future grant programs. The department is planning process evaluations for when all funding deeds have been signed and outcome evaluations are planned for after project delivery is largely complete.

The sub-programs have not yet reached the point where the department will undertake outcome evaluations. The department has indicated that the outcome evaluations will be undertaken when each project has been delivered, which means that while it will determine whether the project has achieved its objectives, it will not be measuring outcomes on an ongoing basis to determine whether changes are needed for the program to meet its objectives. The funding deeds with grant recipients make it clear that the department will undertake an evaluation and may collect relevant information for this purpose. While the department should be able to collect information, the limitations in data collection noted above may need to be resolved to ensure that required data is available.

Appendix one – Response from agency

Appendix two – About the audit

Appendix three – Performance auditing

 

© Copyright reserved by the Audit Office of New South Wales. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without prior consent of the Audit Office of New South Wales. The Audit Office does not accept responsibility for loss or damage suffered by any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any of this material.

 

Parliamentary reference - Report number #397 released 27 June 2024.

Published

Actions for Government advertising 2022-23

Government advertising 2022-23

Finance
Transport
Whole of Government
Compliance
Management and administration
Procurement

About this report

The Government Advertising Act 2011 requires the Auditor-General to undertake a performance audit of the activities of one or more government agencies in relation to government advertising campaigns in each financial year.

This year, we examined two campaigns run by Transport for New South Wales (TfNSW) - 'Don't trust your tired self' (DTYTS) and 'Saving lives on country roads' (SLCR).

The audit assessed whether they were carried out effectively, economically, and efficiently, and complied with regulatory and policy requirements.

Audit findings

The DTYTS campaign complied with all requirements set out in the Act, the Regulation, and Government Advertising Guidelines - except for the requirement to complete an approved and complying cost-benefit analysis (CBA), as per the Guidelines.

The campaign had a clear target audience. It achieved many of its stated objectives and other performance measures and represented an economical and efficient spend.

However, TfNSW has not measured the campaign's long-term impact and this, combined with the lack of a complying CBA, meant that TfNSW could not confidently demonstrate the campaign's effectiveness.

The SLCR campaign (which commenced in 2017) was last run fully in 2021–22. TfNSW could have improved the formal documentation of its decision-making process when it cancelled the SLCR campaign.

TfNSW continued to run state-wide advertising campaigns – with regional components - to address road safety in regional NSW.

Recommendations

By 31 October 2024, TfNSW should implement processes that ensure:

  1. CBAs prepared for government advertising campaigns comply with the Government Advertising Guidelines
  2. long-term impacts of advertising campaigns are evaluated
  3. strategic and operational decision-making about advertising campaigns, such as starting, stopping or significantly changing a campaign, is well-documented and follows good practice.

 

The Government Advertising Act 2011 (the Act) sets out requirements that must be followed by a government agency when it carries out a government advertising campaign. The requirements prohibit any political advertising and require a peer review and cost-benefit analysis to be completed before the campaign commences. The accompanying Government Advertising Regulation 2018 (the Regulation) and 2012 NSW Government Advertising Guidelines (the Guidelines) address further matters of detail.

Section 14 of the Act requires the Auditor-General to conduct a performance audit on the activities of one or more government agencies in relation to government advertising campaigns in each financial year. The performance audit must assess whether a government agency (or agencies) has carried out activities in relation to government advertising campaigns in an effective, economical and efficient manner and in compliance with the Act, the Regulation, other laws and the Guidelines.

This audit examined Transport for NSW's (TfNSW) advertising campaigns 'Don't Trust Your Tired Self' and 'Saving Lives on Country Roads' for the 2022–23 financial year.

TfNSW is the NSW Government agency responsible for leading the development of safe, integrated and efficient transport systems for the people of New South Wales.

The Don't Trust Your Tired Self (DTYTS) campaign, which cost $3.04 million in 2022–23, aimed to educate drivers on how to avoid driving tired and encouraged them to consider how tired they were before driving.

The Saving Lives on Country Roads (SLCR) campaign, which commenced in December 2017, aimed to encourage country drivers1 to re-think the common excuses used to justify their behaviour on the road. In early 2024, after the audit commenced, the Department of Customer Service (DCS) advised the audit team that TfNSW did not run the SLCR campaign in 2022–23. This was subsequently confirmed by TfNSW. Instead, the SLCR branding was used for the regional element of the state-wide drink driving campaign. As a result, this audit examined the reasons and decision-making process for its cancellation.

The SLCR campaign cost $3.11 million in 2021–22, the last full year in which it was run, and $17,038 in 2022–23.

This part of the report sets out key aspects of Transport for NSW's (TfNSW) compliance with the Government Advertising regulatory framework for Don't Trust Your Tired Self (DTYTS). It considers whether the agency complied with the:

  • Government Advertising Act 2011 (the Act)
  • Government Advertising Regulation 2018 (the Regulation)
  • NSW Government Advertising Guidelines 2012 (the Guidelines) and other relevant policy.

This part of the report considers whether Transport for NSW's (TfNSW) advertising campaign Don't Trust Your Tired Self (DTYTS) was carried out in an effective, efficient and economical manner.

This part of the report examines the cancellation of the Saving Lives on Country Roads (SLCR) campaign. It focuses on the decision-making process and evidence for the cancellation of this campaign following its last delivery in 2021–22. It also draws out key implications.

Appendix one – Response from agencies

Appendix two – About the campaigns

Appendix three – About the audit

Appendix four – Performance auditing
 

© Copyright reserved by the Audit Office of New South Wales. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without prior consent of the Audit Office of New South Wales. The Audit Office does not accept responsibility for loss or damage suffered by any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any of this material.

 

Parliamentary reference - Report number #396 released 25 June 2024.

Published

Actions for Universities 2023

Universities 2023

Universities
Compliance
Cyber security
Financial reporting
Information technology
Internal controls and governance
Risk
Service delivery

About this report

Financial audit results of the NSW public universities’ financial statements for the year ended 31 December 2023.

Audit findings

Unmodified audit opinions were issued for all ten universities.

Eight universities reported net deficits. Three of these improved on their 2022 results.

Total fees and charges returned to pre-pandemic levels, with 40.5% earned from overseas students from three countries.

Employee related expenses increased 10.2% in 2023 mainly due to an additional 2,830 full time equivalent staff, in response to increased teaching and research activities.

Key issues

The number of findings reported to management has increased to 111 matters in 2023 up from 88 in 2022.

These included one high risk finding and 62 moderate risk findings, a 72% increase from last year.

Gaps identified in universities governance processes included delays in responding to findings and recommendations; staff not attesting compliance with codes of conduct annually; and not capturing and recording staff conflicts of interests within central registers.

Seven of the ten universities have cyber security risks above what they determine as an acceptable risk. Four universities did not have a cyber security uplift program.

Recommendations

Universities should address all recommendations made in the report (see Appendix one for a summary of these).

In particular, there should be a focus on prioritising remediation of wage underpayments to affected employees; ensuring a centralised conflict of interest register is maintained for all staff; considering emerging risks in university risk registers; ensuring controlled entities are considered when determining internal audit plans; and focusing efforts to improve cyber security risk management and cyber resilience capability.

This report provides NSW Parliament with the results of our 2023 financial audits of universities in New South Wales and their controlled entities, including analysis, observations and recommendations in the following areas:

  • financial reporting
  • internal controls and governance
  • teaching and enrolments
  • cyber security.

Financial reporting is an important element of good governance. Confidence and transparency in university sector decision-making are enhanced when financial reporting is accurate and timely.

This chapter outlines audit observations related to the financial reporting of universities in NSW for 2023.

Appropriate financial controls help to ensure the efficient and effective use of resources and administration of policies. They are essential for quality and timely decision-making. Effective governance is essential for the stability, sustainability and ethical operation of universities. It ensures accountability, transparency and promotes responsible decision making.

This chapter outlines our observations and insights from our financial statement audits of NSW universities.

Our audits do not review all aspects of internal controls and governance every year. The more significant issues and risks are included in this chapter. These, along with the less significant matters, are reported to universities for management to address.

Section highlights

  • The 2023 audits identified one high risk finding which has been carried forward since 2018. There were 62 moderate risk issues also identified across NSW universities.
  • Seventeen of the moderate risk issues were repeat issues. Repeat issues mainly related to information technology controls around user access management, privileged user review, outdated policies and procedures, payroll and procurement processing improvements.
  • The number of findings reported to management has increased to 111 matters in 2023 up from 88 in 2022.
  • The number of overall repeat deficiencies has decreased with 32 reported in 2023 compared to 41 in 2022. 
  • Seven universities do not require staff to annually attest to the Code of Conduct.
  • Four universities did not capture and record conflicts of interests for all staff within a centralised register.
  • All universities have developed risk management frameworks, policies, appetite statements and registers however improvements are needed.

Universities' primary objectives are the functions of teaching and research. They invest most of their resources aiming to achieve quality outcomes in academia and student experience. Universities have committed to achieving certain government targets and compete to advance their reputation and their standing in international and Australian rankings.

This chapter outlines teaching and enrolment outcomes for universities in NSW for 2023.

Section highlights

  • Six universities were reported as having full-time employment rates of their domestic undergraduates in 2023 that were greater than the national average.
  • Overall student enrolments at NSW universities increased, with higher enrolments in Health, Information Technology and Engineering related courses.
  • On average, universities delivered 52% of courses face to face, an increase from 45% reported in 2022.
  • Five universities in 2023 were reported as meeting the target enrolment rate for students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds.
  • Only one metropolitan based university reported increased enrolments of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in 2022.

This chapter of the report focuses on the cyber risk environment for universities, how universities have assessed that risk, what frameworks they use to strategically identify controls that respond to those risks, and the extent to which they have implemented or have plans to implement those controls. We also address some specific controls in respect of cyber resilience.

Section highlights

  • Seven of the ten universities have cyber security risks above what they have determined as an acceptable risk level.
  • One university did not assess its current cyber security maturity, which is a recommended practice to support prioritisation of cyber security improvements.
  • Four universities did not have a formal cyber security uplift program.
  • One university did not have a specific budget for improving its cyber security.

Appendix one – List of 2023 recommendations

Appendix two – Status of 2022 recommendations

Appendix three – Universities' controlled entities

 

Copyright notice

© Copyright reserved by the Audit Office of New South Wales. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without prior consent of the Audit Office of New South Wales. The Audit Office does not accept responsibility for loss or damage suffered by any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any of this material.

Published

Actions for Oversight of the child protection system

Oversight of the child protection system

Community Services
Justice
Compliance
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Procurement
Risk
Service delivery
Shared services and collaboration
Workforce and capability

About this report

This audit assessed the effectiveness of the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) in planning, designing, and overseeing the NSW child protection system.

The audit used 'follow the dollar' powers to assess the performance of five non-government organisations (NGOs), that were contracted to provide child protection services. More information about how we did this is included in the full report.

Findings

The NSW child protection system is inefficient, ineffective, and unsustainable.

Despite recommendations from numerous reviews, DCJ has not redirected its resources from a ‘crisis driven’ model, to an early intervention model that supports families at the earliest point in the child protection process.

DCJ's organisational structure and governance arrangements do not enable system reform.

DCJ has over 30 child protection governance committees with no clarity over how decisions are made or communicated, and no clarity about which part of DCJ is responsible for leading system improvement.

DCJ's assessments of child protection reports are labour intensive and repetitive, reducing the time that caseworkers have to support families with services.

DCJ has limited evidence to inform investments in family support services due to a lack of data about the therapeutic service needs of children and families. This means that DCJ is not able to provide relevant services for families engaged in the child protection system. DCJ is not meeting its legislated responsibility to ensure that families have access to services, and to prevent children from being removed to out of home care.

DCJ does not monitor the wellbeing of children in out of home care. This means that DCJ does not have the information needed to meet its legislative responsibility to ensure that children 'receive such care and protection as is necessary for their safety, welfare and well-being’.

In August 2023, there were 471 children living in costly and inappropriate environments, such as hotels, motels, and serviced apartments. The cost of this emergency accommodation in 2022–2023 was $300 million. DCJ has failed to establish ‘safe, nurturing, stable and secure’ accommodation for children in these environments.

Since 2018–19, the number of children being returned to their parents from out of home care has declined. During the five years to 2022–23, families have had limited access to restoration services to support this process.

Recommendations

The audit made 11 recommendations to DCJ. They require the agency to identify accountability for system reform, and to take steps to ensure that children and families have access to necessary services and support.

 

The child protection system aims to protect children and young people under 18 years old from risk of abuse, neglect, and harm. In NSW, child protection services can include investigations of alleged cases of child abuse or neglect, referrals to therapeutic services for family members, the issuing of care and protection orders, or the placement of children and young people in out of home care if it is deemed that they are unable to live safely in their family home.

A key activity in the child protection process is to determine whether a child is at ‘risk of significant harm’ as defined by Section 23 of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998. The Act describes significant harm as when ‘the child's or young person's basic physical or psychological needs are not being met or are at risk of not being met'. The Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) has developed a process for determining risk of significant harm. It requires multiple assessments of child concern reports and at least two separate assessments of the child in the home. This process can take a number of months, and until all of these activities are complete, DCJ describes the child as suspected or presumed to be at risk of significant harm.

DCJ has primary responsibility for the child protection system in NSW. DCJ is both a provider of child protection services and a purchaser of child protection services from non-government organisations (NGOs). As system steward, DCJ has a role to establish the policy environment for child protection services and operations. In addition, DCJ is responsible for all governance and reporting arrangements for the commissioned NGOs that deliver services on its behalf, as well as for the governance and reporting arrangements of its own DCJ staff. DCJ must ensure that the child protection system is achieving its intended outcomes – to protect and support children in ways that meet their best interests - as described in legislation.

This audit assessed the effectiveness of DCJ’s planning, design, and oversight of the statutory child protection system in NSW. We assessed whether DCJ was effective in ensuring:

  • there is quality information to understand and effectively plan for child protection services and responses
  • there are effective processes to manage, support, resource, and coordinate child protection service models and staffing levels
  • there is effective oversight of the quality and outputs of child protection services and drivers of continuous improvement.

To do this, the audit assessed the statutory child protection system with a particular focus on:

  • initial desktop assessments and triaging of child protection reports
  • family visits and investigations of child protection reports
  • case management services and referrals to services
  • the management of all types of care and protection orders
  • the assessments and placements of children in out of home care.

The audit also assessed the performance of five NGOs that provide commissioned child protection services. Collectively, in 2021–2022, the five audited NGOs managed approximately 25% of all out of home care services in NSW. The policies, practices, and management reporting of the five NGOs was assessed for effectiveness in relation to the following:

  • quality of data used to understand service requirements
  • arrangements for operational service delivery to meet identified needs
  • governance arrangements to deliver safe and quality out of home care services under contract arrangements with DCJ.

