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Actions for Universities 2023

Universities 2023

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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.

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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 Flood housing response

Flood housing response

Planning
Whole of Government
Community Services
Premier and Cabinet
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Procurement
Project management
Risk
Service delivery
Shared services and collaboration

What this report is about

Extreme rainfall across eastern Australia in 2021 and 2022 led to a series of major flood events in New South Wales.

This audit assessed how effectively the NSW Government provided emergency accommodation and temporary housing in response to the early 2022 Northern Rivers and late 2022 Central West flood events.

Responsible agencies included in this audit were the Department of Communities and Justice, NSW Reconstruction Authority, the former Department of Planning and Environment, the Department of Regional NSW and the Premier’s Department.

Findings

The Department of Communities and Justice rapidly provided emergency accommodation to displaced persons immediately following these flood events.

There was no plan in place to guide a temporary housing response and agencies did not have agency-level plans for implementing their responsibilities.

The NSW Government rapidly procured and constructed temporary housing villages. However, the amount of temporary housing provided did not meet the demand.

There is an extensive waitlist for temporary housing and the remaining demand in the Northern Rivers is unlikely to be met. The NSW Reconstruction Authority has not reviewed this list to confirm its accuracy.

Demobilisation plans for the temporary housing villages have been developed, but there are no long-term plans in place for the transition of tenants out of the temporary housing.

Agencies are in the process of evaluating the provision of emergency accommodation and temporary housing.

The findings from the 2022 State-wide lessons process largely relate to response activities.

Audit recommendations

The NSW Reconstruction Authority should:

  • Develop a plan for the provision of temporary housing.
  • Review the temporary housing waitlist.
  • Determine a timeline for demobilising the temporary housing villages.
  • Develop a strategy to manage the transition of people into long-term accommodation.
  • Develop a process for state-wide recovery lessons learned.

All audited agencies should:

  • Finalise evaluations of their role in the provision of emergency accommodation and temporary housing.
  • Develop internal plans for implementing their roles under state-wide plans.

Extreme rainfall across eastern Australia in 2021 and 2022 led to a series of major flood events in New South Wales. In response, the NSW Government declared each of these events a natural disaster and made available a wide range of support for affected individuals and businesses. The flooding experienced by the State was widespread and its severity caused significant destruction in communities across the State. Some of the most significant damage occurred in the Northern Rivers and Central West regions of New South Wales.

Whilst areas of the Northern Rivers are prone to regular flooding, the scale of flooding in 2022 had not been experienced in the region before. On 28 February 2022, the Wilsons River in Lismore reached a height of 14.4 metres, approximately 2.3 metres higher than the previous record. A second flood occurred on 30 March 2022, with the river reaching 11.4 metres. The flooding in the region was extensive, affecting towns including Lismore, Coraki, Woodburn and Ballina. Between late February and early April 2022, 13 lives were lost in the Northern Rivers floods. In addition, 4,055 properties were deemed uninhabitable, and a further 10,849 properties were assessed as damaged. Approximately 4,000 people had to be evacuated from Lismore alone during this period, with thousands displaced from their homes across the region.

In the Central West, on 14 November 2022, the Lachlan River at Forbes peaked at 10.6 metres and was categorised as major flooding due to the inundation of extensive rural areas with properties, villages and towns isolated. On the same day in Eugowra, the Mandagery Creek peaked at 9.8 metres, passing the previous record of 9.6 metres in 1950. Flooding occurred in other areas of the Central West including Parkes, Molong, Cowra and Canowindra. Two lives were lost in the town of Eugowra with 80% of homes and businesses in the town damaged.

This audit assessed the following two areas of NSW Government support provided in response to these flood events:

  • Provision of emergency accommodation: short-term accommodation provided to displaced persons unable to return to their own home in an emergency situation.
  • Provision of temporary housing provided in the form of temporary pods and caravans.

The Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) is responsible for the provision of emergency accommodation and other welfare services in response to a disaster event. With regards to temporary housing, the following agencies were involved in this audit:

  • Resilience NSW was the lead agency responsible for recovery and led the implementation of the temporary housing program under the oversight of the Chair, Housing Taskforce (HTF) from July 2022. On 16 December 2022, Resilience NSW was abolished, with some staff transferred to the NSW Police Force, Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) and DCJ. The remaining staff were transitioned to the newly established NSW Reconstruction Authority.
  • The Department of Planning and Environment (DPE) chaired the HTF until July 2022 and led the process for the identification and evaluation of temporary housing village sites. On 1 January 2024, DPE was abolished and the DPE functions discussed in this report now form part of the Department of Planning, Housing and Infrastructure.
  • NSW Public Works (NSWPW), a branch of the Department of Regional NSW (DRNSW) procured and managed the construction of the pods used in this program, and procured the caravans used as part of the temporary housing response.

The then DPC (now Premier’s Department (PD)) was responsible for whole-of-government policy advice, convening the Crisis Policy Committee of Cabinet, and whole-of-government communications.

This audit assessed how effectively the NSW Government provided emergency and temporary housing in response to the early 2022 Northern Rivers and late 2022 Central West flood events. We addressed this objective by examining whether the audited agencies:

  • effectively planned for the provision of emergency accommodation and temporary housing prior to the flood events
  • provided emergency accommodation and temporary housing to meet the needs of affected communities in response to the flood events
  • are effectively capturing lessons learned in relation to their provision of emergency accommodation and temporary housing as part of the flood response.

There is a State-level plan in place to guide the approach to emergency accommodation

The Welfare Services Functional Area Supporting Plan (WSFASP, the plan) is a supporting plan to the New South Wales Emergency Management Plan (EMPLAN). The plan outlines the responsibilities of the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) for the coordination and delivery of disaster welfare services in New South Wales. This includes the provision of emergency accommodation services. The plan in place during the flood events outlined the responsibilities of DCJ and the former Office of Emergency Management (OEM), some responsibilities of which have since transitioned to the NSW Reconstruction Authority (the Reconstruction Authority). The plan sets out a framework for government and non-government organisations to coordinate to provide key welfare services during an emergency, and outlines agreed roles and responsibilities. The plan outlines preparedness measures and arrangements for the provision of key welfare services during the response to and recovery from emergencies in New South Wales.

The plan details the organisations and key positions involved in welfare services, including their overall roles and responsibilities, and a basic structure for the delivery of disaster welfare services. For example, the plan states that both the former Department of Families and Communities Services and the not-for-profit Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) are responsible for emergency accommodation but does not clarify the detailed responsibilities associated with this role. These provide a State-wide, though not detailed, approach to emergency accommodation and welfare services in a disaster recovery context.

There was no plan in place to guide the temporary housing response, despite the NSW Government utilising this type of response in a previous emergency event

The State-level emergency planning documents do not contemplate the need for temporary housing as a government disaster response. Although there was a temporary housing response to the Black Summer bushfires in 2019–20, albeit on a smaller scale, no specific plans were in place to guide this response or the flood events in 2021–22. The NSW Government therefore had to develop its approach to addressing demand for temporary housing whilst responding to the flood emergency as it was occurring.

A partnership was established between the NSW Government and the Minderoo Foundation in 2020 to provide 100 pods to people whose homes were destroyed in the Black Summer bushfires. The initial rollout consisted of four-person pods, however the need for greater capacity was identified, with larger, family-sized pods developed for up to six people. The implementation of this program did not include formalising the work completed in documented plans for future use in response to other emergency events.

A plan that sets out how temporary housing should be used is in place in Queensland. The Queensland Government released a Temporary Emergency Accommodation (TEA) plan in 2021 which describes the arrangements, roles and responsibilities of key organisations critical to supporting displaced community members after the closure of an evacuation centre. The TEA plan outlines the five phases in the provision of accommodation support which includes temporary housing recovery. This demonstrates that a plan for the use of temporary accommodation would not be unprecedented.

Without plans in place to respond to all aspects of an emergency, decision makers are forced to be reactive in their decision making or to develop these plans while also responding to the events. In this specific instance, the government was forced to develop governance structures and perform tasks such as options analysis and site selection for temporary housing during the immediate aftermath of the flood events.

The Reconstruction Authority has acknowledged the need for a formalised plan for temporary housing responses and has started work to develop this in preparation for future flood events. It advised that the Housing Taskforce (HTF) has begun this work by performing assessments and reviews of high-risk areas and engaging with local councils and community groups. The Reconstruction Authority is also developing a Recovery Readiness Checklist, which will include preparedness for the provision of temporary housing in an emergency. Pre-event recovery planning specific to Local Government Areas (LGAs) is also underway, with the Reconstruction Authority developing tailored checklists which cover the provision of temporary housing. These tools will form part of the State's recovery response under the NSW Recovery Plan, which the Reconstruction Authority is currently in the process of updating. The Reconstruction Authority advises that this update will include identifying responsibilities in relation to the temporary housing response and recovery more broadly.

The WSFASP in place during the flood events had not been reviewed and updated in line with its planning requirements

Plans which outline the coordination and delivery of services in response to an emergency are imperative to ensure all required activities are completed, and the needs of affected communities are met. Plans also serve as a common reference point for decision making. Out of date plans can result in unclear roles and responsibilities, requiring agencies to make improvised decisions due to the urgent nature of emergency response. This creates a risk of key activities not being fulfilled and community needs going unmet.

The WSFASP in place during the flood response was last updated and endorsed by the State Emergency Management Committee (SEMC) in June 2018. As part of the planning requirements outlined in the plan, the State Welfare Services Functional Area Coordinator (WelFAC) is required to ensure the plan is reviewed every five years, or when relevant aspects require review following emergency operations or changes to legislation. The State WelFAC is an officer from DCJ responsible for the monitoring, support and coordination of disaster welfare services in New South Wales.

In 2020, a machinery of government change was implemented which established Resilience NSW as a public service executive agency and transferred persons employed in OEM to Resilience NSW. Despite these legislative changes, the plan had not been updated in line with its requirements to reflect these and subsequent changes, as OEM was still listed as one of the two agencies responsible for the coordination and delivery of disaster welfare services. Similarly, the plan had not been updated to reflect emergency operations changes with ADRA listed as the responsible coordinator for the provision of emergency accommodation services, despite no longer being responsible for this service.

The WSFASP has since been updated to reflect these changes and was endorsed by the SEMC in September 2023. The current WSFASP aligns with the welfare services responsibilities following the transfer of the welfare services functional area to DCJ in 2023. This includes the role of DCJ as the lead agency for the WSFASP, and DCJ and the Housing Contact Centre (HCC) within DCJ as the coordinator of emergency accommodation. The updated plan also provides an outline of the key welfare services that are delivered by the functional area, including emergency accommodation, personal support, essential food and grocery items, and transition from emergency accommodation. The outline provides a description of each service and the agency, team or non-government organisation responsible for coordinating the service.

Agencies did not have agency-level plans in place for implementing their responsibilities under State-level emergency accommodation and temporary housing plans

The State EMPLAN establishes a framework for sub plans, supporting plans and related policy instruments and guidelines. It states that a supporting plan should describe the support which is to be provided to the controlling or coordinating authority during emergency operations and be an action plan which describes how an agency or functional area is to be coordinated in order to fulfill the roles and responsibilities allocated. Without this more detailed guidance being in place, there is no common reference point for individuals within an agency to refer to when implementing the broader State-level plans, such as the WSFASP.

The WSFASP defines emergency accommodation and outlines the government and non-government organisations responsible for its provision. It does not provide a detailed description of the specific roles and responsibilities related to its provision. DCJ does not have an agency-level plan in place that specifies these in more detail, and did not have any standard operating procedures (SOPs) in place to guide the process of housing displaced persons in emergency accommodation.

The absence of SOPs to guide this process can increase the chance of inconsistent implementation of the WSFASP, with a reliance on the experience of staff to complete tasks to house people in emergency accommodation. For example, at the onset of an emergency, staff in the HCC contact local accommodation venues such as hotels and motels to determine availability in the area. They may also book blocks of rooms in preparation for housing displaced persons. At the time of the flood events, there was no documentation which detailed the process for DCJ staff to follow and these tasks were not recorded anywhere as requiring completion before a disaster occurred.

DCJ has advised that they have since developed internal processes which form part of the training program for Disaster Welfare staff. In addition to this, the HCC has developed a guide which steps out the various processes relating to the provision of emergency accommodation, as well as outlining the different roles and responsibilities within the HCC in relation to these processes.

As noted, there is no State-level plan in place to guide the temporary housing response. As a result, there is no framework to guide this process at an agency level for the Reconstruction Authority. The absence of both State and agency-level plans guiding the provision of temporary housing at the time of the flood events meant that agencies were required to develop a process to follow at the same time as responding to the flood events.

Appropriate governance structures were established quickly and changed as needed to reflect recovery needs

The State Recovery Committee (SRC) was activated following the 2019–20 bushfires and was still operating at the time of the 2022 floods. As part of this, the SRC had a terms of reference which included responsibilities of the SRC and a membership list. The responsibilities of the SRC in the terms of reference are to:

  • provide strategic direction in relation to disaster recovery
  • oversee reconstruction and recovery efforts in disaster impacted areas
  • provide senior leadership to facilitate whole-of-government coordination
  • monitor and report to the Premier, Deputy Premier and Cabinet on the progress of recovery efforts in disaster impacted areas.

Once the flood events commenced on 28 February 2022, the SRC increased its meeting frequency to every two days initially, for a total of 13 meetings in March. The SRC continued to meet at least twice a week from mid-April until the end of May, at which point it reduced gradually in frequency to weekly and then fortnightly. The SRC continued to meet throughout all of 2022 and 2023.

The SRC established a range of subcommittees to assist with recovery efforts. These subcommittees were operational from March 2022 onwards. Subcommittees had terms of reference setting out their role and were chaired by appropriate agencies with operational responsibilities that aligned with those roles. The Health and Wellbeing subcommittee was established as part of this and initially had responsibility for the provision of both emergency accommodation and temporary housing. This subcommittee was chaired by a relevant Senior Executive in DCJ.

As noted above, none of the whole-of-government plans prior to the flood events allocated responsibility to an agency or subcommittee for constructing and managing temporary housing. Although temporary housing had been utilised by the government previously in response to the 2019–20 bushfires, its provision had never been implemented on the scale required in response to the flood events.

In early March, the SRC created a new subcommittee: the Housing Taskforce (HTF). The HTF contained key staff from a wide variety of agencies, as well as other key stakeholders like local councils where appropriate, and was chaired by a Senior Executive from the Planning Branch of the Department of Planning and Environment (DPE). A terms of reference was quickly developed for the subcommittee. The HTF’s initial purpose included developing a strategy for identifying locations and pathways for temporary housing. This allowed the Health and Wellbeing subcommittee and the HTF to provide more focus on their particular areas of responsibility.

The SRC helped to manage issues but did not provide strategic risk management

Subcommittees regularly reported to the SRC throughout the flood response period. The SRC was able to manage issues with these programs as they arose, often by connecting relevant staff and providing a forum for these issues to be resolved across agencies. In this way, the SRC was able to manage issues, which aligns with its role in facilitating whole-of-government coordination.

Given that all relevant agencies were represented on the SRC, it was uniquely placed to provide strategic risk management across all aspects of the recovery effort including provision of accommodation and housing following the floods. This would fall within the SRC’s role of providing strategic direction in relation to disaster recovery. Strategic risk management involves addressing external risks, including those which may impact the government’s ability to achieve its objectives. The SRC did not undertake strategic risk management to proactively identify issues that could hinder the recovery effort, such as through developing risk registers and assigning mitigation strategies to agencies or specific individuals.

In regards to the flood temporary housing response, this may have included identifying and mitigating risks that could impact on the quantity of housing provided, risks to the overall flood recovery budget, and risks related to further flood events occurring that might hinder flood recovery. While the SRC did not consider this work during the flood response, Resilience NSW and the Reconstruction Authority both documented some whole-of-government risks to the delivery of the response to natural disasters as part of their enterprise risk management processes, including throughout 2022. However, this work was not undertaken specifically in relation to the unfolding flood events, but was instead done as part of the agency's regular review of its enterprise risks. Given that only one agency was involved in this risk identification, it was not a substitute for whole-of-government risk identification through the SRC.

The HTF did undertake some separate risk identification for the temporary housing response in the Northern Rivers, but not until October 2022. The HTF had been in operation since March 2022 without undertaking formal risk assessments to determine key risks to the provision of temporary housing that required mitigation. Some of the risks identified included expenditure on temporary housing exceeding its allocated budget, temporary housing sites failing to deliver agreed outcomes, and that there would be inappropriate or ineffective engagement with Aboriginal communities. This risk identification from the HTF was also reflected in Resilience NSW's and the Reconstruction Authority’s enterprise risk registers, where it is identified that there is a risk that the agencies do not effectively deliver on short and medium term housing.

The SRC provided oversight of the work of subcommittees

As noted above, one of the roles of the SRC is to oversee reconstruction and recovery efforts in disaster impacted areas. To fulfil this role of providing oversight, the SRC received updates on the activities of each subcommittee at each meeting.

In March 2022, each subcommittee developed a 100-Day Flood Action Plan that set out actions that would be completed in the first 30, 60 and 100 days. Each subcommittee was required to update its Flood Action Plan and report progress on implementation to the SRC every two weeks. The SRC received this regular reporting from each subcommittee, which included the status of each item, actions undertaken to date, and the next steps that each subcommittee was undertaking. This served to provide the SRC with oversight of the actions of each group to supplement the subcommittee updates with greater detail.

The quality of reporting from the HTF to the SRC reduced throughout August and September 2022. At this time the updates from the subcommittee included either only a verbal update or only statistical updates on the temporary housing response. This means that throughout this period, the SRC was providing only limited oversight of the temporary housing response. From October 2022, the HTF provided more detailed updates to the SRC, providing data on the temporary housing villages including the number of dwellings, estimated capacity and the status of each of the village sites (whether operational or estimated date of construction completion).

DCJ adapted its usual procedures to house a large number of people in emergency accommodation following the Northern Rivers flood event

The HCC, a branch within DCJ, is responsible for arranging emergency accommodation during a disaster, although this responsibility was not outlined in a specific emergency accommodation plan or procedure at the time of the flood events. Once a disaster is declared, the HCC is activated for a disaster welfare response. The team is required to estimate the number of people who will be displaced by the disaster and may seek emergency accommodation. The team is also required to contact local accommodation providers such as hotels, motels and caravan parks to determine vacancy information, as well as obtain information about the facilities such as wheelchair accessibility and pet-friendly rooms. The HCC team will then make direct contact with staff at evacuation centres and facilitate bookings based on the demand. A central internal database is utilised by the HCC, which enables them to see providers and book within the system.

In following these procedures, DCJ housed 788 people in the two weeks following the initial flood event by utilising the standard local accommodation providers. On 27 April 2022, 1,440 people were reported as staying at local accommodation providers as part of the emergency accommodation response. Exhibit 5 shows the number of people housed in emergency accommodation across the North Coast from March 2022 to early April 2023.

Governance structures continued to operate as previously established in response to the Central West flood event

The governance structures established in response to the 2019–20 bushfires and the flood event in the Northern Rivers mostly operated in the same capacity for the management of the Central West flood event. In October 2022, the meeting frequency for the SRC reduced to fortnightly, following the same structure with subcommittee updates discussed as part of the agenda. There was no increase in meeting frequency during or in the immediate aftermath of the response to the Central West flood event.

Resilience NSW continued to document whole-of-government risks to the delivery of the response to natural disasters during the response to the Central West flood event, and this work was continued by the Reconstruction Authority once established. Resilience NSW also continued to develop risk dashboard heatmaps each quarter, monitoring any changes in the residual risk rating of these risks, as well as outlining issues identified, and any new and emerging risks.

DCJ housed displaced persons in the Central West quickly, considering additional needs during the process

DCJ, through the HCC, advised that it followed its standard process outlined above for the provision of emergency accommodation during the Central West flood event. The evacuation order for Eugowra was made on 15 November 2022, and by 8 December 2022, DCJ had housed 93 people from the community in emergency accommodation. The HCC was able to utilise alternative accommodation such as rooms at Charles Sturt University to meet the increasing demand for emergency accommodation in the Central West.