This audit was conducted concurrently with another audit: Safeguarding the rights of Aboriginal children in the child protection system.

The child protection system aims to protect children and young people (aged less than 18 years) from the risks of abuse, neglect, and harm. Child protection services can include investigations, (which may or may not lead to substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect), care and protection orders, and out of home care placements.

The Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) has statutory responsibility for assessing whether a child or young person is in need of care and protection. DCJ’s Child Protection Helpline receives and assesses reports of possible child abuse or neglect. If the information in the report is assessed as meeting a threshold for risk of significant harm, DCJ caseworkers at Community Service Centres investigate the report and decide on a course of action. Follow-up actions can include referring the family to services, visiting the family to conduct ongoing risk and safety assessments of the child, or closing the case. If a child is determined to be unsafe, the child may be removed from the family home and placed in out of home care.

Non-government organisations (NGOs) are funded by the NSW Government to provide services to children and young people who require out of home care and other support services. NGOs provide approximately half of all out of home services in NSW, and DCJ provides the other half.

Government agencies such as Health, Education and Police also play a role in child protection processes, particularly in providing support for children and families where there are concerns about possible abuse or neglect. NSW Health provides some support services for families, along with the Department of Communities and Justice. Exhibit 1 shows some headline child protection statistics for NSW in 2022–2023.

Exhibit 1: Child protection statistics in 2022–2023
 

404,611

Report to the Child Protection Helpline

 

112,592

Children suspected to be at risk of significant harm

27,782

Children received a safety assessment by DCJ caseworker 

10,059

Children (and families) provided with caseworker services or targeted therapeutic services to support safety

$3.1b

Total expenditure on child protection, out of home care, and family support services

$1.9b

Expenditure on out of home care services

$0.4b

Expenditure of family support services 

14,473

Children in out of home care 30 June 2023

 

471

Children living in high cost, emergency arrangements

Source: Audit Office summary of DCJ data on child protection statistics.

DCJ has not made progress in shifting the focus and resources of the child protection system to an early intervention model of care, as recommended by major system reviews

DCJ has not readjusted its resource profile so that its operating model can take a more preventative approach to child protection. A preventative approach requires significant early intervention and support for families and children soon after a child has been reported as being at risk of significant harm. This approach has been recommended by a number of reviews into the child protection system.

In 2015, the Independent Review of Out of Home Care in New South Wales recommended an investment approach that uses client data and cost-effective, evidence-based interventions to reduce entries to out of home care and improve outcomes for families and children.

The NSW Government response to the Independent Review of Out of Home Care in New South Wales was a program entitled: Their Futures Matter. This program commenced in November 2016 and was intended to place vulnerable children and families at the heart of services through targeted investment of resources and services. A 2020 report from our Audit Office found that ‘while important foundations were laid and new programs trialled, the key objective of establishing an evidence-based whole of government early intervention program … was not achieved. The majority of $380 million in investment funding remained tied to existing agency programs, with limited evidence of their comparative effectiveness.’

DCJ’s expenditure since 2018–2019 shows that most additional funding has been used to address budget shortfalls for out of home care, and to expand the numbers of frontline case workers. Budget increases show that during the period from 2018–2019 to 2022–2023, DCJ’s expenditure on out of home care increased by 36%, and expenditure on caseworkers increased by 26%. DCJ’s expenditure on family support services, including early intervention and intensive support services, increased by 31% during the audit period.

These resourcing priorities indicate that DCJ has not shifted its focus or expenditure in ways which reorient the child protection system. DCJ has not dedicated sufficient resources to early intervention, and therapeutic support for families and children, in order to implement the recommended changes made by systemwide child protection reviews.

In 2019, the Family is Culture Review recommended increased investment in early intervention support services to prevent more Aboriginal children entering out of home care, with a preference for these services to be delivered by Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations. Progress towards enhancing a culturally appropriate service profile has been limited. DCJ last published progress against the Family is Culture recommendations in August 2021, when it reported that projects to increase financial investment in early intervention services were under review.

Data from March 2023 shows that 89% of the DCJ-funded, family support service volume across NSW is delivered by mainstream providers compared with ten per cent provided by Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, and one per cent by culturally specific providers. Given that Aboriginal children make up approximately half of all children in out of home care, there is still significant work required to shift the service profile.

DCJ’s governance arrangements are not structured in a way that ensures transparency and accountability for system reform activity and service improvements

DCJ’s organisational structure reflects multiple operational and policy functions across its three branches - the Commissioning Branch, the Operational Branch, and the branch responsible for Transforming Aboriginal Outcomes. Some branches have responsibility for similar functions, and it is not clear where overall executive-level accountability resides for system reform. For example, all three branches have a policy function, and there is no single line of organisational responsibility for this function, and no indication about which branch is responsible for driving system reform.

DCJ has over 30 governance committees and working groups with responsibilities for leadership and oversight of the statutory child protection and out of home care system. DCJ’s governance committees include forums to provide corporate and operational direction, to make financial and resourcing decisions, and to provide leadership and program oversight over the different functions of child protection and out of home care. Some committees and working groups oversee DCJ’s activity to meet government strategic priorities and respond to the findings and recommendations of child protection and out of home care reviews and commissions of inquiry.

Much of DCJ’s work in child protection and out of home care is interdependent, but its governance arrangements have not been structured in a way that show the lines of communication across the Department. There is no roadmap to show the ways in which decisions are communicated across the various operational and corporate segments of DCJ’s child protection and out of home care business operations.

In 2022, DCJ commenced activity to reorganise its operational committees into a four-tier structure, with each tier representing a level in the hierarchy of authority, decision-making and oversight. Draft documents indicate the ways in which the new organisational structure will facilitate communication through the different business areas of DCJ to the Operations Committee where most of the high-level decisions are made or authorised before being referred to the Executive Board for sign off. The new governance arrangements indicate a more transparent process for identifying Department and divisional priorities across policy and programs, though the process for reforming governance processes was not complete at the time of this audit.

DCJ’s strategic planning documents do not contain plans to address the pressure points in the child protection system or address the increasing costs of out of home care. After the merger of the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) and the Department of Justice, DCJ’s Strategic Directions 2020–2024 document sets out the direction for the expanded Department in generalised terms. While it describes DCJ’s values, and describes an intention to improve outcomes for Aboriginal people and reduce domestic and family violence, it does not contain enough detail to describe a blueprint for Departmental action.

In April 2023, DCJ published a Child Safe Action Plan for 2023 to 2027. This plan includes a commitment to hear children’s voices and to ‘improve organisational cultures, operations and environment to prevent child abuse’. In September 2023, the NSW Government committed to develop ‘long-term plans to reform the child protection system and repair the budget, as part of its plan to rebuild essential services and take pressure off families and businesses'. Any activity to implement these commitments was not able to be audited, as it was too soon to assess progress at the time of this report publication.

DCJ’s expenditure priorities predominantly reinforce its longstanding operating model – to focus on risk assessments and out of home care services rather than early intervention

More than 60% of DCJ’s budget for child protection is spent on out of home care. In the five years from 2018–2019, DCJ’s expenditure on out of home care increased by 36% from $1.39 billion in 2018−19 to $1.9 billion in 2022–23.

During the same timeframe, DCJ’s expenditure on risk report assessments and interventions at the Helpline and Community Service Centres increased by 25%. It grew from $640 million in 2018–2019 to $800 million in 2022–2023. This not only reinforced the existing model of child protection, it expanded upon it, at the expense of other activity.

While DCJ’s expenditure on family support services increased by 31% from $309 million in 2018–2019 to $405 million in 2022–2023, it remains a small component of DCJ’s overall expenditure at 13% of the total budget spend in 2022−2023, as shown at Exhibit 6.

Exhibit 6: Report on Government Services - Productivity Commission
Expenditure ($b)

2018–19

2019–20

2020–21

2021–22

2022–23

% of total 2022–23

Increase 2018–19 to 2022–23 (%)

Out of Home Care

1.392

1.527

1.561

1.713

1.892

61

36

Risk and safety assessments & interventions at the Helpline & Community Service Centres

0.640

0.651

0.685

0.737

0.800

26

25

Family support services inc. early intervention and intensive support services

0.309

0.322

0.319

0.338

0.405

13

31

Total

2.342

2.501

2.565

2.788

3.097

100

32


Note: Expenditure is actual spending in each year, not adjusted for inflation. Totals may be more than the sum of components due to rounding. percentages may not sum to 100 due to rounding.

Source: Audit Office analysis of Productivity Commission data published in Reports on Government Services 2024, Table 16A.8.

DCJ has not done enough to support the transition of Aboriginal children to the Aboriginal community controlled sector as planned

In 2012, the NSW Government made a policy commitment to ensure the transfer of all Aboriginal children in out of home care to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations. DCJ acknowledges that over the past 12 years, the NSW Government has made limited progress in facilitating this transition.

In June 2023, a total of 1,361 children were managed by Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations across NSW. At the same time, 1,746 Aboriginal children were being case managed by non-Aboriginal NGO providers, and 3,456 Aboriginal children were case managed by DCJ. In total there were 5,202 Aboriginal children waiting to be transferred to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations in June 2023.

The transition process was planned and intended to occur over a ten year timeframe from 2012 to 2022. This has not been successful. DCJ has revised its timeframes for the transition process, and now aims to see the transfer of the ‘majority’ of Aboriginal children to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations by June 2026. At the current rate of transition, it would take over 50 years to transfer all 5,202 children to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, so this timeframe is ambitious and will require close monitoring by DCJ.

The cost of transitioning all 5,202 Aboriginal children from DCJ and the non-Aboriginal NGOs to the Aboriginal Community Controlled sector will add close to $135 million to the NSW Government out of home care budget. The increased costs are due to the higher costs of administration, accreditation, and oversight of services provided by the Aboriginal Community Controlled sector.

DCJ has prioritised the transfer of Aboriginal children from non-Aboriginal NGOs to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations before the transfer of Aboriginal children from DCJ’s management. This prioritisation is due, in part, to the fact that most of the non-Aboriginal carers of Aboriginal children are with NGOs. NGO contract requirements should have been one of the drivers of the transition of Aboriginal children to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations.

The most recent NGO contracts, issued in October 2022, required that NGOs develop an Aboriginal Community Controlled transition plan by 31 December 2022. This timeframe was extended to 30 June 2023. All of the NGOs we audited have now prepared detailed transition plans for the transition of Aboriginal children, including service plans that identify risks and document collaborative efforts with Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations.

One important requirement in the success of the transitions, is the willingness of carers to switch from their existing NGO provider to an Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation. During the period of this audit DCJ failed to provide sufficient information to carers, to assure them of the NSW Government’s commitment to the transition process. Since July 2023 DCJ has written to carers of Aboriginal children case managed by non-Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations and provided them with more information about the transition process.

NGOs have had limited success in transitioning Aboriginal children to Aboriginal services, and can do more to report on activity, so that system improvements can be made

Non-Aboriginal NGOs have had limited success in transferring Aboriginal children to the Aboriginal-controlled out of home care sector. For example, of the approximately 1,700 Aboriginal children that were managed by non-Aboriginal providers in 2022–2023, 25 Aboriginal children were transferred from non-Aboriginal NGOs to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations in that year. While DCJ controls the key drivers in this transition, there is limited evidence that NGOs have initiated consultations with Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations during the audit period.

NGOs advised that some of their carers do not want to transition to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, and this is slowing the transfer process. NGO contracts in force until September 2022 required that: ‘The express agreement of carers must be sought prior to the transfer of an Aboriginal Child to an Aboriginal Service Provider.’ This audit was not able to verify the extent to which carers have resisted the move to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations.

DCJ did not provide NGOs with sufficient direction, coordination, or governance through its contract arrangements to effect transitions from non-Aboriginal NGOs to Aboriginal NGOs. DCJ has established a project control group with representatives from NGO peak bodies and has set up an internal program management office to manage the transition.

There are limited drivers for the transition of Aboriginal children to Aboriginal-controlled services, and financial risks for both Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations and non-Aboriginal NGOs in the process

Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations and non-Aboriginal NGOs are carrying significant financial risk due to a lack of certainty in the transition process of Aboriginal children to the Aboriginal Community Controlled sector. These agencies are responsible for planning and making changes to their business models in order to facilitate the transition process. DCJ does not provide funds for this activity.

Some non-Aboriginal NGOs have high numbers of Aboriginal children in their care. These agencies risk financial viability if children and their carers are transitioned in a short space of time. There is a degree of uncertainty about the timelines for transitions to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, and the numbers of children that will be transitioned at any given time.

Non-Aboriginal NGOs are not in a position to require Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations to take Aboriginal children. Similarly, Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations cannot compel the transition of children to their care. There are no real system drivers for this activity, and some financial disincentives for NGOs supporting large Aboriginal caseloads.

Throughout 2023, some Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations have been upscaling their businesses to prepare for the transition of Aboriginal children to their care. They have employed additional caseworkers and enhanced administrative and infrastructure arrangements to take on new children, without receiving new intakes. They report that they have been financially disadvantaged by the failure of the transition process. Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations advise that they don’t expect confirmation of the child transition process and timelines until 2024 and must carry the financial consequences of upscaling.

 

DCJ does not collect sufficient data to assess the effectiveness of its child protection service interventions and does not know whether they lead to improved outcomes

DCJ does not collect sufficient information to understand whether its child protection risk and safety interventions are effective in protecting children from abuse, neglect, exploitation, and violence.

DCJ is the sole entity with responsibility to make assessments of children after there has been a child protection report. After a child has been reported, DCJ caseworkers conduct a range of assessments of the child and family context, to determine whether the child is at risk of significant harm. If DCJ caseworkers determine that a child is ‘in need of care and protection,’ Section 34 of the Care Act requires DCJ to ‘take whatever action is necessary to safeguard and promote the safety, welfare and well-being of the child or young person’, including ‘providing, or arranging for the provision of, support services for the child or young person and his or her family’.

DCJ has limited measures to assess the effectiveness of its service interventions. DCJ monitors and reports on the number of children who are re-reported within 12 months after receiving a DCJ caseworker intervention. However, DCJ does not monitor or report any comparative data that would potentially demonstrate the effectiveness of its service interventions. For example, DCJ does not collate and publish data on re-report rates of children who do not receive a DCJ service intervention. This comparative data would give DCJ greater understanding about the effectiveness of its service interventions.

In addition, DCJ’s re-report data does not differentiate between re-reports of children that are substantiated, from those that are not. Children can be re-reported for a variety of reasons. Some re-reports are of children who are not at increased risk of significant harm. Therefore, the current re-report data is a limited measure of the effectiveness of DCJ’s service interventions.