Through the initial consultation process conducted with displaced persons at evacuation centres, the HCC was also able to consider their additional needs and meet these where possible. For example, companion animals were supported by Local Land Services and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals through the provision of boarding services. DCJ advised that local needs were also considered as part of the intake process. For example, displaced persons were accommodated as close to their hometown as possible. Those evacuated from Forbes were given priority for emergency accommodation in Forbes. This did impact evacuees from other towns. Ordinarily, those displaced in Eugowra would also be housed in Forbes, but due to limited accommodation options, they were evacuated to Orange instead. Other considerations made for displaced persons included level access and accessible rooms for those with disabilities, and baby care items, such as cots, where required.

The At-home Caravans program was implemented as immediate shelter for displaced persons awaiting pods on their property in the Central West

By 28 November 2022, Resilience NSW made the decision to activate the At-home Caravans program in the Central West, with applications from displaced persons being taken within a week after the flood event in Eugowra. Caravans were temporarily set up on private properties in Eugowra. Displaced persons are able to live in these caravans while waiting for a pod to be installed on their property. By 10 January 2023, 102 caravans had been delivered to the Central West and started to be located on private properties. At 30 May 2023, Resilience NSW had delivered 124 out of the 129 required caravans to properties. A plan was implemented to provide immediate shelter in the community through the caravans, organise medium-term housing in the form of pods, and support displaced persons to repair or rebuild their homes. Caravans were provided to households where properties required demolition, those that were damaged but reparable, and rental properties with owner’s consent.

Other options for immediate shelter were considered but not progressed. Placing caravans on site at showgrounds or caravan parks was considered, however a NSWPW assessment found that 95% of impacted homes could accommodate caravans on property. Caravans on property require less ongoing case management, site works and utilities. Private farm house rental accommodation was also considered, however extremely low availability of these in the area resulted in the decision to not progress this option.

Resilience NSW was able to meet the demand for housing in the Central West by placing temporary housing on people’s property

Resilience NSW conducted early analysis of potential temporary housing village sites in the aftermath of the floods in the Central West. However, after reviewing the situation in Eugowra and the relatively larger blocks, it was decided a more appropriate solution would be to place temporary pods on private property. Part of this decision was the impact a centralised village located in Eugowra would have on displaced persons from other affected towns. At 30 May 2023, 59 out of 100 pods had been installed on private properties. These pods replaced caravans initially installed on private properties, although at the time of the audit some disaster-affected persons were still living in caravans while they wait for pod installation on their property.

Resilience NSW was able to utilise the excess pods from the Northern Rivers to reduce the wait time for displaced persons to move into the pod from the caravan located on their property. Once their eligibility had been confirmed, the resident met with NSWPW and the builders contracted to install the pods. The resident confirmed where they would like the pod placed and the size needed. Applicants were then prioritised by Resilience NSW and pods installed in order of this prioritisation. NSWPW engaged the same third-party contractor used in the Northern Rivers construction to expedite the installation process.

Resilience NSW used measures to adapt the pods for suitable use in the Central West, as well as configuring them to meet mobility needs of residents. Cabonne Shire and Forbes Shire Councils required pods to be built at a height of 1.5 metres. The pods were therefore installed on scaffolding to raise their height. As the pods were designed and constructed for the Northern Rivers climate, insulation was installed on the base of the pods to ensure the inside temperature was appropriate for residents in the Central West. The raised height of the pods also impacted their accessibility, so the contractor was also engaged to install ramps instead of stairs where needed.

The first demobilisation of a pod occurred on 7 August 2023, after the resident’s home had been repaired and it was suitable for them to move back home. The Reconstruction Authority advised that as pods continue to be demobilised, they will be cleaned, any required repairs completed, and then moved onto the next property as needed. There was no long-term plan initially developed for the transition of tenants out of temporary housing, although the Reconstruction Authority has advised that the newly developed Temporary Housing Plan will include these considerations to inform processes at the end of the lease period. There has been consideration for returning the pods to the Northern Rivers once the work in the Central West is complete.

The Reconstruction Authority advised that due to the delays residents are facing in accessing trades and payment of insurance claims, the HTF is currently seeking the support of councils to extend the placement of pods beyond the two years that were initially planned.

There was no clear process in place to support displaced persons in emergency accommodation who were ineligible for temporary housing in the Central West

The WSFASP in place during the flood events did not outline a transition plan for displaced persons staying in emergency accommodation. Resilience NSW took over responsibility for the transition of displaced persons from emergency accommodation to temporary housing. It was not always possible to house rental tenants by placing a pod on the property they were occupying because they were unable to obtain landowner permission. It was necessary to find an alternative property to install these pods, usually on property owned by a family member. This was able to address most tenants’ issues.

It was unclear which agency was responsible for the support of renting households in the medium to long-term. The lack of a documented process for the provision of emergency accommodation created a gap in relation to the support for displaced persons. The WSFASP has since been updated to include provision for coordinated case management support to assist people in emergency accommodation with longer-term housing needs.

DCJ maintained a list of displaced persons who had been staying in emergency accommodation and were unable to exit without assistance. This list was provided to Resilience NSW weekly. Resilience NSW provided updates to DCJ on the status of those who were being transitioned into temporary housing, but no assistance was provided by Resilience NSW to those who were ineligible for temporary housing. DCJ was therefore required to provide case management to these people to assist in their transition to more stable housing.

Agencies learned and applied lessons from the Northern Rivers floods to the Central West flood event, but most have not formalised these for future consideration

Agencies involved in the provision of emergency accommodation and temporary housing learned key lessons from the Northern Rivers floods that could be applied in the Central West response. These lessons included the Reconstruction Authority rapidly standing up the At-home Caravans Program to provide immediate accommodation to displaced persons, and instigating a community reference group to provide feedback on the proposed housing response plan. These lessons learned were largely undocumented, with many staff being involved across both the Northern Rivers and Central West flood response, and able to directly apply lessons learned from their experience in the earlier response. It is good practice to formalise lessons learned to ensure that future responses may have access to contemporary information to learn from both positive and negative experiences in previous situations.

DCJ and Premier’s Department (PD) have not yet documented any lessons learned from their roles in the flood events. Some lessons were documented by Resilience NSW in April 2022 as part of a process to identify emerging insights. These lessons covered a broad range of activities, including findings relevant to the provision of temporary housing.

In June 2023, the Reconstruction Authority formally documented its own lessons learned from the provision of temporary housing. This includes identifying actions to avoid repeating some of the negative experiences, such as Aboriginal communities not being consulted at the appropriate time, and not having adequate program design processes in place for the temporary housing program. In addition, NSWPW has commissioned an evaluation of its work in the construction and provision of temporary housing, which includes a formal lessons learned component.

External reviews have also been conducted and have captured interim lessons learned, including the 2022 NSW Flood Inquiry and the ‘Response to major flooding across New South Wales in 2022’ Parliamentary Inquiry.

Agencies are in the process of evaluating the provision of emergency accommodation and temporary housing

Agencies have commenced the process of evaluating their role in the provision of emergency accommodation and temporary housing. DCJ advised that an external evaluation would commence shortly and that it was in the process of engaging a consultancy firm to conduct this. NSWPW has also commenced an external review of its provision of temporary housing. DPE and PD have not commenced a review, although PD has established a new unit for strategic communications during disasters in response to the agency's involvement in crisis communications during the flood events. This unit has been developed to deliver overarching whole-of-government messaging during disaster events.

Similarly, the Reconstruction Authority advised that an evaluation was planned for the provision of temporary housing. In addition, Resilience NSW commissioned an evaluation of the use of the Minderoo Foundation pods in response to the 2019–20 bushfires. This review reported in November 2022, though it had limited consideration of the role of the Minderoo Foundation pods as a source of temporary housing in the Northern Rivers. This report made 19 recommendations to the Reconstruction Authority and the Minderoo Foundation, and found that the Minderoo pods had largely been delivered in line with the original intended objectives.

There is no State-wide process in place to capture lessons learned from all agencies involved in recovery

Each year, the SEMC conducts a State-wide lessons learned exercise, incorporating learnings from all of the emergency events in the previous year. This exercise has commenced for the 2022 emergency events, however at the time of the audit it was in draft and not yet formally endorsed by the SEMC.

The agencies involved in the State lessons learned process are agencies with emergency response responsibilities. The findings largely relate to these response activities, with very few lessons learned relating to recovery. Only a limited number of agencies are involved in this activity, and the 2022 review did not incorporate the views of a number of agencies that were involved in the recovery phase of the Northern Rivers and Central West flood events.

While it is important that lessons are learned from the response phase of an emergency, it is equally important that State-wide lessons are learned from the recovery phase to ensure that appropriate State-wide changes can be made, or positive experiences can be continued. There is currently no process in place to capture these lessons learned from the recovery phase from all agencies involved in the recovery phase.

Appendix one – Responses from entities

Appendix two – About the audit

Appendix three – Performance auditing

 

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Parliamentary reference - Report number #389 - released 22 February 2024

Published

Actions for Driver vehicle system

Driver vehicle system

Transport
Finance
Cyber security
Information technology
Internal controls and governance
Project management
Service delivery

What this report is about

Transport for NSW (TfNSW) uses the Driver vehicle System (DRIVES) to support its regulatory functions. The system covers over 6.2 million driver licences and over seven million vehicle registrations.

DRIVES first went live in 1991 and has been significantly extended and updated since, though is still based around the same core system. The system is at end of life but has become an important service for Service NSW and the NSW Police Force.

DRIVES now includes some services to other parts of government and non-government entities which have little or no connection to transport. There are 141 users of DRIVES in total, including commercial insurers, national regulators, and individual citizens.

This audit assessed whether TfNSW is effectively managing DRIVES and planning to transition it to a modernised system.

Audit findings

TfNSW has not effectively planned the replacement of DRIVES.

It is now working on its third business case for a replacement system but has failed to learn lessons from its past attempts.

In the meantime, TfNSW has not taken a strategic approach to managing DRIVES’ growth.

TfNSW has been slow to reduce the risk of misuse of personal information held in DRIVES. With its delivery partner Service NSW, TfNSW has also been slow to develop and implement automatic monitoring of access.

TfNSW uses recognised processes for managing most aspects of DRIVES, but has not kept the system consistently available for users. TfNSW has lacked accurate service availability information since June 2022, when it changed its technology support provider.

TfNSW needs to significantly prioritise cyber security improvements to DRIVES. TfNSW is seeking to lift DRIVES’ cyber defences, but it will not achieve its stated target safeguard level until December 2025.