DCJ does not collect data or compare outcomes based on the kinds of services that are accessed by children and families. For example, DCJ does not report on instances where families were denied service interventions because support services were full, or did not exist in their region. DCJ does not collect data or report on children who were taken into out of home care in areas where there were no available services to support the family.

DCJ caseworkers can support families by making referrals to drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, family violence services, parenting support courses, or mental health services. It is not known whether families receive services that are relevant to their needs. Some services are offered as additional DCJ caseworker support, some are NGO funded support packages, some offer therapeutic interventions, and some are provided via external government agency services, such as NSW Health. Support services are highly rationed in NSW, and many families engaged in the child protection system do not have access to them.

Limited outcomes data and reporting means that DCJ cannot demonstrate how its actions and service interventions are reducing risks and harms to children, and promoting their safety, welfare, and wellbeing in line with the Care Act.

While child protection reports have significantly increased over the past ten years, around 40% do not meet the threshold for suspected abuse and neglect to warrant a response

The overall number of child protection reports received by the Helpline has increased significantly over the past ten years. Reports to the Helpline ensure that children at risk of significant harm come to the attention of DCJ, but around 40% of reports do not meet the threshold of abuse and neglect to warrant a child protection report and response from child protection caseworkers. DCJ has finite resources, and responding to reports that do not require intervention reduces the capacity of DCJ to effectively respond to children who are at risk of significant harm.

In 2022–2023, the Helpline received 404,611 concern reports, an increase of over 60% since 2012–2013 when there were 246,173 reports. Between 2012–2013 and 2017–2018, reports grew slowly, then increased rapidly for three following years up until 2021. While the number of Helpline reports fell in 2021–2022, this reduction was partly due to a drop in reports by teachers during COVID school closures, and was not maintained in 2022–2023.

DCJ attributes the rapid growth in child protection reports to increasing awareness amongst mandatory reporters about their statutory responsibilities to report, along with the introduction of the online reporting option. Mandatory reporters include medical practitioners, psychologists, teachers, social workers, and police officers. These personnel are legally required to report children that they suspect are at risk of significant harm. In one 3-month period from April to June 2021 there were over 40,000 reports from mandatory reporters that did not meet the threshold that activates a statutory child protection response from DCJ caseworkers. The assessment of these reports consumes significant resources, costing over $4 million during the three month period in 2021, which equates to over $15 million per annum.

In 2010, Child Wellbeing Units were established so that mandatory reporters from Education, Police and Health could be assisted in child protection reporting. The units were established in response to recommendations made by the Wood Special Commission of Inquiry into Child Protection Services. They aimed to reduce the number of reports to the Helpline and to support mandatory reporters to assist children and families to receive an appropriate response. DCJ managers advise that the units are underutilised, and mandatory reporters continue to submit reports to the Helpline. The Child Wellbeing Units have not successfully reduced the overall number of reports to the Helpline.

DCJ advised that it is evaluating the Child Wellbeing Units and is developing new guidance for mandatory reporters that aims to address the culture of over-reporting.

Exhibit 7 shows the ten years of Helpline reports from 2012–2013 to 2022–2023.

DCJ does not collate or analyse its service referral data, and as a result, is unable to commission relevant services for families engaged in the child protection system

DCJ lacks data to understand the supply and demand requirements for therapeutic services across the child protection system. DCJ does not collect or report aggregate data about service referrals for children and families, nor does DCJ report data about service uptake across its Districts. DCJ does not collect the necessary information to plan for commissioned therapeutic services, or to fill its service gaps. DCJ does not know whether its funded services are competing with, or complimentary to, services funded by other agencies.

DCJ is required to monitor its therapeutic service interventions in order to comply with the objectives and principles of the Care Act. The Care Act requires that ‘appropriate assistance is rendered to parents and other persons … in the performance of their child-rearing responsibilities in order to promote a safe and nurturing environment’, and that any intervention ‘must … promote the child’s or young person’s development.

DCJ does not collect reliable data on the success of service referrals after a child has been identified as being at risk of significant harm. DCJ does not collect information or report on the uptake and outcomes of its referrals where there is a low to intermediate risk of significant harm to the child or young person. In most cases, DCJ does not know whether children or families received a therapeutic service after a referral. The uptake of referrals is voluntary, and families may decide that they do not want to access therapeutic services. DCJ does not routinely record data about the numbers of families that decline services.

DCJ does not collect data on instances where a referral was needed but not made because there was no available service in the District or there were no available places in the service. It is well known within DCJ that therapeutic services are lacking in regional and remote NSW. These include poor access to paediatricians and adolescent psychiatrists, disability assessors, mental health services, alcohol and other drug rehabilitation services, and domestic violence services.

Over the past five years, there is no evidence that DCJ has conducted an assessment of the statewide therapeutic service needs of children and families in NSW, or matched its statewide service profile to these needs through the targeted commissioning of therapeutic services. There has been a lack of system stewardship to ensure there is equity of service access for children and families in all Districts.

In each District, Commissioning and Planning units undertake market analyses at the point when programs are due for recommissioning, generally every three to five years. This market analysis includes an assessment of the availability of local services. There is no consistency in how this work is done across the Districts. While the purpose of District-level, market analysis is to identify gaps and opportunities for services, we did not find evidence of services being newly commissioned where gaps were identified.

District-level Commissioning and Planning units conduct some assessment of the demographics of the local area, as well as information about socio-economic characteristics, and expected population growth. For example, one DCJ District identified that their population is expected to grow by 33% by 2031. This means that more contracts for family preservation places will be needed. Another District identified that they do not have culturally appropriate services. However, the contracts for this District are in place for at least three years, so the District cannot provide the required service profile for local families.

While DCJ is taking some steps to arrange an expanded service profile, the efforts are piecemeal. Different programs are managed and commissioned across different parts of DCJ. For example, one District has developed a localised partnership with the Ministry of Health, but DCJ has not developed a state-wide Memorandum of Understanding with NSW Health to give priority access to all children engaged in the statutory child protection system.

In 2015, the Independent Review of Out of Home Care in New South Wales recommended that DCJ ‘establish local cross-agency boards in each … district to provide local advice, and commission services in line with its priorities and defined outcomes.’ In response, DCJ developed a program known as Their Futures Matter. In 2020, the NSW Audit Office’s assessed this program and found that DCJ had not established any cross-agency boards with the power to commission services. At the time of this audit, in 2024, there is no evidence that DCJ has created cross-agency boards.

DCJ advises that, in future, it plans to issue extra contracts to increase the number of intensive therapeutic care services. DCJ is using data on the locations of children in emergency out of home care placements as part of its needs analysis. The process includes mapping the service system across the State. DCJ’s work to date, has identified a lack of intensive therapeutic care places in Western NSW. The lack of services in Western NSW impacts on the ability of DCJ to keep Aboriginal children on their traditional country, and connected to family and kin.

DCJ is using District-level data in its future-focused recommissioning for family preservation services. DCJ advises that, commencing in 2024, the agency will identify family support service requirements by matching data on instances of risk of significant harm to children by category of harm, and assess service availability at the District level. This audit has not received evidence that the work has begun.

DCJ lacks an integrated performance management system to collect, collate, and compare data about the effectiveness of NGO providers or the outcomes of child support programs

DCJ does not have an integrated performance management system to manage its many programs and contracts with NGO service providers. DCJ advises that at March 2024, it had 1,816 active contracts in its contract management system. DCJ has multiple reporting systems for its different program streams, with information on early intervention programs provided through a different information technology system than the system that is used for out of home care placements. Central program teams do not have good oversight of historical data or trends.

Until 2022, data related to DCJ’s Family Preservation Program was collected separately from each NGO provider, via quarterly spreadsheets. There was no consistency in the ways in which the data was collated or analysed. This means that DCJ does not know how many families entered the Brighter Futures program in each District, even though contracts were issued at a District level and over 7,000 families entered Brighter Futures program in 2018–2019, 2019–2020 and 2020–2021. DCJ does not have a statewide view of the location or effectiveness of this, or any of its other family preservation services.

Contracts with NGOs for out of home care contain service volume requirements, for example a minimum number of children in out of home care each year. Contracts also include performance measures and financial penalties for underperformance. Underperformance includes failure to notify DCJ about out of home care placement changes within contracted time periods. Due to problems with NGOs accessing the ChildStory system, DCJ does not collect reliable data on out of home care placements provided by NGOs and therefore DCJ is not able to issue financial penalties.

DCJ has also failed to deliver expected outcomes from the Human Services Dataset. The dataset was recommended by the 2015 Independent Review of Out of Home Care, and approved by the NSW Government in August 2016. The aim of the dataset was to bring together a range of service demand data in order to prioritise support for the most vulnerable children and families. It was intended to deliver whole-of-system reform that would lead to improved outcomes for children and families with the highest needs.

The dataset brings together 27 years of data, and over seven million records about children, young people, and families. The records contain de-identified information about all NSW residents born on or after 1 January 1990 (the Primary Cohort) and their relatives such as family members, guardians, and carers (the Secondary Cohort). The Independent Review of Out of Home Care recommended that the dataset include information about the service requirements of the most vulnerable families. This recommendation has not been implemented to date. The Human Services Dataset does not contain records about the service interventions made by NGOs, and has minimal child protection and out of home care placement data.

DCJ’s package-based funding system has not been successful in tailoring services to children in out of home care

When a child is transferred to an NGO for out of home care services, DCJ provides the NGO with relevant funding packages to support the child. NGOs receive different funding packages according to the care needs of the child. Some packages relate to the placement of the child, whether it be a foster care placement, or an intensive therapeutic care placement for children with complex needs. Other packages relate to the permanency goals for each child. These goals can include restoring the child to their parents, establishing the child in long-term foster care, or supporting the child through an adoption process. Each funding package is based on an average cost for the different service type.

While the funding packages are attached to individual children, in practice, NGOs can allocate this funding flexibly. NGOs can integrate the funds from the packages into their global budgets and use the funds for a range of activities. The package-based system that was intended to deliver tailored services to individual children in out of home care, is not being implemented in the ways it was intended.

NGOs do not receive funding for administrative or management costs. They are not funded for supporting Children’s Court work, or the recruitment of new foster carers. NGOs calculate how much they need for these different activities, and use the required funds from funding packages and other sources of income.

DCJ does not collect data from NGOs to determine the nature of the services that were delivered to the child against the funding for each package. In fact, NGOs are not required to report on the expenditure of package funds in relation to any outcomes that relate to the child’s health, wellbeing, cultural, or educational needs.

An external evaluation of the permanency support package system was completed in 2023. It found that children receiving permanency support packages did not achieve better outcomes than children in a control group who did not receive them. This indicates that the package-based system has not achieved its objective to shift the out of home care system from a bed per night payment model, to a child-centred funding model, aimed at supporting safety, wellbeing, and permanency in out of home care.

DCJ’s contract arrangements for NGO funding are overly complex and administratively burdensome

NGO recipients of package-based funding must liaise with separate DCJ contract managers for the different types of funding packages they receive. Within each DCJ District, a range of contract managers have oversight of the different package types – including the packages for out of home care placements, and for the family preservation program. In addition, many NGOs have contracts in more than one DCJ District. This means that NGOs must liaise with a number of different contract managers and operational teams across different units in multiple DCJ Districts. NGOs advise that the time spent navigating the DCJ system reduces the time they can spend actively supporting children and families.

NGOs report that DCJ District personnel can vary in their preferred communication styles and channels. Some District staff prefer email contact, others prefer phone calls, and some prefer service requests that are entered into ChildStory. NGOs must adapt to these different styles depending on the District.

DCJ Districts also vary in the processes that NGOs must follow to have a child’s needs reassessed. This is a routine process, but some Districts take three months to consider and approve a reassessment, while others complete the process more rapidly. If a child is reassessed as requiring a higher category of support, DCJ does not back-pay any increased allowances. This is regardless of the time during which the NGO has provided the child with increased services. In these Districts, NGOs must carry the financial burden for the time it takes for re-assessment approval processes.

The NSW Procurement Policy Framework includes an objective of ‘easy to do business’. This includes a requirement to pay suppliers within specific timeframes, and recommends that government agencies should limit contract length and complexity.

An external evaluation of the package-based system found that that the funding packages are complex and administratively burdensome, and that DCJ Districts have different models and approaches to implementing them. As a result, a child and family living in one District could receive very different care from a child in another District. In 2023, DCJ advised that it is considering the recommendations of the evaluation with the aim of operationalising relevant system reforms, while not increasing the administrative burden on NGOs.

Exhibit 16 shows the multiple stages that NGOs must navigate in DCJ’s complex, contract environment.

DCJ’s case management system lacks an effective business to business interface with NGO partners, and has not produced data on key deliverables

DCJ’s case management system promised a single entry point for NGOs to interact with DCJ. In 2017, DCJ commenced the rollout of ChildStory, its new case management system, at a cost of more than $130 million. While the ChildStory system has become an important repository for information about children in the child protection system, it has failed to deliver on some of its key intended functionalities. ChildStory does not provide an integrated business to business system interface with commissioned NGOs where they can record information about children and families in their care.

Most of the ChildStory system is locked off to NGOs, meaning that NGOs cannot use it as a case management system. NGO personnel must enter data into their own client information systems before manually replicating any required data into the ChildStory system. Until June 2022, NGO staff lost access to ChildStory if they did not log onto the system for a three month period, and staff had to reapply for access, increasing the administrative burden on some NGO personnel.

The lack of an integrated business to business interface between DCJ’s ChildStory and the NGO case management systems, has vastly increased levels of administrative handling for all parties, and frequently results in mismatched data between DCJ and NGOs. The process for NGOs to correct data errors in ChildStory requires contact with DCJ, and the process can be protracted. NGOs advise that they spend significant time on complex data reconciliation processes and that these processes have financial implications. In some instances, NGOs are asked to repay contract ‘underspends’ as a result of DCJ data errors.

The lack of system interface between DCJ and NGOs has been a lost opportunity to produce and report NGO trend data on a wide range of metrics. While some data is manually entered by NGOs into ChildStory Partner, and some systemwide data produced, it is only available for a limited number of key performance indicators. For example, it was intended that ChildStory would be used to collect and collate information about the status and wellbeing of children. According to DCJ, this has not been possible, as the system does not have the functionality to collate data from questionnaires or instruments that assess child wellbeing.

Given that many of the smaller NGO data systems have limited sophistication and functionality, the failure of ChildStory to become a case management system for all NGOs, means they are not able to produce trend data on a wider range of metrics. The inability to collate key data from all NGO service providers limits the statewide data that is available for service planning.