Even then, one of the target safeguards will not be achieved in full until DRIVES is modernised.

Audit recommendations

TfNSW should:

  • implement a service management framework including insight into the views of DRIVES users, and ensuring users can influence the service
  • ensure it can accurately and cost effectively calculate when DRIVES is unavailable due to unplanned downtime
  • ensure implementation of a capability to automatically detect anomalous patterns of access to DRIVES
  • ensure that DRIVES has appropriate cyber security and resilience safeguards in place as a matter of priority
  • develop a clear statement of the future role in whole of government service delivery for the system
  • resolve key issues currently faced by the DRIVES replacement program including by:
    • clearly setting out a strategy and design for the replacement
    • preparing a specific business case for replacement.

The DRIver VEhicle System1 (often known as DRIVES) is the Transport for NSW (TfNSW) system which is used to manage over 6.2 million driver licences and over seven million vehicle registrations in New South Wales.

DRIVES first went live in 1991 and has been significantly extended and enhanced over the past 33 years. DRIVES is a significant NSW Government information system — containing personal information such as home addresses for most of the NSW adult population, sensitive health information such as medical conditions, and biometric data in photographs.

Service NSW, part of the Department of Customer Service, is the NSW Government's 'one stop shop' for services to NSW citizens and businesses. It uses DRIVES when it delivers many transport-related services to NSW citizens such as licence renewals and checks the identity information stored in DRIVES as part of other services delivered to NSW citizens, such as a 'working with children check'.

DRIVES supports TfNSW's regulatory functions and the collection of more than $5 billion in revenue annually for the NSW Government. The system is also used by many organisations outside of the NSW Government including commercial insurers and national regulators, as well as individual citizens who access DRIVES for services such as 'Renew my registration' or 'Book a driver knowledge test'.

TfNSW owns and manages DRIVES. It intends to replace DRIVES with a modernised system to improve its cost, performance, and security.

The objective of this performance audit was to assess whether TfNSW is effectively:

  • managing the current system, and 
  • planning to transition DRIVES to a modernised system.

The auditee is TfNSW. We have consulted with the Department of Customer Service as a key stakeholder during the audit process.

This part of the report considers whether Transport for NSW (TfNSW) is effectively managing the current system. It considers DRIVES’:

  • role in NSW Government service delivery
  • ease of use and appropriateness for a modern system
  • mechanisms to ensure the service is available for users.

This part of the report considers whether Transport for NSW (TfNSW) is effectively planning to transition DRIVES to a modernised system. It makes findings on the:

  •  effort to develop a business case to fund the replacement of DRIVES
  • issues which have contributed to the slow progress of the replacement program.

Published

Actions for Treasury 2023

Treasury 2023

Treasury
Compliance
Cyber security
Financial reporting
Information technology
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Procurement
Regulation
Risk
Service delivery
Shared services and collaboration

What this report is about

Result of the Treasury portfolio of agencies’ financial statement audits for the year ended 30 June 2023.

The results of the audit of the NSW Government’s consolidated Total State Sector Accounts (TSSA), which are prepared by NSW Treasury, will be reported separately in our report on ‘State Finances 2023’.

The audit found

Unqualified audit opinions were issued on all general purpose financial statement audits.

Qualified audit opinions were issued on two of the 24 other engagements prepared by portfolio agencies. These related to payments made from Special Deposit Accounts that did not comply with the relevant legislation.

The number of monetary misstatements identified in our audits increased from 29 in 2021–22 to 39 in 2022–23.

The new parental leave policy impacted agencies across all portfolios. NSW Treasury should perform annual assessments to identify changes in legislation and regulation and provide timely guidance to the sector.

Transport for NSW and Sydney Metro have capitalised over $300 million of tender bid costs paid to unsuccessful tender bidders relating to significant infrastructure projects. Whilst NSW Treasury policy provides clarity on the reimbursement of unsuccessful bidders’ costs, clearer guidance on how to account for these costs in agencies’ financial statements is required.

The key audit issues were

Five high-risk issues were reported in 2022–23. Three were new findings on contract management, accounting treatments for workers compensation renewal premium adjustments and the management and oversight of a Special Deposit Account. Two repeat issues referred to the need to improve quality review processes over financial reporting and the timely approval of administration costs.

Portfolio agencies should prioritise and action recommendations to address internal control deficiencies.

 

This report provides Parliament and other users of the Treasury portfolio of agencies’ financial statements with the results of our audits, analysis, conclusions and recommendations in the following areas:

  • financial reporting
  • audit observations.

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

This chapter outlines our audit observations related to the financial reporting of agencies in the Treasury portfolio of agencies (the portfolio) for 2023.

Section highlights

  • Unqualified audit opinions were issued on all Treasury portfolio agencies’ 2022–23 financial statements.
  • Two qualified audit opinions were issued on special purpose financial reports, relating to whether payments from the Electricity Retained Interest Corporation – Ausgrid (ERIC-A) Fund and the Electricity Retained Interest Corporation – Endeavour (ERIC-E) Fund, complied with the relevant legislation.
  • The total number of errors (both corrected and uncorrected) in the financial statements increased from 29 in 2021–22 to 39 in 2022–23.
    Reported corrected misstatements increased from 15 in 2021–22 to 25 with a gross value of $7.1 billion in 2022–23. Reported uncorrected misstatements increased from 13 in 2021–22 to 14 in 2022–23, with a gross value of $277.6 million in 2022–23.

Appropriate financial controls help ensure the efficient and effective use of resources and administration of agency policies. They are essential for quality and timely decision-making.

This chapter outlines our observations and insights from our financial statement audits of agencies in the Treasury portfolio.

Section highlights

  • Five high-risk issues were reported in 2022–23. Three were new findings on contract management, accounting treatments for workers compensation renewal premium adjustments and the management and oversight of a Special Deposit Account.
  • A further 35 moderate risk findings were reported in 2022–23, of which ten were repeat findings.
  • Some agencies have again spent monies without an authorised delegation.
  • The quality of information provided for audit purposes needs to improve.

 

Appendix one – Misstatements in financial statements submitted for audit

Appendix two – Early close procedures

Appendix three – Timeliness of financial reporting

Appendix four – Financial data

Appendix five – Acquittals and other opinions

 

© 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 Regional NSW 2023

Regional NSW 2023

Industry
Environment
Planning
Whole of Government
Asset valuation
Compliance
Cyber security
Financial reporting
Fraud
Information technology
Infrastructure
Procurement
Regulation
Risk
Service delivery
Shared services and collaboration

What this report is about

Results of the Regional NSW financial statements audits for the year ended 30 June 2023.

What we found

Unqualified audit opinions were issued on all completed audits in the Regional NSW portfolio agencies.

The number of monetary misstatements identified in our audits increased from 28 in 2021–22 to 30 in 2022–23.

What the key issues were

Effective 1 July 2023, staff employed in the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation Division of the Department of Regional NSW transferred to the NSW Reconstruction Authority Staff Agency.

The Regional NSW portfolio agencies were migrated into a new government wide enterprise resourcing planning system.

The total number of audit management letter findings across the portfolio of agencies decreased from 36 to 23.

A high risk matter was raised for the NSW Food Authority to improve the internal controls in the information technology environment including monitoring and managing privilege user access.

What we recommended

Local Land Services should prioritise completing all mandatory early close procedures.

Portfolio agencies should:

  • ensure any changes to employee entitlements are assessed for their potential financial statements impact under the relevant Australian Accounting Standards
  • prioritise and address internal control deficiencies identified in audit management letters.

This report provides Parliament and other users of the Regional NSW portfolio of agencies financial statements with the results of our audits, analysis, conclusions and recommendations in the following areas:

  • financial reporting
  • audit observations.

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

This chapter outlines our audit observations related to the financial reporting of agencies in the Regional NSW portfolio of agencies (the portfolio) for 2023.

Section highlights

  • Unqualified audit opinions were issued on all completed 30 June 2023 financial statements audits of the portfolio agencies. Two audits are ongoing.
  • The total number of errors (including corrected and uncorrected) in the financial statements increased compared to the prior year.
  • Portfolio agencies met the statutory deadline for submitting their 2022–23 early close financial statements and other mandatory procedures.
  • Portfolio agencies continue to provide financial assistance to communities affected by natural disasters.
  • A change to the NSW paid parental leave scheme, effective October 2023, created a new legal obligation that needed to be recognised by impacted government agencies. Impact to the agencies' financial statements were not material. 

 

Appropriate financial controls help ensure the efficient and effective use of resources and administration of agency policies. They are essential for quality and timely decision-making.

This chapter outlines our observations and insights from our financial statement audits of agencies in the Regional NSW portfolio.

Section highlights

  • The 2022–23 audits identified one high risk and nine moderate risk issues across the portfolio. Of these, one was a moderate risk repeat issue.
  • The total number of findings decreased from 36 to 23 which mainly related to deficiencies in internal controls.
  • The high risk matter relates to the monitoring and managing of privilege user access at NSW Food Authority. 

 

Appendix one – Misstatements in financial statements submitted for audit

Appendix two – Early close procedures

Appendix three – Timeliness of financial reporting

Appendix four – Financial data

 

© 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 Customer Service 2023

Customer Service 2023

Finance
Asset valuation
Compliance
Financial reporting
Information technology
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Regulation
Risk
Service delivery
Shared services and collaboration

What this report is about

Result of the Customer Service portfolio agencies' financial statement audits for the year ended 30 June 2023.

What we found

Unmodified audit opinions were issued for all completed 30 June 2023 financial statements audits of Customer Service portfolio agencies. Two audits are ongoing.

What the key issues were

The total number of misstatements in the financial statements and findings reported to management decreased compared to the prior year.

For the first time since its establishment in 2015, GovConnect NSW received unqualified audit opinions for business process internal controls and information technology general controls managed by service providers.

The department controls Finance Co Trust (Fin Co), a special purpose trust created as part of its project to replace flammable cladding for eligible residential apartment buildings. Fin Co did not prepare financial statements which is a breach of the Government Sector Finance Act 2018 (GSF Act).

The department's land titling database was overstated by $42.5 million due to errors in the valuation model.

The New South Wales Government Telecommunications Authority corrected a prior period error of $10.2 million overstatement of property, plant and equipment.