Until 2022−2023, DCJ did not contribute all required data to a national, publicly-reported dataset on child protection. The Australian Institute for Health and Wellbeing (AIHW) collates data from Australian states and territories every year. Child protection information is published on the AIHW website and provided to the Productivity Commission for the annual Report on Government Services. Since 2014−2015, AIHW requested that all states and territories provide anonymised child-level data for reporting and research purposes. DCJ did not provide this requested child-level data until 2022−2023. In previous years, DCJ provided the AIHW with aggregated data tables that lacked some of the required information.

ChildStory has not been effective for the contract management of NGOs and commissioned services. The system cannot be used to report and generate information about NGO contract activity, nor can it be used to make payments to NGOs.

Caseworkers advise that they spend significant time updating the case management system, limiting the time they have for child and family visits

DCJ has not quantified the amount of time that staff spend entering information and updating records. While DCJ completed a time and motion study on caseworker activity in 2021, the study did not include information on the time it takes for caseworkers to enter data for individual tasks. The DCJ caseworkers who were interviewed for this audit, advised that they spend a large proportion of their total working week entering data into the case management system, rather than visiting families or providing phone support to families.

DCJ’s ChildStory system does not display all of the summary information that caseworkers need in order to be efficient and effective in their role. For example, triage caseworkers need to know when a report was made to the Helpline, in order to meet the statutory period for response of 28 days after the report was received. This information is not shown in the triage transfer list and is only visible by clicking into case notes for each child, one at a time.

ChildStory does not contain accurate information about decisions made by frontline staff. Caseworkers are required to choose a reason when they close a child protection case. Reasons can include that the family was referred to an external service. There is no field for a caseworker to indicate that a case was closed because the child protection report related to a person who was external to the family. ChildStory does not have a case closure field to record that the parents were protective in instances when a child was at risk from someone outside the home. These cases are closed with the reason ‘No capacity to allocate’, resulting in inaccurate management reporting. This incorrect record keeping can be problematic for the family. It can mean that if the child is re-reported, there may be unnecessary interventions by DCJ in future.

DCJ advises that ChildStory is not being used to its full functionality and that District DCJ Offices have created arrangements that increase the administrative burden on staff. For example, in some Districts before a caseworker can submit an approval request in ChildStory to the relevant Director, the caseworker must attach an email with the same Director’s written approval. DCJ managers advise that ChildStory is not being used in ways that would allow for efficient approvals of ‘out of guidelines’ expenses. It is not known whether this is a training deficit, or related to another matter.

Up until recently, DCJ’s information management system did not have functionality to record and collate information about the service needs of children and families. DCJ advises that in 2022, a referral function was added to ChildStory. While DCJ advise that this functionality is being used for referrals to family preservation services, there is no evidence that caseworkers are using the function, or that referral data is collated and reported. Prior to July 2022, decisions to refer a child or family to therapeutic services were recorded in individual ChildStory case notes, and could not be extracted and reported as trend data.

Some Districts have developed local monitoring systems to track vacancies in local family preservation and targeted early intervention services. These local initiatives go some way to improving the planning for child protection services responses at the local level, but they are yet to be systematised.

DCJ advises that it is developing a service vacancy dashboard and it is due to be rolled out to all Districts in late 2023. In order for service information to be visible to DCJ staff, NGO partner agencies will need to regularly update their service vacancy information in the dashboard. Initially DCJ will collect data on which families were referred to services, and NGOs will be expected to enter information on attendance at program sessions at a later date.

DCJ has management reporting systems to track activity and outputs for child protection work, however some key metrics are missing

DCJ’s interactive internal dashboards effectively report against an agreed performance framework that measures caseworker activity. This provides DCJ managers with caseworker progress against targets such as seeing new children and families within specified timeframes. Managers can drill into the dashboard data to see individual cases and the caseworkers behind the numbers. This assists managers in allocating new cases to their frontline staff. While DCJ managers advise that they use the dashboards on a daily or weekly basis, they raised concerns that dashboards did not account for staff vacancies or new recruits who cannot carry a full caseload.

DCJ dashboards do not allow managers to focus on groups of children who are at greater risk of harm, or on children who require a tailored service. This limits the effectiveness of DCJ’s response. While Aboriginal children are identified on most internal dashboards, there are gaps in the identification of Aboriginal children, especially at the early Helpline assessments of child protection reports and at the initial caseworker assessment of child safety and risk. There is no indication in DCJ’s system to show whether a family has experienced intergenerational removal, despite these families needing a specific trauma-informed response. Children from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds are not reported clearly on dashboards and refugee children are not flagged.

Children and parents with disability are not identified accurately in ChildStory and are not reported on dashboards. The Disability Royal Commission found that parents with disability are over-represented in all stages of the child protection system, and that they are more likely to have their children removed from their care. The Commission found that child protection agencies are less likely to try to place children back in the care of parents with disability.

DCJ data is stored in a Corporate Information Warehouse, which combines child protection data and data about children in out of home care. This information is sourced from ChildStory. The Corporate Information Warehouse also includes staffing data, and contract management data from the Contracting Online Management System. The Warehouse is updated every night to ensure that management reports and dashboards are current. However, some key datasets are not included in the Warehouse, such as the Helpline report backlog, which means that the DCJ Executive does not have easy visibility of Helpline workload or delays in responding to electronic reports.

DCJ’s external dashboards provide limited public transparency about child protection and out of home care activity. Until early 2024 the dashboards did not show the numbers of children in emergency out of home care. In addition, the main quarterly and annual dashboards do not show the average time that children have been in out of home care. 

External reporting is managed by DCJ’s Insights Analysis and Research directorate, known as FACSIAR. In addition to quarterly and annual dashboards reporting key statistics, FACSIAR hosts monthly seminars presenting research findings aimed at improving caseworker practice. The seminars are well attended by DCJ and NGO caseworkers. FACSIAR also maintains a public evidence hub summarising research papers and evaluations.

While regular quantitative data is necessary for day-to-day management purposes, it is not sufficient to understand the experience and outcomes of children in out of home care. In order to deliver additional insights, DCJ has invested in a long-term study of children in out of home care through the Pathways of Care Longitudinal Study. This study follows children who entered care in NSW for the first time between May 2010 and October 2011 and includes data from external sources such as Medicare data, health and education records, and youth offending data. DCJ has used this data for research studies on topics such as outcomes for children with disability in out of home care, and to assist caseworkers in working with children and families through Evidence to Action notes.

DCJ’s system for requesting out of home care placements is ineffective, resulting in multiple unsuccessful requests to NGOs to place children

DCJ does not have a centralised system where its NGO service providers can indicate that they are able to take on new children requiring out of home care. There are almost 50 providers of out of home care services across the State, but no consolidated database showing that there are foster carers who are able to take on new children by location.

DCJ uses a system (known as the broadcast system) to notify NGOs that it needs a foster care placement or another placement type for a child. The number of placement broadcasts has increased from around 450 per month in 2018–2019, to over 1200 per month in 2022–2023, even though the number of children in out of home care has not risen during this timeframe.

Exhibit 17 shows the monthly numbers of children that were ‘broadcast’ to NGOs as requiring out of home care placements from July 2018 to June 2023.

Appendix one – Response from entities

Appendix two – DCJ Organisational Structure for Child Protection

Appendix three – Child protection flowchart from Family is culture review report 2019

Appendix four – About the audit

Appendix five – Performance auditing

 

© Copyright reserved by the Audit Office of New South Wales. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without prior consent of the Audit Office of New South Wales. The Audit Office does not accept responsibility for loss or damage suffered by any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any of this material.

 

Parliamentary reference - Report number #394 - released 6 June 2024

Published

Actions for Safeguarding the rights of Aboriginal children in the child protection system

Safeguarding the rights of Aboriginal children in the child protection system

Community Services
Compliance
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Project management
Regulation
Risk
Service delivery
Shared services and collaboration

About this report

The Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) is responsible for safeguarding the rights of Aboriginal children, families, and communities when they encounter the child protection system. These rights are known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Principles (the Principles), which are set out in legislation.

DCJ provides early intervention, prevention and out of home care services and also subcontracts non-government organisations to provide these services.

This audit assessed whether DCJ, and five funded non-government organisations that provide out of home care services, are effectively safeguarding the rights of Aboriginal children in the child protection system.

Findings

DCJ cannot demonstrate its compliance with the Principles. DCJ has not embedded the Principles in its governance, accountability arrangements, policy and day-to-day casework practice.

Insufficient governance and accountability arrangements have contributed to DCJ's failure to deliver on Aboriginal strategies and reforms in the last five years.

DCJ has not developed holistic family preservation models based on Aboriginal ways of healing.

DCJ is aware that its structured decision-making tools, used to make significant casework decisions, adversely affect Aboriginal children and their families. However, DCJ continues to use the tools.

DCJ has no quality assurance mechanisms over its child protection system and casework practice.

As system steward, DCJ has not provided non-government organisations with means to satisfy the Principles.

Recommendations

The audit recommends that DCJ:

  • establish governance and accountability arrangements that provide oversight of the safeguards and outcomes for Aboriginal children and families
  • develop and implement a quality assurance framework to ensure compliance with safeguards for Aboriginal children at all points in the child protection system
  • fulfil its commitment to develop and implement a healing framework for child protection services
  • commission family preservation services consistent with the principles of self-determination and participation set out in the Principles.

In this report, the term Aboriginal people is used to describe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Audit Office of NSW acknowledges the diversity of traditional Nations and Aboriginal language groups across the state of New South Wales.

The Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) is responsible for the administration of the child protection system in NSW.

Aboriginal children and their families' rights in the child protection system are contained in the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 and the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. These rights are also binding on DCJ funded non-government organisations (NGOs) through the administration of service contracts.

In 2022–23, DCJ spent $3.1 billion on child protection and out of home care services. This includes $1.9 billion on out of home care services, $800 million on child protection services and $405 million on early and intensive family preservation services.

DCJ subcontracts various early intervention, prevention programs and out of home care services to NGOs. However, DCJ is responsible, as system steward, for the effectiveness of the entire child protection system.

This audit assessed whether DCJ and five of its funded NGOs are effectively safeguarding the rights of Aboriginal children in the child protection system. The audit period was June 2018 to June 2023 (five years). In this report, children and young people under 18 are described together as children.

We addressed the audit objective by answering three questions:

  1. Does DCJ and its funded non-government organisations have established governance and accountability arrangements to understand and track performance in safeguarding the rights of Aboriginal children in the child protection system?
  2. Does DCJ and its funded non-government organisations have effective policies, practices, systems, and resources to support and enable staff to safeguard the rights of Aboriginal children in the child protection system?
  3. Does DCJ and its funded non-government organisations have effective monitoring and quality assurance systems to ensure that the outcomes for Aboriginal children in the child protection system are consistent with their legislative rights and their human rights?

This audit was conducted concurrently with the Oversight of the child protection system performance audit.

The child protection system aims to protect children and young people from the risks of abuse, neglect and harm. This report refers to several parts of the child protection system including:

  • Helpline: DCJ receives and triages reports about children suspected to be at risk of significant harm
  • Investigation of reports (mostly performed at community service centres): DCJ determines if reports meet the suspected risk of significant harm threshold and the subsequent assessment and investigation of suspected risk of significant harm reports
  • Case work: where risk of significant harm has been substantiated, DCJ provides and procures services to prevent a child’s entry into the child protection system
  • Entry into care decisions: DCJ determines when a child enters out of home care
  • Out of home care services: where a child cannot safely remain at home, DCJ or a contract service provider, place the child in foster care, kinship care, temporary care arrangements or residential care.

DCJ is not monitoring or reporting on safeguards for the rights of Aboriginal children 

Decisions and actions that affect families and children in contact with the child protection system are often made within the context of complex circumstances. They are also deeply impactful on children and their families and can have lifelong implications in areas such as mental health and wellbeing, social inclusion and the likelihood for descendants to also be in contact with the child protection system. Legislative safeguards exist to ensure that the rights of children are paramount.

DCJ governance arrangements are not informed by, and do not reflect, legislative safeguards for the rights of Aboriginal children. Such safeguards include the Convention on the Rights of the Child or the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Principles (the Principles) contained in sections 11 to 13 of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998.

DCJ has not established mechanisms to:

  • address the reasons, including those arising from its own process deficiencies, that Aboriginal children are disproportionately reported at suspected Risk of Significant Harm, seen by caseworkers and enter statutory out of home care
  • assess and hold its funded non-government organisations (NGO) accountable for the quality and outcomes of family preservation services that aim to prevent Aboriginal children entering out of home care
  • hold departmental districts and NGOs accountable for outcomes for Aboriginal children in out of home care.

Department districts are instead held accountable against nine key performance indicators at Quarterly Business Review Meetings. The performance indicators reflect activity in the child protection and out of home care system. None are disaggregated by Aboriginality, and no indicators require districts to demonstrate casework outcomes for Aboriginal children and families.

DCJ has not developed effective accountability mechanisms for its staff to safeguard the rights of Aboriginal children in the child protection system

DCJ does not have formal accountability mechanisms for any of its staff to safeguard the rights of Aboriginal children. Because of this, DCJ does not have a framework to address staff non-compliance with safeguards for Aboriginal children and their families.

DCJ does not collect data to demonstrate adherence to the Principles or consistently collect feedback from the Aboriginal community to understand its performance. Without Aboriginal outcomes focused data and feedback from Aboriginal stakeholders, DCJ cannot understand its performance or hold its staff accountable for complying with the Principles.

DCJ advises that it plans to introduce a new performance framework that will require senior executives to demonstrate their performance with respect to Aboriginal children in the child protection system. DCJ has not nominated when the framework will come into effect.

DCJ has made negligible progress in implementing key recommendations, strategies and reforms designed to improve outcomes for Aboriginal children and their families

DCJ has not delivered on any Aboriginal specific child protection reform strategy and made negligible progress in implementing key recommendations from the Family is Culture report.

Exhibit 5 identifies major Aboriginal specific reforms to address longstanding issues that impact Aboriginal children and their families. These reviews attempted to reorient the system toward preventing children from entering care and focused on improving outcomes for Aboriginal children in contact with the child protection and out of home care system.

Exhibit 5: Major Aboriginal specific reforms

The Aboriginal Outcomes Strategy 2017–2021, Target 2: reduce the long-term and continued over-representation of Aboriginal children in out of home care

In February 2023, the NSW Ombudsman reported ‘DCJ effectively abandoned the [Aboriginal Outcomes Strategy] at some point, without either reporting on what it had or had not achieved and without announcing it had been abandoned’. DCJ in reply to the NSW Ombudsman’s report noted that a machinery of government change in 2019 had impeded continuity of the Aboriginal Outcomes Strategy and that without clear governance, projects to address the over-representation of Aboriginal children in out of home care ‘continued but were disconnected from each other’.