A high-risk finding was reported to Service NSW regarding gaps in policies, systems and processes for administering and financial reporting on grant programs.

Recommendations were made to address these deficiencies.

This report provides Parliament and other users of the Customer Service portfolio of agencies’ financial statements with the results of our audits, analysis, conclusions and recommendations in the following areas:

  • financial reporting
  • audit observations.

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

This chapter outlines our audit observations related to the financial reporting of agencies in the Customer Service portfolio of agencies (the portfolio) for 2023.

Section highlights

  • Unqualified audit opinions were issued on all completed 30 June 2023 financial statements audits of the portfolio agencies. Two audits are ongoing.
  • The total number of errors (including corrected and uncorrected) in the financial statements decreased compared to the prior year.
  • Financial statements were not prepared for Finance Co Trust (Fin Co), a special purpose trust created by the department as part of its project to replace flammable cladding for eligible residential apartment buildings. This is a breach of the Government Sector Finance Act 2018 (GSF Act).
  • The department overstated the value of its land titling database, a service concession asset by $42.5 million. This was due to errors in the valuation data and calculation errors in the valuation model.
  • Service NSW’s late resolution of the accounting assessment of grant programs funding resulted in delays to financial reporting and audit.
  • The New South Wales Government Telecommunications Authority (the authority) corrected a prior period error retrospectively to write off assets that could not be physically verified. 

Appropriate financial controls help ensure the efficient and effective use of resources and administration of agency policies. They are essential for quality and timely decision-making.

This chapter outlines our observations and insights from our financial statement audits of agencies in the Customer Service portfolio.

Section highlights

  • The 2022–23 audits identified one high risk and 26 moderate risk issues across the portfolio.
  • The high-risk matter was related to Service NSW’s revenue assessment of its grant programs.
  • The total number of findings decreased from 64 to 41, which mainly related to deficiencies in financial reporting, information technology, payroll and purchasing controls.
  • Fifty-one per cent of the issues were repeat issues. Many repeat issues related to weakness in information technology (IT) controls around access to systems and data and disaster recovery testing.
  • For the first time since its establishment in 2015, GovConnect NSW received unqualified audit opinions for business processes internal controls and information technology general controls managed by service providers. 

Appendix one – Misstatements in financial statements submitted for audit 

Appendix two – Early close procedures

Appendix three – Timeliness of financial reporting

Appendix four – Financial data

 

© 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 Regional, rural and remote education

Regional, rural and remote education

Education
Management and administration
Project management
Service delivery

What this report is about

Students in rural and remote areas of NSW face greater challenges compared to their metropolitan peers.

This report examined how the NSW Department of Education (the department) is ensuring that rural and remote students have access to the same quality of early childhood, school education, and skills pathways as metropolitan students.

What we found

A decade since the previous (2013) strategy to address educational disadvantage, there remain considerable gaps in access and outcomes between rural and remote students and metropolitan students.

The Rural and Remote Education Strategy (2021–24) is unlikely to address these longstanding and known issues of educational disadvantage in rural and remote areas.

Key enabling factors such as resourcing a dedicated team, setting performance measures, and establishing suitable governance arrangements were not put in place to support effective implementation of the 2021 strategy.

The department has programs aimed at addressing remoteness challenges, but does not know if these initiatives improve access or outcomes.

The department does not monitor or report on student access or outcomes according to geographic location.

What we recommended

The Department of Education should:

  • develop a new strategy that addresses disadvantage in regional, rural and remote education
  • establish and report publicly on regional, rural and remote key performance indicators
  • improve data collection by using a standard remoteness classification
  • improve governance arrangements for regional, rural and remote education
  • review the resources provided for regional, rural and remote areas that recognises the additional costs
  • develop an approach that ensures all students can access best practice modes of delivery.

In February 2021, the department of Education (the department) released the ‘Rural and Remote Education Strategy (2021–2024)’. The strategy sets a vision that ‘every child in regional New South Wales has access to the same quality of education as their metropolitan peers’. It recognises that students in rural and remote areas of New South Wales face greater challenges compared to students in metropolitan locations. These challenges contribute to regional, rural and remote students underperforming on major educational indicators compared to their metropolitan peers.

In recent years, regional, rural and remote communities experienced a series of natural disasters as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the pandemic and subsequent school closures, the department introduced new initiatives aimed at minimising the disruption to children including online learning and small group tuition.

The department established a regional, rural and remote education policy unit in 2021 to support delivery of the strategy and its vision.

The objective of this audit was to assess the effectiveness of the department’s activities to ensure that regional, rural and remote students have access to the same quality of early childhood, school education, and skills pathways as their metropolitan peers.

In making this assessment, the audit examined whether:

  • The department developed and implemented a strategy that enables regional, rural and remote students to access the same quality of early childhood education, school education, and skills pathways as students in metropolitan New South Wales.
  • The department has been addressing the complexities and needs of regional, rural and remote early childhood education, school education, and skills pathways.
Conclusion

The department's rural and remote education strategy is unlikely to achieve its vision that every child in regional New South Wales has access to the same quality of education as their metropolitan peers. Shortcomings in the design and implementation of the strategy have meant there is little to report on its impact after more than two years since its release.

The department did not take on board lessons learned from the previous strategy. The department did not provide additional resources to meet the strategy aims, establish strong central coordination, set timeframes, set measures of success, or identify new programs to address gaps in regional and remote access and outcomes. Instead, the department relied on matching existing programs and activities across its business areas to meet the stated actions and goals of the strategy.

There was not enough work put in to plan for successful implementation. A changeover in staff responsible for coordinating implementation of the strategy and lack of fit-for-purpose governance arrangements slowed its momentum. The department took one year to recruit a central team and almost two years to set up governance that gives relevant department executives oversight of the strategy. This was not fast enough to support a four-year strategy with an ambitious vision.

The department did not establish a program logic model, set baseline measures or develop an evaluation plan to assess the impact of the strategy. Consequently, it has not adequately monitored changes in access or outcomes for regional, rural and remote students. Two years after its release, there has not been any public reporting against the actions or outcomes of the strategy.

The department is not addressing the complexities of delivering regional, rural and remote early childhood, school education and skills pathways. There are a range of programs targeted to overcoming challenges of remoteness, but the department does not monitor data to determine whether these programs are sufficient to close the persistent gaps in access and outcomes for regional, rural and remote students.

A decade after the Rural and Remote Education Blueprint was launched in 2013, there remain considerable gaps in access and outcomes between metropolitan and regional, rural and remote areas. The department identifies 'equity' as a key value in its strategic plan but does not monitor or report on performance against key indicators according to geographic location. Data produced in response to our requests for this report demonstrate that previously identified gaps in access and outcomes remain.

Different areas of the department recognise the challenges of delivering services in regional, rural and remote locations and have developed specific programs or approaches aimed at addressing these challenges. The department does not know whether these interventions are sufficient to close the gaps in access or outcomes. Schools we spoke with as part of the audit reported significant ongoing challenges with attracting and retaining staff, providing a full curriculum and accessing support services when needed. 

This chapter examines the process to develop the Rural and Remote Education Strategy (2021–2024). It considers whether there was a comprehensive program of stakeholder consultation, whether relevant research and evidence was incorporated and whether an effective performance monitoring system was established.

The department made genuine efforts to consult with stakeholders on the new strategy

The department had a clear process to engage and obtain feedback from key stakeholders during the development of the new strategy. It developed a range of documents to support the consultation process including a stakeholder engagement plan, communications plan, and presentation. The department used the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Spectrum of Public Participation principles to help ensure that relevant stakeholders were included in the planning and decision-making process.

In late 2019, the department began its first phase of consultations with internal and external stakeholders to get their views on rural and remote education. It consulted internally with department directors, advisory groups, and learning communities, and externally with government agencies, service providers, non-government schools, and universities.

In March 2020, the department developed a stakeholder engagement paper to test the key issues from stakeholder consultations. Four focus areas were identified and included in a consultation paper that went out to key stakeholders for the second round of consultations in May 2020.

In the third consultation phase, the department conducted a workshop with stakeholders to review the earlier feedback, prioritise issues, identify gaps, and provide further input.

This consultation process enabled the department to identify issues and challenges to inform the new strategy. However, it was already aware that the blueprint was having limited success, and had already identified potential focus areas, following the evaluation of the blueprint in 2019.

The department did not consider recent research when developing the new strategy

The department's guidance materials promote the importance of considering research during policymaking. The guidelines describe the need to understand a topic, consult with stakeholders, identify gaps in existing knowledge, and ensure future work is informed by current literature.

In 2013, the department published a literature review on rural and remote education to inform the blueprint. The literature review found that students in rural and remote schools were not performing as well as their metropolitan peers, and that this performance gap was widening. The review attributed this to the higher number of children from low socio-economic backgrounds attending rural and remote schools. The review also identified several other factors that could negatively impact performance outcomes for rural and remote students. The department used the findings of the literature review to develop the key focus areas in the 2013 blueprint.

When the department began developing the new rural and remote education strategy in 2019, it recognised the need to review the literature on recent international initiatives. However, it has not yet released this review. This means that the department could have missed important new developments since it last examined the literature in 2013. Incorporating up-to-date research is important where past strategies have not met all their intended outcomes.

A national review into rural and remote education in 2018 examined Australian and international literature to inform its findings. The review made 11 recommendations to the Australian and state governments. While the NSW Government was not required to formally respond to the review, it could have considered the work done by that review when developing the new strategy. Several review recommendations are addressed in the strategy, while several others are only partly addressed. Gaps between review recommendations and specific strategy actions include improving the availability of quality accommodation, substantially reducing the waiting times for specialist assessments of students with learning difficulties and disabilities and increasing access to high quality distance education.

In 2019, the department commissioned a rural and remote project to contribute a research and evidence base to the new strategy. The main aim of the project was to help the department understand how it could better support rural and remote schools to increase educational outcomes. There was not enough time for this review to be completed prior to the release of the strategy. As of June 2023, the research project had not yet been released.

The strategy did not address all findings and recommendations from a recent evaluation

In 2020, the department's Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) published an evaluation of the blueprint. The evaluation examined how the actions in the blueprint were implemented. It recommended that a new strategy be developed, and made recommendations for things that should be incorporated into the strategy.

The blueprint aimed to ensure students in rural and remote areas could access the same quality of education as their metropolitan peers. The blueprint identified four focus areas to meet that aim:

  • quality early childhood education
  • great teachers and school leaders
  • curriculum access for all
  • effective partnerships and connections.

The department developed several initiatives to help meet the objectives of each of the four focus areas. These initiatives are described in Exhibit 5 below.

Exhibit 5: Key initiatives in the Rural and Remote Education Blueprint (2013)
Key focus area Initiative
Quality early childhood education
  • Funding model to help vulnerable and disadvantaged children access preschool.
Great teachers and school leaders
  • Rental subsidy to help attract and retain teachers.
Curriculum access for all
  • Virtual school to provide a varied curriculum for high potential and gifted students.
Effective partnerships and connections
  • Education networks for teachers and school leaders to access expert advice to support student learning.
  • Networked specialist centres to bring together services to support student health and wellbeing.

Source: Department of Education, Rural and remote education: A blueprint for action 2013.

The evaluation found that initiatives in two of the four focus areas – Quality early childhood education and Curriculum access for all – had performed well. However, the evaluation found that initiatives in the other two focus areas – Great teachers and school leaders and Effective partnerships and connections – did not achieve intended outcomes.

On the whole, the evaluation found that the 'remoteness gap' between rural and remote students and metropolitan students had not reduced since the blueprint was introduced. It recommended that the department continue its focus on rural and remote education by developing a new evidence-based strategy that focused on student outcomes and clear measures of success.

Objectives and actions in the new strategy were similar to those in the blueprint

The 2021 strategy sets an overall vision that 'every child in regional New South Wales has access to the same quality of education as their metropolitan peers'. It also states that the department 'is committed to ensuring all rural and remote students have equitable access to educational opportunities'.

Exhibit 6: Comparison of objectives in the blueprint and the new strategy
Rural and Remote Education Blueprint (2013) Rural and Remote Education Strategy (2021–24)
Provide more children with access to quality early child education in the year before school. Ensure all students have access to quality preschool in the year before school.
Ensure rural and remote schools have greater capacity to attract and retain quality teachers and leaders. Increase supply of high-quality educators in rural and remote communities.
Build the capacity of teachers and leaders in rural and remote schools. Better develop rural and remote teachers to deliver quality learning opportunities.
Address wellbeing needs through effective partnerships and connections. Address wellbeing needs through connections with local communities.
Develop partnerships so that rural and remote students have access to quality pathways into further education, training, or employment. Build partnerships to increase student access to post-school opportunities.

Source: Audit Office summary of Department of Education information.

Four areas in the blueprint remained a focus in the new strategy – early childhood education, teacher recruitment and retention, curriculum, and student wellbeing support services. Each focus area identifies a goal, as well as the aims and actions that contribute to those goals.

While this shows the department identified that these areas required continued attention, most actions were to 'increase', 'expand' or 'improve' existing programs and resources. The new strategy did not propose any new ideas or solutions, despite the blueprint achieving limited success in improving outcomes for rural and remote students.

There were no baseline or target measures set to monitor progress of the new strategy

The blueprint evaluation recommended that the department develop a new evidence-based strategy which focused on improving student outcomes. It also recommended the department use a program logic methodology to ensure there was a clear definition of success, adequate measures of success, and continual monitoring to ensure success.

Program logic models are a visual representation of the various components of a program. They can be used to illustrate program priorities, inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, and assumptions. Logic models are used to explain how a proposed solution will address a specific problem. They are important because they can help test assumptions, build business cases, and identify potential enablers or barriers that could impact the project.

The department did not complete a program logic model during development of the new strategy, nor did it define measures to monitor whether the strategy's overall vision for quality education or the commitment to equitable access was on track to be achieved.

The department has not comprehensively monitored changes in educational outcomes in regional, rural and remote areas since the evaluation of the blueprint in 2020. This evaluation had seven indicators of educational outcomes by remoteness. The measures used in the evaluation could have provided a starting point given the similarity in focus areas between the blueprint and the new strategy. Not addressing past review recommendations increases risks that issues will be repeated.

The policy unit advised it has plans to set up a dashboard to monitor performance across the department's business plan measures by remoteness. This is intended to identify areas where system-wide improvements are required. This is not a comprehensive account of the strategy outcomes because the business plan measures don't capture all the goals of the strategy.

There were no timeframes or resources identified for implementing new strategy actions

The strategy has an overall timeframe of 2021–2024 but does not clarify when it expects the vision, goals, or aims to be achieved, or actions to be implemented.

The department's guidance on policymaking sets out how projects should be transitioned between the policy and implementation teams. This guidance is intended to help ensure the policy intent and scope of the project are not lost during the delivery of the project. The guidance highlights that the policy team should establish clear project implementation timeframes. It is important to have clear timeframes because it enables teams to measure progress, manage resources, and prioritise actions to ensure project outcomes are achieved.

The strategy states that there is a further $1 billion of investment planned over the next three years for rural and remote education but does not identify how this is allocated across its focus areas. It is important to identify the resources required to support the implementation of a program so that program objectives are met in a timely and cost-effective manner. The previous blueprint identified much lower funding of $80 million but more clearly showed how it would be allocated for identified actions across the four focus areas.

In response to our requests, the department separately identified $1.286 billion in expenditure for regional, rural and remote schools referenced in the strategy. Most of this expenditure related to existing department programs and activities rather than new initiatives. The total amount included:

  • $576.9 million for new and upgraded schools
  • $365.8 million for upgraded information technology equipment and resources
  • $120 million for school facility upgrades to be co-funded by schools
  • $60 million to replace school roofs
  • $60 million for the COVID Intensive Learning Support Program
  • $32 million for the Early Action for Success program
  • $29.7 million for staffing incentives
  • $21.7 million for literacy and numeracy interventions
  • $18.8 million in school location allowances
  • $1.45 million for the Rural Learning Exchange Pilot
  • $0.4 million for Rural and Remote Network initiatives.

This chapter examines the arrangements in place to implement the strategy. It considers whether effective governance arrangements are in place and how progress is monitored and reported.

This chapter considers the effectiveness of arrangements to ensure regional, rural and remote students have access to quality early childhood education, school education, and post‑school transitions.

This chapter considers the department's arrangements to monitor educational and wellbeing outcomes of students by remoteness. It reports on differences in outcomes between students in metropolitan areas and those in regional, rural and remote areas.

Those living in regional, rural and remote areas can have greater difficulty in accessing government services, often needing to travel long distances, or facing lower service levels than provided in major cities. This context is important when considering educational and wellbeing outcomes, given the disruptive effects of waiting or missing out on important services.

The rest of this chapter details key measures in the department's outcome and business plan.

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 #385 - released 10 August 2023

Published

Actions for Management of the Critical Communications Enhancement Program

Management of the Critical Communications Enhancement Program

Finance
Health
Justice
Whole of Government
Cyber security
Information technology
Infrastructure
Internal controls and governance
Project management
Risk
Service delivery
Shared services and collaboration

What the report is about

Effective radio communications are crucial to NSW's emergency services organisations.

The Critical Communications Enhancement Program (CCEP) aims to deliver an enhanced public safety radio network to serve the five emergency services organisations (ESOs), as well as a range of other users.

This report assesses whether the NSW Telco Authority is effectively managing the CCEP.

What we found

Where it has already been delivered (about 50% of the state), the enhanced network meets most of the requirements of ESOs.

The CCEP will provide additional infrastructure for public safety radio coverage in existing buildings agreed to with ESOs. However, radio coverage inside buildings constructed after the CCEP concludes will be at risk because building and fire regulations do not address the need for in-building public safety radio coverage.

Around 98% of radios connected to the network can be authenticated to protect against cloning, though only 42% are.

The NSW Telco Authority has not settled with ESOs on how call encryption will be used across the network. This creates the risk that radio interoperability between ESOs will not be maximised.

When completed, the public safety radio network will be the only mission critical radio network for ESOs. It is unclear whether governance for the ongoing running of the network will allow ESOs to participate in future network operational decisions.

The current estimated capital cost for the NSW Telco Authority to complete the CCEP is $1.293 billion. This is up from an estimated cost of $400 million in 2016. The estimated capital cost was not publicly disclosed until $1.325 billion was shown in the 2021–22 NSW Budget Papers.

We estimate that the full cost to government, including costs to the ESOs, of implementing the enhanced network is likely to exceed $2 billion.

We made recommendations about

  • The governance of the enhanced Public Safety Network (PSN) to support agency relationships.
  • The need to finalise a Traffic Mitigation Plan for when the network is congested.
  • The need to provide advice to the NSW Government about the regulatory gap for ensuring adequate network reach in future buildings.
  • The need to clarify how encryption and interoperability will work on the enhanced network.
  • The need for the NSW Telco Authority to comply with its policy on Infrastructure Capacity Reservation.
  • Expediting measures to protect against the risk of cloning by unauthenticated radios.

Public safety radio networks are critical for operational communications among Emergency Services Organisations (ESOs), which in New South Wales include:

  • NSW Ambulance
  • Fire and Rescue NSW
  • NSW Police Force
  • NSW Rural Fire Service
  • NSW State Emergency Service.1

Since 1993, these five ESOs have had access to a NSW Government owned and operated radio communications network, the Public Safety Network (PSN), to support their operational communications. Around 60 to 70 other entities also have access to this network, including other NSW government entities, Commonwealth government entities, local councils, community organisations, and utility companies.

Pursuant to the Government Telecommunications Act 2018 ('the Act'), the New South Wales Government Telecommunications Authority ('NSW Telco Authority') is responsible for the establishment, control, management, maintenance and operation of the PSN.2

Separate to the PSN, all ESOs and other government entities have historically maintained their own radio communication capabilities and networks. Accordingly, the PSN has been a supplementary source of operational radio communications for these entities.

These other radio networks maintained by ESOs and other entities are of varying size and capability, with many ageing and nearing their end-of-life. There was generally little or no interoperability between networks, infrastructure was often co-located and duplicative, and there were large gaps in geographic coverage.

In 2016, the NSW Telco Authority received dedicated NSW Government funding to commence the Critical Communications Enhancement Program (CCEP).