Family is Culture report 2019: recommendation implementation

The Family is Culture report is the first Aboriginal led review on the experiences of Aboriginal children, young people and their families in the child protection system. The report made 126 systemic recommendations to the NSW Government in addition to over 3,000 recommendations based on individual case studies developed to inform the report.

DCJ released progress updates on the implementation of the recommendations in November 2020, May and November 2021 and February 2024.

In four years, only 12 of the 105 systemic recommendations accepted by the NSW Government and for which DCJ is responsible have been implemented. DCJ reports that it has implemented all individual recommendations about the cohort of Aboriginal children identified during the Family is Culture report.

Implementing the Aboriginal Case Management Policy

In 2018, DCJ commissioned AbSec to design the Aboriginal Case Management Policy, to translate the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Principles into practice. Published in 2019, the Aboriginal Case Management Policy is yet to be implemented anywhere in the state.

Transition of case management of Aboriginal children to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations

In 2012, the NSW Government committed to transferring case management of all Aboriginal children and young people in out of home care to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) within ten years. DCJ did not achieve this.

However, in September 2022 DCJ inserted an obligation into the Service Level Agreements of NGOs to the transition of Aboriginal children in out of home care to ACCOs. Currently, ACCOs manage approximately 20% of Aboriginal children in out of home care.

In the 2022–23 financial year, DCJ recorded 25 transfers of case management responsibility for Aboriginal children and young people from non-ACCOs to ACCOs across the entire sector. At 30 June 2023, there were 6,563 Aboriginal children in out of home care. Around half of these children were case managed by DCJ. To achieve the renewed commitment, DCJ will need to oversee the transfer of almost 500 Aboriginal children each year. In July 2023, DCJ estimated that at the current pace it will take 57 years to transition the case management of Aboriginal children to ACCOs.

DCJ’s organisational structure and governance arrangements are not enabling the system reform needed to meet the NSW Government’s commitment to Closing the Gap Target 12

The NSW Government is a signatory to the National Agreement on Closing the Gap 2021-2031. The objective of the Agreement ‘is to overcome the entrenched inequality faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so that their life outcomes are equal to all Australians’. The agreement commits the NSW Government to ‘mobilise all avenues and opportunities available, to meet the objectives’.

DCJ established a temporary Deputy Secretary Transforming Aboriginal Outcomes (TAO) role and associated unit in November 2021 to lead its Closing the Gap targets, which includes Target 12 (to reduce the proportion of Aboriginal children in out of home care by 45% by 2031). The TAO unit does not have decision-making powers over policy, commissioning of DCJ funded services or operational decisions. Instead DCJ has nominated a series of 18 disparate projects to achieve Target 12, which are monitored by TAO.

DCJ districts make significant child protection decisions that would likely contribute to achieving Target 12, including whether Aboriginal children enter out of home care and whether Aboriginal children currently in out of home care are restored to their families. However, there are no targets, measures or data to hold districts accountable to demonstrate progress in these key areas which would likely contribute to achieving Target 12.

Although senior executives meet regularly, the meetings are not used to drive the structural reform needed to achieve Target 12. DCJ is not on track to achieve Target 12.

Aboriginal children are over-represented in the child protection system. Approximately 6,500 Aboriginal children were in out of home care as at 30 June 2023, making up 45% of the out of home care population. By comparison, around seven per cent of children in NSW are Aboriginal. Aboriginal children are three times more likely than non-Aboriginal children to be reported at risk of significant harm and four times more likely to be allocated to a community service centre for a caseworker to undertake a face-to-face safety assessment. One in eight Aboriginal children seen by caseworkers enters out of home care.

DCJ does not have a quality assurance framework in child protection to safeguard the rights of Aboriginal children

DCJ has no quality assurance framework over systems and processes prior to the removal of a child into out of home care. Without such a framework, DCJ cannot be assured of its compliance with legislative safeguards afforded to Aboriginal children.

In late 2022, DCJ engaged a consultant to examine Aboriginal quality assurance for the child protection system. In July 2023, the consultant report highlighted deficient quality assurance systems and concerns with cultural capacity of staff to support Aboriginal families and children. DCJ has not indicated how or when it plans to address this deficiency.

DCJ does not have assurance that out of home care services are safeguarding the rights of every Aboriginal child in out of home care

The Office of the Children’s Guardian accredits out of home care providers, including DCJ and its funded NGOs, to a minimum standard set out in the Child Safe Standards for Permanent Care. As a result, DCJ and NGOs can demonstrate a range of internal quality controls and processes for children in out of home care to support the Office of the Children’s Guardian accreditation process.

However, the Office of the Children’s Guardian cannot provide qualitative assurance that DCJ and the NGOs have adhered to safeguards for each of the approximately 6,500 Aboriginal children in statutory out of home care at any given time. For example, the Office of the Children’s Guardian looks at whether a cultural plan exists for an Aboriginal child, but generally does not provide feedback for agencies to improve cultural plans.

DCJ, as the system steward, has a duty of care to ensure that it, and all NGOs it contracts with, have quality assurance processes to demonstrate compliance with safeguards for every Aboriginal child that is placed in out of home care. DCJ needs to do more than the minimum requirements of Office of the Children’s Guardian accreditation to gain assurance, commensurate with the risk of poor compliance and practice set out in this report, that it is adequately safeguarding the rights of every Aboriginal child in out of home care.

DCJ contracts NGOs to provide out of home care services through Service Level Agreements, aligned with the Principles in the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998. This audit assessed whether NGOs are effectively safeguarding the rights of Aboriginal children in out of home care.

Five NGOs were selected as auditees for this performance audit. Selection of the providers was based on criteria which included:

  • a mix of faith- and non-faith-based entities
  • Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal entities
  • number of children in care
  • funding
  • location
  • service model.

Collectively, the NGOs selected for this audit were contracted to provide 2,600 foster care places in the 2021–22 financial year. This equated to one third of the total number of contracted foster care places in NSW in 2021–22. The two Aboriginal Community Controlled NGOs selected case managed about 20% of Aboriginal children in out of home care who were contracted out to NGOs.

Appendix one – Response from entities

Appendix two – The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Principles (extract from the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998

Appendix three – Data tables

Appendix four – About the audit

Appendix five – Performance auditing

 

© Copyright reserved by the Audit Office of New South Wales. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without prior consent of the Audit Office of New South Wales. The Audit Office does not accept responsibility for loss or damage suffered by any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any of this material.

Parliamentary reference - Report number #395 - released 6 June 2024.

Published

Actions for Workers compensation claims management

Workers compensation claims management

Treasury
Finance
Management and administration
Regulation

What this report is about

Workers compensation schemes in NSW provide compulsory workplace injury insurance. The effective management of workers compensation is important to ensure injured workers are provided with prompt support to ensure timely, safe and sustainable return to work.

Insurance and Care NSW (icare) manages workers compensation insurance. The State Insurance Regulatory Authority (SIRA) regulates workers compensation schemes. NSW Treasury has a stewardship role but does not directly manage the schemes.

This audit assessed the effectiveness and economy of icare’s management of workers compensation claims, and the effectiveness of SIRA’s oversight of workers compensation claims.

Findings

icare is implementing major reforms to its approach to workers compensation claims management - but it is yet to demonstrate if these changes are the most effective or economical way to improve outcomes.

icare’s planning and assurance processes for its reforms have not adequately assessed existing claims models or analysed other reform options.

icare's activities have not focused enough on its core responsibilities of improving return to work and maintaining financial sustainability.

SIRA has improved the effectiveness of its workers compensation regulatory activities in recent years. Prior to 2019, SIRA was mostly focussed on developing regulatory frameworks and was less active in its supervision of workers compensation schemes.

NSW Treasury's role in relation to workers compensation has been unclear, which has limited its support for performance improvements.

Recommendations

icare should:

  • Ensure that its annual Statement of Business Intent clearly sets out its approach to achieving its legislative objectives.
  • Monitor and evaluate its workers compensation scheme reforms.
  • Develop a quality assurance program to ensure insurance claim payments are accurate.

NSW Treasury should:

  • Work with relevant agencies to improve public sector workers compensation scheme outcomes.
  • Engage with the icare Board to ensure icare's management is in line with relevant NSW Treasury policies.

SIRA should:

  • Address identified gaps in its fraud investigation.
  • Develop a co-ordinated research strategy.

Workers compensation schemes in New South Wales provide workplace injury insurance for around 4.7 million workers. The effective management of workers compensation is important to ensure injured workers are appropriately supported and provided with prompt treatment to ensure timely, safe and sustainable return to work. There were around 110,000 injured workers compensation claims in 2022–23.

The two main workers compensation schemes in NSW are the Nominal Insurer (NI), which is for the private sector and is funded by premiums paid by employers, and the Treasury Managed Fund (TMF) which covers public sector workers and is funded by the NSW Government.

Insurance and Care NSW (icare) is responsible for managing the provision of workers compensation insurance, as well as several other insurance schemes. The State Insurance Regulatory Authority (SIRA) is responsible for regulating workers compensation and other insurance schemes. NSW Treasury has an oversight and monitoring role but does not directly manage or regulate workers compensation schemes.

icare outsources the management of workers compensation claims to several external insurance agents, which it refers to as claims service providers (CSPs). Tasks completed by CSPs include registering and assessing workers compensation claims, managing payments to injured workers, and liaising with injured workers, employers, and medical providers to support injury management and return to work.

The objective of this audit was to assess the effectiveness and economy of icare’s management of workers compensation claims, and the effectiveness of SIRA’s oversight of workers compensation claims. To address this objective, the audit considered whether icare’s reforms to its workers compensation claims management models are effective and economical, and whether there is an effective performance and accountability framework for the NI and TMF.

icare did not assess its existing claims management model or conduct a comprehensive options analysis assessing alternative claims management models before selecting its new claims management model for the Nominal Insurer

In 2021, icare decided to change the claims management model for the Nominal Insurer (NI) from a single outsourced claims service provider (CSP) to a model using multiple CSPs. icare did not conduct a detailed analysis of options before deciding on its new claims management model for the NI. icare did not complete a business case or undertake analysis of costs and benefits of the chosen model compared to other options, such as in-house provision of services by icare, a hybrid delivery model, or remaining with a single-provider model with improved support and performance incentives.

icare completed a procurement strategy which acknowledged a potential alternative model based on icare delivering claims management services. However, there was no detailed analysis or costing of this or other models for comparison with the outsourced model that had been chosen. The in-house provision option was not recommended because it was stated that ‘competition between external service providers can drive better performance than what icare could achieve’. The 2019 Independent Review Report on the NI recommended that icare use additional providers to reduce the pressure on its single provider. It was appropriate for icare to consider this recommendation when developing its new claims model, but it does not remove the need for icare to conduct its own detailed analysis to support decision making on major projects.

The absence of a business case or other similar detailed analysis reduces icare’s accountability for improved outcomes. It also means the stated benefits and costs of icare’s claims services model have not been fully tested. Introducing competition and performance-based payments to CSPs might improve return to work and financial sustainability outcomes but could create perverse incentives or increase the risk of CSPs withdrawing from contracts. A business case would have also provided information that could have been used to inform an evaluation framework for the new claims services model, including interim measures to help assess whether intended benefits are on track.

A business case is the primary document to outline the case for change and analysis of alternative options, as well as the costs, benefits and financial viability of the proposal. icare’s procurement policy does not require the development of a business case, but the NSW Procurement Strategy and NSW Treasury Business Case Guidelines require agencies to demonstrate value for money by submitting a business case to NSW Treasury for investment proposals over $10 million. At the point when icare sought approval from the icare Board to commence the procurement process, the maximum total contract value for the engagement of the six providers was estimated at between $3.7 billion and $6.4 billion over ten years.

icare conducted a comprehensive procurement process to select CSPs for its new NI claims management model

The procurement process for new providers for the NI involved an open market process that included extensive engagement with potential CSPs. This allowed icare to improve its understanding of the capacity and capability of providers and work collaboratively to refine the details of its claims management model.

icare developed a detailed procurement strategy that outlined the objectives of the new model, expected costs, services sought, governance framework, and an evaluation plan. icare provided regular updates to the icare Board on the progress of the procurement process and sought approval for key decisions about the changes being made.

icare met its planned timeframe for having contracts with multiple CSPs in place by 1 January 2023. icare’s contracts provide it with flexibility to adjust the performance measures after three years if required. The contracts also require 12 months’ notice from the CSP if they wish to withdraw from the contract. This helps icare to manage the risk of a reduction in capacity to manage claims if an existing CSP withdraws.

icare is implementing a new remuneration structure for CSPs which aims to provide better financial incentives to improve performance

The icare Board approved the introduction of a multiple provider model as part of its NI Improvement Program in December 2021. As a part of planning for the change, icare developed a different remuneration structure for the new CSP contracts that aim to create stronger incentives for innovation to improve performance. The previous remuneration model for providers involved a guaranteed fee that was set at 110% of the estimated cost of providing the service and had no financial penalties if CSPs did not meet performance targets. The new remuneration model splits the fees paid to CSPs into three categories:

  1. a base fee, a guaranteed fixed fee which covers 95% of a benchmarked cost agreed by icare and CSPs (this was the estimated cost of providing the service in an efficient way)
  2. a quality fee, which may be positive (up to ten per cent of the benchmarked cost) or negative (up to five per cent) depending on the CSP’s performance against the quality measures specified in the contract. These are mostly related to compliance with claims management processes such as timeliness, accuracy, and record keeping
  3. an outcome fee up to 50% of the benchmarked cost depending on the CSP’s performance against the outcome measures specified in the contract. These relate to the key performance measures in the system such as return to work rates, claim payments made, and medical costs. The outcomes fee can only be earned if the CSP achieves acceptable performance in the quality measures.

This remuneration model aims to provide CSPs with financial incentives to improve performance. Setting the 'base fee' at slightly below the expected cost of providing the service should mean that CSPs need to meet their quality measures to ensure they cover costs and would need to exceed performance targets in order to increase its profit margin. The success of this model will depend on factors including the appropriateness of the base fee and performance targets, and the behaviour of CSPs. These changes are not yet fully implemented and icare is taking a staged approach to the transition of new CSPs, so it is too early to judge their effectiveness.

icare’s new remuneration structure will increase payments to CSPs for the NI without initially requiring improved performance

The new provider model is expected to cost up to $100 million more per year compared to icare’s previous, single provider model. This fee increase depends on the extent to which CSPs achieve its outcome targets. For example, if all CSPs improve their performance to a level where they meet all of their performance targets, the full $100 million would be paid to CSPs. A lower amount would be paid if some CSPs did not achieve outcome targets. icare’s modelling indicates that the extra costs in payments to CSPs would be offset by reductions in payments to injured workers as a result of improvements in return to work rates.

For at least the first year of the new model, icare has committed to paying a proportion of the outcome fees to CSPs even if they do not achieve their performance targets. This is intended to support CSPs to invest in their systems with the goal of achieving better longer-term performance. However, it means that icare will initially pay higher fees for similar or potentially lower performance.

icare lowered the return to work rate targets in 2023 compared to 2022 to account for the impact of the transition to the new multiple provider claims management model. Exhibit 9 shows the differences between the targets in 2021–22 and 2022–23.

Exhibit 9: Return to work rate targets for the NI, 2021–22 and 2022–23
 Business Plan FY22 (%)Business Plan FY23 (%)Change
Return to work targets

4-week: 70.0%

13-week: 85.0%

26-week: 87.8%

52-week: 89.8%

 

4-week: 65.4%

13-week: 77.5%

26-week: 82.1%

52-week: 85.6%

4-week: -4.6%

13-week: -7.5%

26-week: -5.7%

52-week: -4.2%

Source: icare planning documents (unpublished).

CSP remuneration has increased from around $251 million in 2018–19 to almost $379 million in 2022–23, an increase of more than 50%. CSP remuneration has increased in each financial year during this period (Exhibit 10).

icare’s focus for reforming the TMF is not based on addressing key strategic challenges for the scheme

icare initiated a ‘TMF transformation program’ in 2022. The business case for the TMF transformation program did not include an assessment of the key strategic challenges for the TMF or describe how the transformation would improve return to work rates. Instead, it focused predominantly on the implementation of a single IT platform for managing workers compensation claims. While a single IT platform may be an important technological enabler for claims management, it does not address the underlying strategic issues that contributed to a decline in claims management performance and increase in costs in the TMF.

icare’s analysis indicates that the implementation of the new IT system will cause a short-term decline in return to work rates for the TMF. Reducing performance in return to work rates, even if only temporarily, can have a long-term impact on outcomes for affected workers and for scheme costs. icare’s internal modelling indicates that if the early stages of a claim are not managed well, claimants are much more likely to have a long-term claim.

The primary purpose of the workers compensation scheme is to optimise return to work outcomes for injured workers and to maintain the financial sustainability of the schemes. Previous reviews have stated that icare should apply a return to work focus for all its activities because this is the outcome on which it is judged by Parliament, workers, employers and the community.

icare has commenced a procurement process for the TMF without conducting detailed analysis of its claims management model

In December 2023, icare completed a procurement strategy for approval by the icare Board to guide its procurement of CSPs for the TMF. The TMF procurement strategy refers to the broader improvement objectives for the TMF, which include improving return to work performance and increasing capability to manage psychological injury claims. It contains a brief analysis of an in-house claims management model compared to an out-sourced approach. However, it does not include detailed analysis of options for its claims management model. This analysis contained a similar amount of detail as the procurement strategy for the NI (see Chapter 2). It did not include any evaluation of the outsourced model that icare has used previously and did not assess options for hybrid models that use a mixture of in-house and outsourced services. icare has had the same claims management model for the TMF, using the same three CSPs prior to its establishment in 2015. icare inherited contractual arrangements with three CSPs that had commenced in 2010. Its most recent procurement process for CSPs took place in 2019. Before commencing this procurement, icare did not evaluate the effectiveness of the arrangements that were in place from 2010 to 2019 or analyse alternative options for claims management models.

icare plans to draw on the work done for the NI procurement of CSPs in 2022 by using clauses in the NI contracts to extend them to cover TMF work. icare has also commenced an open expression of interest process to engage with other potential CSPs for the TMF.

The TMF procurement strategy sets out options for a revised performance and remuneration framework for CSPs in the TMF. This is based on the work done for the NI procurement and has the same goal of providing stronger financial incentives for CSPs to improve their claims management performance.

icare’s analysis estimates that these changes will lead to savings because the new remuneration model will improve CSP performance, which will reduce overall scheme costs. However, the estimates presented in the TMF procurement strategy, which was presented to the icare Board for approval, do not have supporting analysis or completed modelling of costs. A key gap is the details used to estimate the actual costs for CSPs to deliver the services, which underpins the payment amounts under the revised remuneration framework. The strategy also does not include analysis of risks, such as impacts to return to work rates because of the transition to a new model. Without these details, icare cannot demonstrate that its planned approach is likely to deliver value for money.

Fees paid to CSPs for the TMF have increased significantly in recent years despite previous forecasts of reductions in fees paid and improvements in performance

icare’s payments to CSPs managing TMF claims has increased by around 30% in the last five years, rising from around $90 million in 2018–19 to around $125 million in 2022–23. This increase in payments to CSPs occurred during a period when return to work performance declined by two percentage points and the total payments for workers compensation claims increased by around 60%. The number of claims received also increased significantly in this time, as noted in Chapter 1.

Some of icare’s reform activities aim to improve return to work and financial sustainability

One of the stated goals of icare’s NI improvement program is ‘getting injured workers back to work sooner’ and the improvement program includes implementing a new claims management model for the NI (discussed in Chapter 2). Alongside this program, icare has made other changes that aim to improve the day-to-day claims management processes. In recent years icare has begun working to clarify roles and responsibilities for the claims management process. This has included consultation with CSPs and producing written documents that specify which issues should be handled by CSPs and which should be referred to icare.

icare has also developed a Professional Standards Framework that aims to provide a consistent set of standards that case managers are expected to adhere to. This framework sets out minimum standards and capability expected of CSP staff. It is a contractual requirement for NI providers to comply with the framework through its recruitment and training for staff. The framework is intended to also apply to the TMF but is not yet included in TMF provider contracts. Since 2021, icare has also provided training material to CSPs focussing on key aspects of claims management. Training covers topics that have previously been identified as areas of weakness, such as the calculation of weekly payments, initial contact, and injury management.

icare’s accountability for achieving scheme outcomes is not clear enough

While the practical changes discussed have the potential to help improve claims management performance, icare’s acceptance of overall accountability for scheme outcomes remains unclear. In 2021, icare considered several ‘business models’ that would guide its overall approach to reforming its workers compensation claims models. It decided to adopt what it described as a ‘platform’ model, which positioned icare as a facilitator and focused on self-direction and choice for employers and employees. Among the models that it chose not to adopt was a ‘scheme administrator’ model, which was characterised by transparency and clear accountability for performance.

This underlying approach can be seen in icare’s reforms to the claims management model for the NI. Some elements of the reforms target improvements in return to work outcomes, such as the introduction of performance-based payments to CSPs (discussed in Chapter 2). However, icare described the goal of the reforms as creating a competitive market of CSPs that would provide choice to employers, which indicates icare taking accountability for implementing system changes but not for the achievement of outcomes. icare’s plans for reforms to the TMF are similarly focused on icare’s accountability for providing support systems for workers compensation schemes, rather than accepting responsibility for ensuring the key outcomes are achieved.

The management of workers compensation schemes is a complex task. There are external factors outside icare’s control that influence the key performance measures of return to work and scheme financial viability. However, as the provider of workers compensation schemes, icare is primarily accountable for improving return to work rates for the NI and TMF and its strategies and activities should be focused accordingly. icare’s most recent corporate strategy documents described its current phase of its organisational strategy as ‘increase focus on those we serve’. This is a positive change from the previous year when the same phase was described as ‘simplify for improved outcomes’.

icare has committed significant resources to internal organisational improvement programs

icare has committed significant resources to an organisational improvement program in recent years. The program responds to the recommendations of previous external reviews (summarised in Chapter 1). These reviews made a combined total of 107 recommendations. Of these, 98 related to ‘enterprise improvement’, covering internal processes such as governance, procurement and risk management. The focus of the recommendations on internal processes reflects the terms of reference for these reviews. As a result, icare’s improvement program has a focus on internal organisational change, rather than a broader strategic assessment of the key challenges to the performance of workers compensation schemes, such as the rise in psychological injury claims.

The program has been overseen by an external advisor and quarterly reports have been published that outline progress, with the first report published in December 2021 and the most recent in August 2023. Accountability for implementing recommendations of external reviews is important. However, the strong focus on internal organisational projects has contributed to increases in icare’s operating expenses without fully addressing the strategic challenges to the key legislative objectives of workers compensation schemes – optimising return to work outcomes and ensuring financial sustainability.

icare’s employee and other operating expenses have increased significantly during a period when workers compensation scheme performance has not improved

According to its annual financial reports, icare’s total employee expenses have increased significantly in recent years. The total number of employees at icare increased from 1,431 in 2020–21 to 1,756 in 2022–23, an increase of 23%. icare’s budget for 2023–24 includes a further increase in staff numbers to 1,800.

There has been a corresponding increase in icare’s employee expenses, with staff costs increasing by 29%, from $214 million in 2020–21 to $276 million in 2022–23. icare did not take on any new functions during this period and the performance of the NI and TMF did not improve, as described in Chapter 1. Over the past three years icare has added the highest number of new employee positions in the ‘digital and transformation’ area. Additional staff positions have also been created in corporate areas including people and culture and risk and governance. Many of these positions relate to icare’s improvement program.

icare’s other operating expenses have also increased in recent years, rising from $699 million in 2020–21 to $814 million in 2022–23. The majority of icare’s other operating expenses are fees paid to CSPs. However, icare has also spent a significant amount on contractors, contingent workers, and consultants in recent years, despite also increasing its permanent staff numbers. Some of these contractor and consultant expenses related to icare’s improvement program discussed above. Over the last three years, icare spent an average of more than $100 million per year on hired labour, comprised of:

  • $60 million per year on contractors
  • $35 million per year on contingent workers
  • $8 million per year on consultants.

icare completed a review of its corporate expenses in September 2023 and reported the results of this review to the icare Board. icare’s review stated that it had reduced its expenses by a total of $88 million from 2019–20 to 2021–22. This included a reported decrease of $40 million in spending on contractors and contingent workers, which is in contrast to its annual financial reporting data which shows an increase of $25 million during this period. icare’s expenses review used management reporting data which categorises expenses differently to the way expenses are categorised in annual financial statements. For example, a large proportion of expenditure on contractors and contingent workers was categorised as project expenditure in icare’s management reporting. While this may be appropriate for management reporting purposes, it resulted in icare reporting lower expenditure on contractors and contingent workers in its expenses review compared to its annual reporting.

The number of icare senior executives in the top pay band for the NSW public service increased from two in 2021–22 to eight in 2022–23. The average remuneration of icare’s senior executives in 2022–23 was $652,000. This is more than double the average remuneration for the two senior executives that were in the highest pay band at the former WorkCover Authority, icare’s predecessor agency, in its last year of operation in 2014–15. It is also approximately double the average remuneration for senior executives at icare’s equivalent entities in comparable jurisdictions. The average remuneration for the ten senior executives at WorkSafe Queensland in 2022–23 was $285,000 and the average remuneration for the 11 senior executives at WorkSafe Victoria was $276,000.

icare spent at least $470 million on projects that were intended to improve the operations of the workers compensation schemes between 2016–17 and 2019–20. This includes the implementation of a single provider claims management model and the introduction of a new IT platform but does not include the cost of contractors and consultants who worked on these projects. Previous external reviews of icare found that these projects did not achieve their objectives and contributed to a deterioration in performance against the key legislative objectives for workers compensation of return to work and financial sustainability. icare spent another $45 million on moving back to a multiple provider model for the NI from 2023.

icare’s reporting on the performance of workers compensation schemes has not provided a clear indication of performance in its core areas of responsibility

icare’s public reporting has not provided transparency in the key areas of return to work and financial sustainability of workers compensation schemes. Prior to 2019–20, icare did not report publicly on its return to work rate targets in the NI. icare did not report on a TMF return to work target until 2022–23. icare’s four most recent annual reports have included an ‘enterprise performance scorecard’. In 2021–22 this scorecard had 11 measures, with only four that related to insurance scheme performance (return to work rate in the NI, net results in NI, net results in TMF and investments). The scorecard had seven measures that related to icare’s internal processes in that year, such as staff engagement scores, risk management, and internal audit. In 2022–23, the scorecard included five measures that related to insurance scheme performance. However, the measure relating to return to work performance for the NI had changed from the previous years. As a part of its reforms to the NI, icare plans to publish more information about workers compensation scheme outcomes on its website. It commenced this reporting in December 2023.

The key document outlining icare’s strategic approach to managing its operations is the Statement of Business Intent (SBI). The measure icare has used for reporting on return to work targets for the NI in its SBI has changed in each of the last four years. Exhibit 13 shows icare’s internal reporting on NI return to work targets since 2020–21. The frequent changes to the way icare has reported on its key performance measures make it difficult to track its performance over time.

Exhibit 13: Return to work measures used for reporting in icare’s Statement of Business Intent (SBI), 2020–21 to 2023–24
Financial yearReporting measure for return to work in SBI
2020–21Return to work rate measured at 26 weeks after claim made
2021–22Return to work rate measured at 4, 13, 26 and 52 weeks after claim mad
2022–23Return to work rate measured at 13 weeks after claim made
2023–24Return to work rate measured as ‘working rate’ (using a different methodology)

SIRA has recently updated its strategic framework to improve the effectiveness of its regulatory activities

One of SIRA's principal legislative objectives is to provide effective supervision of the workers compensation system. SIRA updated its strategic framework in 2021. The strategy outlines guiding considerations across four ‘pillars’ of SIRA’s regulatory work: scheme design, licensing, supervision, and enforcement.

SIRA has increased its focus on supporting improvements to return to work outcomes in recent years. It commissioned a research paper to inform SIRA's system-wide strategy to improve return to work rates. This paper provides a summary of the current evidence relating to factors most likely to support better return to work outcomes. This research has been used to inform SIRA's strategies and plans. For example:

  • SIRA has a return to work action plan which outlines ten actions aimed at supporting improvements in return to work rates. Actions include reviewing insurers’ return to work practices in 2022, developing a return to work standard of practice, and targeting compliance work to employers identified as higher risk.
  • SIRA advises it is currently developing a ‘Recover Through Work Strategy’ which expected to replace its action plan. The draft strategy covers research, promotion and education activities related to early intervention, psychological injuries, and additional data and insights relating to return to work.
  • SIRA developed a mental health recovery and support action plan in 2021 based on research it had commissioned. 

SIRA has used regulatory instruments including written directions and letters of censure to icare when it has identified issues that require remediation, as noted in Chapter 2. SIRA’s ability to regulate the workers compensation scheme is limited by the fact that it cannot impose licence conditions on the NI or other entities, which limits its ability to escalate its regulatory responses if needed.