According to NSW Telco Authority's 2021–22 annual report, the CCEP is a transformation program for operational communications for NSW government agencies. The CCEP '…aims to deliver greater access to public safety standard radio communications for the State’s first responders and essential service agencies'. The objective of CCEP is to consolidate the large number of separate radio networks that are owned and operated by various NSW government entities and to enhance the state’s existing shared PSN. The program also aims to deliver increased PSN coverage throughout New South Wales.

The former NSW Government intended that as the enhanced PSN was progressively rolled-out across NSW, ESOs would migrate their radio communications to the enhanced network, before closing and decommissioning their own networks.

About this Audit

This audit assessed whether the CCEP is being effectively managed by the NSW Telco Authority to deliver an enhanced PSN that meets ESOs' requirements for operational communications.

We addressed the audit objective by answering the following two questions:

  1. Have agreed ESO user requirements for the enhanced PSN been met under day-to-day and emergency operational conditions?
  2. Has there been adequate transparency to the NSW Government and other stakeholders regarding whole-of-government costs related to the CCEP?

In answering the first question, we also considered how the agreed user requirements were determined. This included whether they were supported by evidence, whether they were sufficient to meet the intent of the CCEP (including in considering any role for new or alternative technologies), and whether they met any relevant technical standards and compliance obligations (including for cyber security resilience).

While other NSW government agencies and entities use the PSN, we focused on the experience of the five primary ESOs because these will be the largest users of the enhanced PSN.

Both the cost and time required to complete the CCEP roll-out have increased since 2016. While it was originally intended to be completed in 2020, this is now forecast to be 2027. Infrastructure NSW has previously assessed the reasons for the increases in time and cost. A summary of the findings made by Infrastructure NSW is presented in Chapter 1 of this report. Accordingly, as these matters had already been assessed, we did not re-examine them in this performance audit.

The auditee for this performance audit is the NSW Telco Authority, which is a statutory authority within the Department of Customer Service portfolio.

In addition to being responsible for the operation of the PSN, section 5 of the Act also prescribes that the NSW Telco Authority is:

  • to identify, develop and deliver upgrades and enhancements to the government telecommunications network to improve operational communications for government sector agencies
  • to develop policies, standards and guidelines for operational communications using telecommunications networks.

The NSW Telco Authority Advisory Board is established under section 10 of the Act. The role of the board is to advise the NSW Telco Authority and the minister on any matter relating to the telecommunications requirements of government sector agencies and on any other matter relating to the functions of the Authority. As of 2 June 2023, the responsible minister is the Minister for Customer Service and Digital Government.

The five identified ESOs are critical stakeholders of the CCEP and therefore they were consulted during this audit. However, the ESOs were not auditees for this performance audit.

Conclusion

In areas of New South Wales where the enhanced Public Safety Network has been implemented under the Critical Communications Enhancement Program, the NSW Telco Authority has delivered a radio network that meets most of the agreed requirements of Emergency Services Organisations for routine and emergency operations.
In April 2023, the enhanced Public Safety Network (PSN) was approximately 50% completed. In areas where it is used by Emergency Services Organisations (ESOs), the PSN generally meets agreed user requirements. This is demonstrated through extensive performance monitoring and reporting, which shows that agreed performance standards are generally achieved. Reviews by the NSW Government and the NSW Telco Authority found that the PSN performed effectively during major flood events in 2021 and 2022.

Where it is completed, PSN coverage is generally equal to or better than each ESO's individual pre-existing coverage. The NSW Telco Authority has a dedicated work program to address localised coverage gaps (or 'blackspots') in those areas where coverage has otherwise been substantively delivered. Available call capacity on the network far exceeds demand in everyday use. Any operational issues that may occur with the PSN are transparent to ESOs in real time.

The NSW Telco Authority consulted extensively with ESOs on requirements for the enhanced PSN, with relatively few ESO requirements not being included in the specifications for the enhanced PSN. Lessons from previous events, including the 2019–20 summer bushfires, have informed the design and implementation of the enhanced PSN (such as the need to ensure adequate backup power supply to inaccessible sites). The network is based on the Project 25 technical standards for mission-critical radio communications, which is widely-accepted in the public safety radio community throughout Australia and internationally.

There is no mechanism to ensure adequate radio coverage within new building infrastructure after the CCEP concludes, but the NSW Telco Authority and ESOs have agreed an approach to prioritise existing in-building sites for coverage for the duration of the CCEP.
The extent to which the PSN works within buildings and other built structures (such as railway tunnels) is of crucial importance to ESOs, especially the NSW Police Force, NSW Ambulance, and Fire and Rescue NSW. This is because a large proportion of their operational communications occurs within buildings.

There is no mechanism to ensure the adequacy of future in-building coverage for the PSN in new or refurbished buildings after the CCEP concludes. Planning, building, and fire regulations are silent on this issue. We note there are examples in the United States of how in-building coverage for public safety radio networks can be incorporated into building or fire safety codes.

In regard to existing buildings, it is not possible to know whether a building requires its own in-building PSN infrastructure until nearby outside radio sites, including towers and antennae, have been commissioned into the network. Only then can it be determined whether their radio transmissions are capable of penetrating inside nearby buildings. Accordingly, much of this work for in-building coverage cannot be done until outside radio sites are finished and operating.

In March 2023, the NSW Telco Authority and ESOs agreed on a list of 906 mandatory and 7,086

non-mandatory sites for in-building PSN coverage. Most of these sites will likely be able to receive radio coverage via external antennae and towers, however this cannot be confirmed until those nearby external PSN sites are completed. The parties also agreed on an approach to prioritising those sites where coverage is needed but not provided by antennae and towers. Available funding will likely only extend to ensuring coverage in sites deemed mandatory, which is nonetheless expected to meet the overall benchmark of achieving 'same or better' coverage than what ESOs had previously.

There is a risk that radio interoperability between ESOs will not be maximised because the NSW Telco Authority has not settled with ESOs how encryption will be used across the enhanced PSN.
End-to-end encryption of radio transmissions is a security feature that prevents radio transmissions being intercepted or listened to by people who are not meant to. The ability of the PSN to provide end-to-end encryption of operational communications is of critical importance to the two largest prospective users of the PSN: the NSW Police Force and NSW Ambulance. Given that encryption excludes other parties that do not have the requisite encryption keys, its use creates an obstacle to achieving a key intended benefit of the CCEP, that is a more interoperable PSN, where first responders are better able to communicate with other ESOs.

Further planning and collaboration between PSN participants are necessary to consider how these dual benefits can be achieved, including in what operational circumstances encrypted interoperability is necessary or appropriate.

The capital cost to the NSW Telco Authority of the CCEP, originally estimated at $400 million in 2016, was not made public until the 2021–22 NSW Budget disclosed an estimate of $1.325 billon.
The estimated capital cost to complete all stages of the CCEP increased over time. This increasing cost was progressively disclosed to the NSW Government through Cabinet processes between 2015–16 and 2021–22.

In 2016, the full capital cost to the NSW Telco Authority of completing the CCEP was estimated to be $400 million. This estimated cost was not publicly disclosed, nor were subsequent increases, until the cost of $1.325 billion was publicly disclosed in the 2021–22 NSW Budget (revised down in the 2022–23 NSW Budget to $1.293 billion).

There has been no transparency about the whole-of-government cost of implementing the enhanced PSN through the CCEP.
In addition to the capital costs incurred directly by the NSW Telco Authority for the CCEP, ESOs have incurred costs to maintain their own networks due to the delay in implementing the CCEP. The ESOs will continue to incur these costs until they are able to fully migrate to the enhanced PSN, which is expected to be in 2027. These costs have not been tracked or reported as part of transparently accounting for the whole-of-government cost of the enhanced PSN. This is despite Infrastructure NSW in 2019 recommending to the NSW Telco Authority that it conduct a stocktake of such costs so that a whole-of-government cost impact is available to the NSW Government.

1 The definition of 'emergency services organisation' is set out in the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1989 (NSW). In addition to the five ESOs discussed in this report, the definition also includes: Surf Life Saving New South Wales; New South Wales Volunteer Rescue Association Inc; Volunteer Marine Rescue NSW; an agency that manages or controls an accredited rescue unit; and a non-government agency that is prescribed by the regulations for the purposes of this definition.
2 Section 15(1) of the Government Telecommunications Act 2018 (NSW).

The NSW Telco Authority established and tracked its own costs for the CCEP

Over the course of the program from 2016, the NSW Telco Authority prepared a series of business cases and program reviews that estimated its cost of implementing the program in full, including those shown in Exhibit 6 below.

Exhibit 6: Estimated costs to fully implement the CCEP
Source Capital cost ($ million) Operating cost
($ million)
Completion date
March 2016 business case 400 37.3 2020
November 2017 internal review 476.7 41.7 2022
March 2020 business case 950–1,050 -- 2025
October 2020 business case 1,263.1 56.1 2026

Source: CCEP business cases as identified.

In response to the 2016 CCEP business case, the then NSW Government approved the NSW Telco Authority implementing the CCEP in full, with funding provided in stages. The NSW Telco Authority tracked its costs against approved funding, with monthly reports provided to the multi-agency Program Steering Committee

Throughout the program, the NSW Government was informed of increasing costs being incurred by the NSW Telco Authority for the CCEP

The various business cases, program updates, and program reviews prepared by the NSW Telco Authority were provided to the NSW Government through the required Cabinet process when seeking approval for the program proceeding and requests for both capital and operational funding. These provided clear indication of the changing overall cost of the CCEP to the NSW Telco Authority, as well as the delays that were being experienced.

There was no transparency to the Parliament and community about changes in the capital cost of the CCEP until the 2021–22 NSW Budget

As the business cases for the CCEP were not publicly available, the only sources of information about capital cost were NSW Budget papers and media releases. The information provided in the annual Budget papers prior to the 2021–22 NSW Budget provided no visibility of the estimated full capital cost to complete all stages of the CCEP. As shown in Exhibit 7 below, this information was fragmented and complex.

Media releases about the progress of the CCEP did not provide the estimated total cost to the NSW Telco Authority of $1.325 billion to complete all stages of the CCEP until June 2021. Prior to this date, media releases only provided funding for the initial stages of the program or for the stages subject to a funding announcement.

Even during the September 2019 and March 2020 Parliamentary Estimate Committee hearings where the costings and delays to the CCEP were raised, the estimated full cost of the CCEP was not revealed.