A previous review of the legislative arrangements for workers compensation recommended that SIRA should be given additional powers to ensure it can fully perform its regulatory functions for workers schemes. The review also found the roles and responsibilities between icare and SIRA were unclear in some areas. For example, workers compensation legislation allocates operational functions to SIRA which has created duplication and inefficiencies as noted in this chapter. The review recommended government consider amending legislation to state clearly the powers and functions of each entity. Both issues are yet to be addressed.

SIRA was mostly focussed on developing regulatory guidelines and frameworks in the years after it was established

SIRA was created in late 2015 and was tasked with regulating multiple insurance schemes and establishing operational frameworks to supervise each insurance scheme within its remit. In the initial years of SIRA’s establishment, SIRA developed guidelines and standards around the management of workers compensation. For example, SIRA’s first Standards of Practice was issued in 2018 and contained broad claims management principles to guide insurer conduct and support the achievement of scheme legislative objectives. SIRA also first published an Insurer Supervision Model in 2017 which outlined SIRA’s approach to monitoring and supervising the performance across workers compensation insurers. The model contained compliance and performance indicators to help SIRA identify and address risks in the areas of conduct, claims management and financial sustainability. SIRA advises this supervision model assisted it to identify a significant decline in the performance of the NI in 2018, which led SIRA to commission its first independent review of the NI in 2018–19.

SIRA has become more active in its regulation of the NI but only recently started actively supervising the TMF

SIRA increased its monitoring and supervision of the NI following the findings of the 2019 review, with SIRA commencing quarterly compliance and performance audit of claims management of the NI from July 2020. SIRA’s reviews of the NI had a strong focus on compliance with specific legislative requirements, in response to concerns about a lack of capability among claims managers at the time. Some of SIRA's more recent reviews of the NI have selected a strategic focus area, such as compliance with the ‘early intervention’ requirements of claims management. This theme was selected based on research evidence indicating that the management of a claim in the first four weeks has a significant impact on return to work outcomes. SIRA advises that future audits will use a risk-based approach and focus on areas in which low compliance has been identified and there is evidence that the compliance requirement is based on better outcomes, such as injury management planning.

SIRA has issued two penalty notices as a result of its increased oversight on the NI:

  • The penalty notice issued on 6 September 2019 totalled $132,000. The penalties were imposed for icare’s failure in 24 instances to commence weekly workers compensation payments within seven days of initial notification of the injury to the insurer.
  • The penalty notice issued on 22 January 2020 totalled $82,500. The penalties were issued for icare’s failure in ten instances to ensure employer’s premium rate does not increase by more than 30% from the previous policy year, as required in SIRA’s premium guidelines. icare’s failure to comply with the capping requirement led to impacted policy holders paying an additional premium totalling over $700,000.

SIRA began regularly reporting to government on NI financial sustainability in 2016–17, with its first report provided to government in August 2018. The 2016–17 report noted generally that a new claims model had been implemented from January 2018 which may impact claims experience and make future treatment and costs more complicated. However, the report did not provide further details of these risks, such as potential impacts on the key areas of return to work or related cost impacts due to the transition. SIRA’s annual reports from the years up to and including 2018–19 did not draw attention to any performance concerns for the NI or the TMF and did not provide detailed information on SIRA’s supervision activities for the schemes. The reports focused mostly on other areas of SIRA’s responsibility, particularly the implementation of reforms to the compulsory third party insurance scheme during 2017.

In January 2020, SIRA commenced investigations into the management of three Corrective Services NSW (CSNSW) claims in the TMF following reports it received around claims mismanagement. The report outlined several actions, including that SIRA undertake a broader review of the compliance and performance of the TMF and a larger audit of CSNSW workers compensation claims with a focus on psychological injuries. In August 2022, SIRA commenced a review of 100 CSNSW claims to assess the compliance of these claims against legislative and regulatory requirements. During the audit, SIRA advised these reviews led to SIRA developing the evidence base for undertaking its broader review of the TMF in 2023. The 2023 TMF review has a focus on managing psychological injury claims.

The audit did not see evidence of SIRA taking a strategic approach to the regulation of the TMF in earlier years despite the outcomes of SIRA’s initial CSNSW investigations, deteriorating return to work performance, increasing costs, and the emerging strategic risk of the rise in psychological injury claims. Given these issues, a more active regulatory presence from SIRA would have been justified.

Any decline in return to work rates, even if only temporary, can have a long-term impact on outcomes for affected workers and for scheme costs. For example, research indicates that injured workers who are not working for a longer period become progressively less likely to ever return to work and are more likely to develop a secondary psychological injury associated with their initial injury. As a result, the poor performance of workers compensation schemes in previous years is having an ongoing impact on scheme performance today.

SIRA began focussing on improving compliance of employers with workers compensation obligations from 2020, but did not have a strategy or active program prior to this

In 2020, SIRA created an Employer Supervision and Return to Work Directorate as part of a broader organisational restructure. The Directorate was created to strengthen the focus and regulatory approach for employers and support the development of an employer supervision strategy and framework. The strategy and framework for employers were finalised in 2022. These are consistent with its organisation-wide regulatory framework and outlines SIRA’s approach to planning and conducting regulatory activities in identified areas of highest risk.

In December 2021, SIRA also established an inspectorate to undertake employer education activities and conduct reviews of employer compliance with workers compensation obligations, in addition to those conducted by SafeWork NSW. Prior to this, SIRA did not have a dedicated employer supervision and compliance strategy or function, although it did provide educational resources for employers. It relied on SafeWork inspectors to conduct workplace inspections on its behalf, which were guided by SIRA’s modelling work.

SIRA has legislative powers to enter workplaces to gather evidence, conduct audits and reviews, and impose penalties for non-compliance. SIRA targets its employer inspections primarily through a predictive data analysis tool, with a smaller number of inspections in response to complaints or referrals. The predictive tool assesses new workers compensation claims made and identifies those that are at higher risk of a poor return to work outcome, based on factors including the type of claim and employer or industry.

SIRA has not allocated sufficient resources to investigate and prosecute fraud

SIRA has a legislative responsibility to assist in measures to deter and detect fraud within workers compensation schemes. In February 2023, SIRA engaged an internal review to assess its capability and structure in enforcement and prosecution in all schemes it oversees, including the Compulsory Third Party scheme and the Home Building Compensation Fund. The review found there was a backlog of high-risk fraud referrals. This could indicate that cases of fraud in the workers compensation system may have gone undetected or unaddressed in recent years. The review recommended SIRA expand its investigations team to reduce the backlog of matters and ensure all icare referrals are investigated.

During the audit, SIRA advised that while it has not fully responded to these recommendations yet, it has engaged additional resources for the employer investigations team and will consider additional resourcing in 2024–25. SIRA also advised it had taken other actions to reduce fraud risks, including initiating regular meetings with icare to discuss new fraud referrals and working with icare on a Memorandum of Understanding to strengthen fraud investigations and prosecutions. However, these actions are unlikely to address the issues relating to resourcing that were identified in the review.

Some of SIRA's research and pilot programs duplicate or overlap with those of icare

SIRA has a legislative function to 'to initiate and encourage research to identify efficient and effective strategies for the prevention and management of work injury and for the rehabilitation of injured workers'. In 2019, SIRA commissioned a review of its research strategy on workers compensation and other insurance schemes which it oversees. The review found, among other things, additional work was needed to coordinate SIRA's research program to avoid duplication. The review recommended SIRA improve collaboration with icare, SafeWork and other stakeholders and develop a model for knowledge translation to ensure evidence informs practice.

SIRA and icare's research and pilot programs still overlap in several areas, especially workplace mental health-related research. For example:

  • icare has a ‘Front of Mind’ program that is focussed on developing and testing mental health platforms, like development of apps and education programs. SIRA has a 'Recovery Boost' program which provides grants to universities and private service providers to research and develop programs related to mental health.
  • icare has also developed a 'Design for Care' program in partnership with Curtin University to research work design impacting mental health. Similarly, SIRA has funded various research projects on workplace mental health, including Monash University's work-connected interventions for psychological injuries, and Black Dog Institute's two-year research fellowship on recovery after psychological injury.
  • icare has reported it would be developing a mental health strategy and action plan in 2022–23. SIRA has also developed action plans and strategies on mental health.

SIRA revised its research strategy in response to the review's findings and recommendations. SIRA's Research Strategy 2022–25 outlines its research objectives, actions, and measures of success. Actions include working with stakeholders to co-design research projects and working with stakeholders to prioritise research based on level of impact. Measures of success include creating opportunities for CSPs and other stakeholders to engage with SIRA's programs and increasing the number of research partnerships targeting personal injury evidence gaps.

NSW Treasury’s role in overseeing icare is not clearly defined, limiting its ability to support performance improvements in workers compensation

NSW Treasury does not have a legislated role in the management of workers compensation. icare is directly accountable to the icare Board and the icare Board is accountable to the responsible minister for icare achieving its statutory objectives. The TMF is funded by the NSW Government and has a direct impact on the NSW budget, so NSW Treasury has a role in advising the Treasurer on the performance and operations of the TMF. NSW Treasury also supports the minister responsible for icare, so has a role in advising the responsible minister in relation to icare's management of the NI. This includes reviewing and advising the minister on icare’s annual Statement of Business Intent, which icare must submit to the responsible minister and the Treasurer.

NSW Treasury has monitored icare’s financial and operational performance and has reported regularly on this to the responsible Minister and the Treasurer. However, NSW Treasury has not taken action to address issues that it is aware of. For example, when reviewing icare’s Statement of Business Intent (SBI) in 2022–23, NSW Treasury stated that it had concerns about the performance and financial sustainability of workers compensation schemes. Its response was to advise the responsible minister and the Treasurer to note its concern about these issues. In this review, NSW Treasury also advised that icare had not achieved its own forecasts from previous years for improvements to the financial position of the NI but did not propose any action in response to this. Similarly, NSW Treasury noted in another ministerial brief that icare made changes to its targets for return to work rates in 2020–21 that only required performance to be maintained or improve marginally. It expressed concern that this represented an acceptance of ongoing performance at lower than historical levels but did not propose any actions. NSW Treasury’s lack of specific responses to these issues reflects its limited powers to influence icare’s actions.

Recent changes to icare’s governing legislation allow the Treasurer or the Secretary of NSW Treasury to require icare to provide information relating to its activities. This may help NSW Treasury to be more active in its oversight of icare’s key decisions and activities. In November 2023, icare’s responsible minister announced that NSW Treasury will conduct a review of icare focusing on its operational costs.

This audit has identified several gaps in icare’s management of workers compensation schemes. For example, icare proceeded with changes to its claims management model for the NI that involve a multi-billion dollar procurement process without completing detailed options or benefit-cost analysis, as discussed in Chapter 2. icare has also focused significant resources and attention on internal corporate improvement activities that do not directly contribute to the achievement of the key legislative objectives of workers compensation schemes. Both of these issues have led to significant increases in icare’s costs without improved return to work outcomes in recent years. Stronger engagement from NSW Treasury with the icare Board could help improve icare's performance by providing advice and challenge in areas in which icare has consistently under-performed.

Appendix one – Responses from audited agencies

Appendix two – About the audit

Appendix three – Performance auditing

 

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Parliamentary reference - Report number #393 - released 2 April 2024

Published

Actions for Cyber security in local government

Cyber security in local government

Local Government
Cyber security
Information technology
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Risk

What this report is about

NSW local councils provide a wide range of essential services and infrastructure to their communities and are increasingly reliant on digital technologies.

Councils need to manage cyber security risks to ensure their information, data and systems are appropriately safeguarded. Councils also need to be prepared to detect, respond and recover when a cyber security incident occurs.

The audit assessed how effectively three selected councils identified and managed cyber security risks.

The audit also included the Department of Planning, Housing and Infrastructure (Office of Local Government) and Department of Customer Service (Cyber Security NSW), due to their roles in providing guidance and support to local councils.

Audit findings

The audit found that the selected councils are not effectively identifying and managing cyber security risks. Each of the councils undertook activities to improve their cyber security during the audit period, but this audit found significant gaps in their cyber security risk management and cyber security processes.

Such gaps result in unmitigated risks to the security of information and assets which, if compromised, could impact their local communities, service delivery and public infrastructure.

Cyber Security NSW and the Office of Local Government recommend that councils adopt requirements in the Cyber Security Guidelines for Local Government, but could do more to monitor whether the Guidelines are enabling better cyber security risk management in the sector.

Audit recommendations

In summary, the councils should:

  • integrate assessment and monitoring of cyber security risks into corporate governance processes
  • self-assess their performance against Cyber Security NSW's guidelines for local government
  • develop and implement a risk-based cyber security improvement plan and program of activities
  • develop, implement and test a cyber incident response plan.

Cyber Security NSW and the Office of Local Government should regularly consult on cyber security risks facing local government, and review the effectiveness of guidelines and related resources for the sector.

While this report focuses on the performance of the selected councils, the findings and recommendations should be considered by all councils to better understand their risks and challenges relevant to managing cyber security risks.

Local councils in New South Wales (NSW) provide a wide range of essential services and infrastructure to their communities and are increasingly reliant on digital technologies for this.

Councils use various information systems and software to manage significant amounts of information and data relevant to their corporate functions, infrastructure and service delivery. This may include sensitive information about residents, customers and staff.

Audit Office of New South Wales reports to Parliament have highlighted gaps in councils' cyber security risk management approaches since 2020. The Local Government 2023 report, tabled in March 2024, found that 50 councils were yet to implement cyber security governance frameworks and related internal controls.

The threat from cyber security incidents continues to rise. Such incidents can harm local government service delivery and may include the theft of information, denial of access to critical technology, or even the hijacking of systems for profit or malicious intent.

It is important that councils are effectively identifying and managing cyber security risks to:

  • protect their information, data and systems
  • be prepared to detect, respond to and recover from cyber security incidents 
  • ensure confidence in the services they are providing for their communities.

This report outlines important findings and recommendations from a performance audit of three councils: City of Parramatta Council, Singleton Council and Warrumbungle Shire Council. This audit report has deidentified findings for each council, but the specific findings have been directly shared with each council to enable them to remediate and improve cyber safeguards. The findings and recommendations in this report are likely to be relevant to most local councils in NSW and councils are encouraged to ensure they have sufficient cyber safeguards.

This audit assessed how effectively the selected councils identified and managed cyber security risks. The audit considered whether the councils:

  • effectively identify and plan for cyber security risks
  • have controls in place to effectively manage identified cyber security risks
  • have processes in place to detect, respond to, and recover from cyber security incidents.

This audit also included the Department of Customer Service and the Office of Local Government (OLG) within the Department of Planning and Environment (DPE) due to their roles in providing guidance and support to local government.1

Cyber Security NSW, part of the Department of Customer Service, supports local councils to improve their cyber resilience through a range of services and guidance, including the Cyber Security Guidelines – Local Government issued in December 2022.

The OLG is responsible for strengthening the sustainability, performance, integrity, transparency and accountability of the local government sector.

Conclusion

The three councils are not effectively identifying and managing cyber security risks. As a result, councils' information and systems are exposed to significant risks, which could have consequences for their communities and infrastructure.

Ineffective cyber security risk management can result in unmitigated risks to the security of information and assets which, if compromised, could impact the councils' local communities, service delivery and public infrastructure.

Poor management of cyber security can lead to consequences including theft of information or money, service interruptions, costs of repairing affected systems, and reputational damage.

Each council undertook activities to improve their cyber security during the audit period, but there were significant gaps in the councils' risk management processes and controls meaning the councils are not effectively identifying and managing cyber security risks.

Key findings include:

  • None of the councils are effectively using risk management processes to identify and manage cyber security risks.
  • None of the councils have assessed the business value of their information and systems to inform cyber security risk identification and management, nor have they assigned cyber security responsibilities for all core systems.
  • Two of the three councils do not have a formal plan to improve their cyber security, resulting in an uncoordinated approach to cyber security activities and related expenditure. The council that does have a plan has not formally considered the resourcing required to fully implement the plan.
  • None of the councils have implemented effective governance arrangements to ensure accountability for managing cyber security risks, and their reporting to ARICs did not link activities to risk mitigation.
  • None of the councils have effective cyber security policies and procedures for managing cyber security risks and to support consistent cyber security practices.None of the councils have a clear and consistent approach to monitoring the effectiveness of controls to mitigate identified cyber security risks.
  • All three councils are not effectively identifying or managing third party cyber security risks.

None of the councils have up to date plans and processes to support effective detection, response and recovery from cyber security incidents.

Councils need to be prepared to identify when a cyber incident occurs, and be able to respond to cyber incidents to contain any compromises and minimise the impact. This is even more important for councils with low levels of maturity in their preventative cyber security controls.

Key findings include:

  • None of the councils have a cyber incident response plan to ensure an effective response to and prompt recovery from cyber incidents, and their business continuity and disaster recovery planning documentation is not up to date.
  • None of the councils have clearly defined roles and responsibilities for detecting, responding to (including through appropriate reporting) and recovering from cyber incidents.
  • None of the councils maintain a register of cyber incidents to record information about the sources and types of incidents experienced and relevant responses, to support post-incident evaluation.

Cyber Security NSW and the OLG recommend that councils adopt requirements set out in the Cyber Security Guidelines for Local Government, but could do more to monitor whether the Guidelines are enabling better cyber security risk management in the sector.

Cyber Security NSW and the OLG recommend that local councils implement the Cyber Security Guidelines for Local Government. However, while the roles of both Cyber Security NSW and the OLG involve identifying and responding to specific sector risks, neither is monitoring the uptake of the Guidelines by local councils to identify whether they are enabling better cyber security risk management.

Cyber Security NSW and the OLG did not ensure that their roles, responsibilities and actions relevant to cyber security management were coordinated and complementary during the audit period. Cyber Security NSW's Local Government Engagement Plan was updated in November 2023 to include information about its approach to stakeholder collaboration to support a cyber secure NSW Government, including through engagement with the OLG.


1 The OLG was part of DPE up to 1 January 2024, when DPE was abolished and the OLG became part of the Department of Planning, Housing and Infrastructure (DPHI).

Local councils in New South Wales (NSW) provide a wide range of essential services and infrastructure to their communities. In doing so, councils use a range of information technology (IT) systems, assets, and digital services.

This audit follows several audit reports by the Audit Office of New South Wales that have considered how effectively NSW Government entities, including local councils have managed cyber security risks (see Appendix three).

The Audit Office of New South Wales has reported on how councils have managed cyber security risks since 2020. In the Local Government 2023 report, tabled in March 2024, gaps in cyber security frameworks and related internal controls were reported in 50 councils.

This chapter includes a summary of thematic key findings for the selected councils.

Cyber Security NSW is responsible for supporting local councils to improve their cyber resilience through a range of services and guidance and published its Local Government Engagement Plan in 2023 (discussed below).

The Office of Local Government (OLG) is responsible for strengthening the sustainability, performance, integrity, transparency and accountability of the local government sector. It does this through a range of activities including monitoring sector-wide and council-specific risks, issuing guidance, engaging with councils to build capacity and supporting the Minister for Local Government’s discretionary intervention powers.

Appendix one - Response from entities Cyber security in LG

Appendix two - Glossary-  Cyber security in local government

Appendix three – Overview of Audit Office of New South Wales reports that consider cyber security - Cyber security in local government

Appendix four – Cyber Security Guidelines – Local Government foundational requirements- Cyber security in local government

Appendix five – About the audit- Cyber security in local government

Appendix six – Performance auditing -Cyber security in local government

 

Copyright notice

© Copyright reserved by the Audit Office of New South Wales. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without prior consent of the Audit Office of New South Wales. The Audit Office does not accept responsibility for loss or damage suffered by any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any of this material.

Parliamentary reference - Report number #392- released 26 March 2024

Published

Actions for Local Government 2023

Local Government 2023

Local Government
Asset valuation
Cyber security
Financial reporting
Fraud
Information technology
Internal controls and governance

What this report is about

Results of the local government sector financial statement audits for the year ended 30 June 2023.

Findings

Unqualified audit opinions were issued for 85 councils, eight county councils and 12 joint organisations.

Qualified audit opinions were issued for 36 councils due to non-recognition of rural firefighting equipment vested under section 119(2) of the Rural Fires Act 1997.

The audits of seven councils, one county council and one joint organisation remain in progress at the date of this report due to significant accounting issues.

Fifty councils, county councils and joint organisations missed the statutory deadline of submitting their financial statements to the Office of Local Government, within the Department of Planning, Housing and Infrastructure, by 31 October.

Audit management letters included 1,131 findings with 40% being repeat findings and 91 findings being high-risk. Governance, asset management and information technology continue to represent 65% of the key areas for improvement.

Fifty councils do not have basic governance and internal controls to manage cyber security.

Recommendations

To improve quality and timeliness of financial reporting, councils should:

  • adopt early financial reporting procedures, including asset valuations
  • ensure integrity and completeness of asset source records
  • perform procedures to confirm completeness, accuracy and condition of vested rural firefighting equipment.

To improve internal controls, councils should:

  • track progress of implementing audit recommendations, and prioritise high-risk repeat issues
  • continue to focus on cyber security governance and controls.

 

Pursuant to the Local Government Act 1993 I am pleased to present my Auditor-General’s report on Local Government 2023. My report provides the results of the 2022–23 financial audits of 121 councils, eight county councils and 12 joint organisations. It also includes the results of the 2021–22 audits for two councils and two joint organisations which were completed after tabling of the Auditor-General’s report on Local Government 2022. The 2022–23 audits for eight councils, one county council and one joint organisation remain in progress due to significant accounting issues.

This will be my last consolidated report on local councils in NSW as my term as Auditor-General ends in April. Without a doubt, the change in mandate to make me the auditor of the local government sector has been the biggest challenge in my term. Challenging for councils as they adjust to consistent audit arrangements and for the staff of the Audit Office of NSW as they learn about the issues facing NSW councils.

The change in mandate aimed to improve the quality of financial management and reporting across the sector. This will take time. But this report does show some ‘green shoots’ with more councils submitting financial reports to the Office of Local Government by 31 October and more councils having Audit, Risk and Improvement Committees. 

I also want to acknowledge that councils face significant challenges responding to and recovering from emergency events whilst cost and resourcing pressures have been persistent.

The findings from our audits identify opportunities to further improve timeliness and quality of financial reporting and integrity of systems and processes. The recommendations in this report are also intended to improve financial management and reporting capability, encourage sound governance, and boost cyber resilience.

 

Margaret Crawford PSM
Auditor-General for New South Wales

Financial reporting is an important element of good governance. Confidence in and transparency of public sector decision-making are enhanced when financial reporting is accurate and timely.

This chapter outlines audit observations related to the financial reporting audit results of councils, county councils and joint organisations.

A strong system of internal controls enables councils to operate effectively and efficiently, produce reliable financial reports, comply with laws and regulations, and support ethical government.

This chapter outlines the overall trends in governance and internal controls across councils, county councils and joint organisations in 2022–23.

Financial audits focus on key governance matters and internal controls supporting the preparation of councils’ financial statements. Breakdowns and weaknesses in internal controls increase the risk of fraud and error. Deficiencies in internal controls, matters of governance interest and unresolved issues are reported to management and those charged with governance through audit management letters. These letters include our observations with risk ratings, related implications, and recommendations.

Appendix one – Response from the Office of Local Government within the Department of Planning, Housing and Infrastructure

Appendix two – NSW Crown Solicitor’s advice

Appendix three – Status of previous recommendations

Appendix four – Status of audits

Appendix five – Councils received qualified audit opinions for non-recognition of rural firefighting equipment

 

© Copyright reserved by the Audit Office of New South Wales. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without prior consent of the Audit Office of New South Wales. The Audit Office does not accept responsibility for loss or damage suffered by any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any of this material.

Published

Actions for Regulation insights

Regulation insights

Environment
Finance
Health
Local Government
Whole of Government
Compliance
Cyber security
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Procurement
Regulation
Risk

What this report is about

In this report, we present findings and recommendations relevant to regulation from selected reports between 2018 and 2024.

This analysis includes performance audits, compliance audits and the outcomes of financial audits.

Effective regulation is necessary to ensure compliance with the law as well as to promote positive social and economic outcomes and minimise risks with certain activities.

The report is a resource for public sector leaders. It provides insights into the challenges and opportunities for more effective regulation.

Audit findings

The analysis of findings and recommendations is structured around four key themes related to effective regulation:

  • governance and accountability
  • processes and procedures
  • data and information management
  • support and guidance.

The report draws from this analysis to present insights for agencies to promote effective regulation. It also includes relevant examples from recent audit reports.

In this report, we also draw out insights for agencies that provide a public sector stewardship role.

The report highlights the need for agencies to communicate a clear regulatory approach. It also emphasises the need to have a consistent regulatory approach, supported by robust information about risks and accompanied with timely and proportionate responses.

The report highlights the need to provide relevant support to regulated parties to facilitate compliance and the importance of transparency through reporting of meaningful regulatory information.

Image
Picture of Margaret Crawford Auditor-General for New South Wales in a copper with teal specks dress with black cardigan.

I am pleased to present this report, Regulation insights. This report highlights themes and generates insights about effective regulation from the last six years of audit.

Effective regulation is necessary to ensure compliance with the law. Effective regulation also promotes social, economic, and environmental outcomes, and minimises risks or negative impacts associated with certain activities. But regulation can be challenging and costly for governments to implement. It can also involve costs and impact on the regulated parties, including other public sector and private entities, and individuals. As such, effective regulation needs to be administered efficiently, and with integrity.

Having a clearly articulated and communicated regulatory approach is essential to achieving this outcome, particularly when this promotes voluntary compliance and sets performance standards that are informed by community expectations. A consistent approach to exercising regulatory powers is important: it should be supported by robust information about regulatory risks and issues, and accompanied with timely, proportionate responses. Providing relevant support to the regulated parties and coordinating activities to facilitate compliance and performance can generate efficiencies.

Finally, transparency matters. It matters so that government has oversight of and can be held accountable for its leadership of public sector compliance, and in regulating the activities of third parties. Transparency also matters because it can provide insights into the effective exercise of government power. To achieve this, meaningful regulatory information needs to be reported.

While these issues are most pertinent for government agencies that exercise traditional regulatory functions, they are also relevant to lead government agencies that provide a stewardship role in promoting compliance and performance by other government agencies in relation to particular areas of risk.

Over the past six years, our audit work has found many common and repeat performance gaps, creating risks, inefficiencies, and limiting outcomes of regulatory activities. In considering these gaps, this report provides public sector leaders with insights into the challenges and opportunities they may encounter when aiming for more effective regulation, including the good governance of regulatory activities. This includes insights for lead agencies that provide a public sector stewardship role. Through applying these insights and maximising regulatory effectiveness, unintended impacts on the people and sectors government serves and protects can be avoided or at the very least minimised.

 

Margaret Crawford PSM
Auditor-General for NSW

This report brings together key findings and recommendations relevant to regulation from selected performance and compliance audits between 2018 and early 2024 (19 in total), and from two reports that summarise results of financial audits during the same period. It aims to provide insights into the challenges and opportunities the public sector may encounter when aiming to enhance regulatory effectiveness.

The report is structured in two sections, each setting out insights from relevant audits and providing summaries as illustrative examples.

Section 3 is focused on insights from audits of agencies that administer regulatory powers and functions over other entities or activities (typically known as 'regulators'). The powers and functions of regulators are defined in law, and often relate to issuing approvals (e.g., licensing) for certain activities, and/or monitoring allowable activities within certain limits. Regulators often have compliance and enforcement powers that can be exercised in particular circumstances, such as when a regulated entity has not complied with relevant requirements.

Agencies may be primarily established as regulators or perform regulatory activities alongside other functions. Depending on the context, the regulated activity may relate to other state agencies, local government entities, non-government entities or individuals.

Section 4 summarises insights from a selection of audits of agencies that provide a stewardship role in promoting compliance by and performance of other state agencies and local government entities in relation to specific regulations or policies. These policies may or may not be mandatory and, unlike a more traditional regulator, the coordinating agency may not have enforcement powers to ensure compliance.

These policies, and accompanying guidelines and frameworks, are typically issued by ‘central agencies’ such as the Premier's Department that have a public sector stewardship role. They can also be issued by agencies with a leadership role in particular policy areas ('lead agencies'). While individual agencies and local government entities implementing these policies are responsible for their own compliance and performance, lead and central agencies have an oversight role including by promoting accountability and coordinating activities towards achieving compliance and performance outcomes across the public sector.

Readers are encouraged to view the full reports for further information. Links to versions published on our website are provided throughout this document, and a full list is in Appendix one. An overview of the rationale for selecting these audits and the approach to developing this report is in Appendix two.

The status of agencies' responses to audit recommendations

Findings from the audits referred to in this report were current at the time each respective report was published. In many cases, agencies accepted audit recommendations, as reflected in the letters from agency heads that are included in the appendix of each audit report.

The Public Accounts Committee of the NSW Parliament has a role in reporting on and ensuring that agencies respond appropriately to audit recommendations. Readers are encouraged to review the Public Accounts Committee's inquiries on agencies' implementation of audit recommendations, which can be found on the Committee's website.