Exhibit 7: CCEP funding in NSW Budget papers from 2015–16 to 2022–23
Financial year Type of major work Description of expenditure Forecast estimate to complete ($ million) Estimated duration
2015–16 New work Infrastructure Rationalisation Program: Planning and Pilot 18.3 2015–16
2016–17 Work in progress CCEP Planning and Pilot 18.3 2015–17
New work CCEP 45 2016–17
2017–18 New work CCEP 190.75 2017–21
2018–19 Work in progress CCEP North Coast and State-wide Detailed Design 190.75 2017–21
New work CCEP Greater Metropolitan Area 236 2018–22
2019–20 Work in progress CCEP 426.9 2018–22
2020–21 Work in progress CCEP 664.8 2018–22
2021–22 Work in progress CCEP 1,325 2018–26
2022–23 Work in progress CCEP 1,292.8 2018–26

Source: NSW Treasury, Annual State Budget Papers.

The original business case for the CCEP included estimated ESO costs, though these costs were not tracked throughout the program

Estimates for ESO costs for operating and maintaining their own radio networks over the four years from 2016–17 were included in the original March 2016 business case. They included $75.2 million for capital expenditure and $95 million for one-off operating costs. These costs, as well as costs incurred by ESOs due to the delay in the program, were not subsequently tracked by the NSW Telco Authority.

In January 2017, Infrastructure NSW reviewed the CCEP business case of March 2016. In this review, Infrastructure NSW recommended that the NSW Telco Authority identify combined and apportioned costs and cashflow for all ESOs over the CCEP funding period reflecting all associated costs to deliver the CCEP. These to include additional incidental capital costs accruing to ESOs, transition and migration to the new network and the cost (capital and operational) of maintaining existing networks. This recommendation was implemented in the November 2017 program review, with ESO capital costs estimated as $183 million.

In 2019, Infrastructure NSW conducted a Deep Dive Review on the progress of the CCEP. In this review, Infrastructure NSW made what it described as a 'critical recommendation' that the NSW Telco Authority:

…coordinate a stocktake of the costs of operational bridging solutions implemented by PSAs [ESOs] as a result of the 18-month delay, so that a whole-of-government cost impact is available to the NSW Government.  

It should be noted that the delay to CCEP completion now is seven years and that further ‘operational bridging solutions’ have been needed by the ESOs.

'Stay Safe and Keep Operational' costs incurred by ESOs will be significantly higher than originally estimated

Stay Safe and Keep Operational (SSKO) funding was established to provide funding to ESOs to maintain their legacy networks while the CCEP was refreshing and enhancing the PSN. This recognised that much of the network infrastructure relied on by ESOs had reached – or was reaching – obsolescence and would either require extensive maintenance or replacement before the PSN was available for ESOs to migrate to it. ESOs may apply to NSW Treasury for SSKO funding, with their specific proposals being reviewed (and endorsed, where appropriate) by the NSW Telco Authority. Accordingly, SSKO expenditure does not fall within the CCEP budget allocation.

As shown in the table below, extracted from the March 2016 CCEP business case, the total expected cost for SSKO purposes over the course of the CCEP was originally $40 million, assuming the enhanced PSN would be fully available by 2020.

Exhibit 8: Stay Safe and Keep Operational forecast costs, 2017 to 2020
Year 2017 2018 2019 2020 Total
SSKO forecast ($ million) 12.5 15 10 2.5 40

Source: March 2016 CCEP business case.

In October 2022, the expected completion date for the CCEP was re-baselined to August 2027. Accordingly, ESOs will be required to continue to maintain their radio networks using legacy equipment for seven years longer than the original 2020 forecast. This will likely become progressively more expensive and require additional SSKO funding. For example, NSW Telco Authority endorsed SSKO bids for 2022–23 exceeded $35 million for that year alone.

Compared to the original forecast made in the March 2016 CCEP business case of $40 million, we found ESOs had estimated SSKO spending to 2027 will be $292.5 million.

A refresh of paging network used by ESOs and the decommissioning of redundant sites were both removed from the original 2016 scope of the CCEP

Paging

A paging network is considered an important user requirement by the Fire and Rescue NSW, NSW Rural Fire Service, and NSW State Emergency Service. The 2016 CCEP business case included a paging network refresh within the program scope of works. This was reiterated in the November 2017 internal review of the program. These documents did not estimate a cost for this refresh. The March 2020 and October 2020 business cases excluded paging from the program scope. The audit is unable to identify when, why or by whom the decision was made to remove paging from the program scope, something that was also not well communicated to the affected ESOs.

In 2021, after representations from the affected ESOs, the NSW Telco Authority prepared a separate business case for a refresh of the paging network at an estimated capital cost of $60.31 million. This program was subsequently approved by the NSW Government and included in the 2022–23 NSW Budget.

In determining an estimated full whole-of-government cost of delivering the enhanced PSN, we have included the budgeted cost of the paging network refresh on the basis that:

  • it was expressly included in the original approved March 2016 business case
  • the capability is deemed essential to the needs of three ESOs.

Decommissioning costs

The 2016 CCEP business case included cost estimates for decommissioning surplus sites (whether ‘old’ GRN sites or sites belonging to ESOs’ own networks). These estimates were provided for both the NSW Telco Authority ($38 million) and for the ESOs ($55 million). However, while these estimates were described, they were not included as part of the NSW Telco Authority's estimated capital cost ($400 million) or (more relevantly) operating cost ($37.3 million) for the CCEP. This is despite decommissioning being included as one of eight planned activities for the rollout of the program.

In the October 2020 business case, an estimate of $201 million was included for decommissioning agency networks based on a model whereby:

  • funding would be coordinated by the NSW Telco Authority
  • scheduling and reporting through an inter-agency working group and
  • where appropriate, agencies would be appointed as the most appropriate decommissioning party.

This estimated cost is not included in the CCEP budget.

In determining an estimated full whole-of-government cost of the enhanced PSN, we have included the estimated cost of decommissioning on the basis that:

  • decommissioning was included in the 2016 CCEP business case as one of eight 'planned activities for the rollout of the program'
  • effective decommissioning of surplus sites and equipment (including as described in the business case as incorporating asset decommissioning, asset re-use, and site make-good) is an inherent part of the program management for an enhanced PSN
  • costs incurred in decommissioning are entirely a consequence of the CCEP program.

The estimated minimum cost of building an enhanced PSN consistent with the original proposal is over $2 billion

We have derived two estimated minimum whole-of-government costs for delivering an enhanced PSN. These are:

  • $2.04 billion when calculated from NSW Telco Authority data – shown as estimate A in Exhibit 9 below.
  • $2.26 billion when calculated from ESO supplied data – shown as estimate B in Exhibit 9.

Both totals include:

  • budgeted amounts for both CCEP capital expenditure ($1,292.8 million) and operating expenditure ($139 million)
  • the NSW Telco Authority's 2020 estimated cost for decommissioning ($201 million)
  • the NSW Telco Authority's approved funding for paging refresh ($60.3 million).

The two estimated totals primarily vary around the capital expenditure of ESOs (particularly SSKO funding). To determine these costs, we used ESO provided actual SSKO costs to date, as well as their estimates for maintaining their legacy radio networks through to 2027.

The equivalent cost estimates from the NSW Telco Authority were sourced from the November 2017 internal review and the October 2020 business case for CCEP. It should be noted that the amounts for both estimates are not audited, or verified, but do provide an indication of how whole-of-government costs have grown over the course of the program.

The increase in and reasons for the increase in total CCEP costs (capital and one-off operating) incurred or forecast by the NSW Telco Authority (from $437.3 million in 2016 to $1,431.8 million in 2022) have been provided to the NSW Government through various business cases and reviews prepared by the NSW Telco Authority, as well as by reviews conducted by Infrastructure NSW as part of its project assurance responsibilities.

However, the growth in ESO costs and other consequential costs, such as paging and decommissioning, from around $263 million in the 2016 CCEP business case to between $600 million and $800 million, has to a large degree remained invisible and unexplained to the NSW Government and other stakeholders

Exhibit 9: Estimated whole-of-government costs of the enhanced PSN
  Estimated whole-of-government cost, over time
Cost type 20161 20172 20203 2023–Estimate A4 2023–Estimate B5
$ million $ million $ million $ million $ million
CCEP capital expenditure 400a 476.7b 1,263.1c 1,292.8d 1,292.8d
CCEP operating expenditure 37.3a 41.7b 41.5e 139d 139d
CCEP total 437.3 518.4 1,304.6 1,431.8 1,431.8
ESO capital expenditure 75.2a,f 183b,e 75.4e 258.4g 292.5
ESO one-off operating expenditure 93a n.a.l 86.5e 86.5h 273
ESO total 168.2 183 161.9 344.9 565.5
Paging n.a.i n.a.i n.a.j 60.3k 60.3k
Decommissioning 93 n.a.l 201.0 201h 201
Paging and decommissioning total 93 n.a. 201 261.3 261.3
Whole-of-government total 698.5 701.4 1,667.5 2,038 2,258.6

Notes:
  1. Financial year 2016 to Financial year 2020.
  2. Financial year 2016 to Financial year 2021.
  3. Financial year 2016 to Financial year 2025.
  4. Financial year 2016 to Financial year 2026.
  5. Financial year 2022 to Financial year 2025.
  6. Stay Safe and Keep Operational (SSKO) costs plus terminals costs.
  7. November 2017 internal review and October 2020 Business case.
  8. October 2020 Business case.
  9. Included in CCEP capital expenditure at that time.
  10. By 2020, a refresh of the paging network had been removed from the CCEP scope.
  11. A separate business case for a refresh of the paging network was approved by government in 2022.
  12. Figure not included in the source document.
Sources:
  1. March 2016 CCEP business case.
  2. November 2017 Internal Review conducted by the NSW Telco Authority.
  3. October 2020 CCEP business case.
  4. Derived from business cases, with ESO costs drawn from NSW Telco Authority data.
  5. Derived from business cases, with ESO costs based on data provided to the Audit Office of New South Wales by each of the five ESOs.

Appendix one – Response from agency

Appendix two – Trunked public safety radio networks

Appendix three – About the audit

Appendix four – Performance auditing

 

 

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Parliamentary reference - Report number #383 - released 23 June 2023