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Actions for Regulation insights

Regulation insights

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

What this report is about

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

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

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

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

Audit findings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Margaret Crawford PSM
Auditor-General for NSW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The status of agencies' responses to audit recommendations

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

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

Published

Actions for Planning and Environment 2023

Planning and Environment 2023

Planning
Environment
Industry
Asset valuation
Compliance
Financial reporting
Information technology
Infrastructure
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Risk
Shared services and collaboration

What this report is about

Results of the Planning and Environment portfolio financial statement audits for the year ended 30 June 2023.

The audit found

Unqualified audit opinions were issued for all completed Planning and Environment portfolio agencies. Seven audits are ongoing.

The Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (CMCT) did not comply with its obligations under the Government Sector Finance Act 2018 (GSF Act) to prepare and submit financial statements for audit.

The Department of Planning and Environment (the department) has not yet provided their assessment of the financial reporting requirements for the 579 Category 2 Statutory Land Managers (SLMs) for 2022–23.

One-hundred-and-nineteen Commons Trusts are non-compliant with the GSF Act as they have not submitted their financial statements for audit.

We issued unqualified opinions on the Water Administration Ministerial Corporation's 2020–21, 2021–22 and 2022–23 financial statements.

The number of monetary misstatements identified in our audits decreased from 59 in 2021–22 to 51 in 2022–23, however the gross value of misstatements increased.

The key audit issues were

The former Resilience NSW and NSW Reconstruction Authority (the Authority) re-assessed the accounting implications arising from contractual agreements relating to temporary housing assets associated with the Northern Rivers Temporary Homes Program. This resulted in adjustments to recognise the associated assets and liabilities.

We continue to identify significant deficiencies in NSW Crown land information records.

The department has not been effective in addressing the differing practices for the financial reporting of rural firefighting equipment vested to councils under section 119 (2) of the Rural Fires Act 1997.

The number of findings across the portfolio reported to management increased from 132 in 2021–22 to 140 in 2022–23. Thirty per cent of issues were repeated from the prior year.

Seven high-risk issues were identified. These related to the findings outlined above, deficiencies in quality reviews of asset valuations, internal control processes and IT general controls.

The audit recommended

Recommendations were made to the department and portfolio agencies to address these deficiencies.

This report provides Parliament and other users of the Planning and Environment 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 Planning and Environment portfolio of agencies (the portfolio) for 2023.

Section highlights

  • Unqualified audit opinions were issued on all completed 30 June 2023 financial statements audits of portfolio agencies. Seven audits are ongoing.
  • We have been unable to commence audits of the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (CMCT). NSW Treasury's position remains that the Catholic CMCT is a controlled entity of the State for financial reporting purposes. This means CMCT is a Government Sector Finance (GSF) agency and is obliged under Section 7.6 of the Government Sector Finance Act 2018 (GSF Act) to prepare financial statements and submit them to the Auditor-General for audit. To date, CMCT has not met its statutory obligations under the GSF Act.
  • The Department of Planning and Environment has not yet provided their assessment against the reporting exemption requirements in the Government Sector Finance Regulation 2018 (GSF Regulation) for the estimated 579 Category 2 Statutory Land Managers (SLMs) or 119 Commons Trusts for 2022–23 and no Category 2 SLM or Commons Trust has submitted its 2022–23

    financial statements for audit. Consequently, the lack of compliance with reporting requirements by these 698 agencies presents a challenge to obtaining reliable financial data for these agencies for the purposes of consolidation to the Total State Sector Accounts.

  • The audits of the Water Administration Ministerial Corporation's (WAMC) financial statements for the years ended 30 June 2021 and 30 June 2022 were completed in June 2023 and unqualified audit opinions issued. The 30 June 2023 audit was completed and an unqualified audit opinion was issued on 12 October 2023.
  • The number of reported corrected misstatements decreased from 46 in 2021–22 to 36, however the gross value of misstatements increased from $73 million in 2021–22 to $491.8 million in 2022–23.
  • Portfolio agencies met the statutory deadline for submitting their 2022–23 early close financial statements and other mandatory procedures.
  • 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 portfolio.

Section highlights 

  • The number of findings across the portfolio reported to management increased from 132 in 2021–22 to 140 in 2022–23 and 30% were repeat issues (34% in 2021–22).
  • The 2022–23 audits identified seven high-risk and 76 moderate risk issues across the portfolio. Four of the high-risk issues were repeat issues, one was a repeat issue with the risk rating reassessed to high-risk in the current year and two were new findings in 2022–23.
  • The former Resilience NSW and NSW Reconstruction Authority had previously assessed that they did not control the temporary housing assets associated with the administration of the Northern Rivers Temporary Homes Program, under relevant accounting standards. A re-assessment of the agreements was made subsequent to the submission of the Authority’s 2022–23 financial statements for audit, which determined that the Authority was the appropriate NSW Government agency to recognise these assets and associated liabilities not previously recognised by the Authority or the former Resilience NSW.
  • There continues to be significant deficiencies in Crown land records. The department should continue to implement their data strategy and action plan to ensure the Crown land database is complete and accurate.
  • Since 2017, the Audit Office has recommended that the department, through OLG should address the differing practices for the financial reporting of rural firefighting equipment vested to councils under section 119 (2) of the Rural Fires Act 1997. The department has not been effective in resolving this issue. In 2023, twenty-six of 108 completed audits of councils received qualified audit opinions on their 2023 financial statements (43 of 146 completed audits in 2022). Six councils had their qualifications for not recognising vested rural firefighting equipment removed in 2022–23.

 

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 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.

Planned

Actions for Threatened species

Threatened species

Environment

Audit background 

There are 1073 species and 110 ecological communities that are listed as threatened in New South Wales under the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, including 72 declared extinct. Threatened species include terrestrial plants and animals, reptiles, marine mammals and freshwater plants. The Department of Planning and Environment is implementing a range of activities to support threatened species. This includes a statutory biodiversity conservation program (‘Saving our Species’), as well as implementing the NSW Koala Strategy and a range of conservation and restoration activities across private and public land including National Parks, and funding grants to support threatened species conservation.   

The department has been delivering the Saving our Species program since 2016 with a commitment to its delivery until 2026. Saving our Species aims to maximise the security of threatened species and ecological communities and minimise the impacts of key threatening processes.   

Audit objective 

This audit will assess whether the Department of Planning and Environment has effectively delivered outcomes to support threatened species and ecological communities across NSW. The audit will examine the department’s planning and coordination of activities to support threatened species, as well as the contribution of the Saving our Species program to the delivery of positive outcomes for threatened species and ecological communities. 

Estimated tabling period 

July 2024 

Agencies audited 

Department of Planning and Environment 

Published

Actions for State heritage assets

State heritage assets

Environment
Local Government
Planning
Compliance
Management and administration
Regulation
Risk

What the report is about

This audit assessed how effectively the Department of Planning and Environment (Heritage NSW) is overseeing and administering heritage assets of state significance.

Heritage that is rare, exceptional or outstanding to New South Wales may be listed on the State Heritage Register under the Heritage Act 1977. This provides assets with legal recognition and protection. Places, buildings, works, relics, objects and precincts can be listed, whether in public or private ownership.

Heritage NSW has administrative functions and regulatory powers, including under delegation from the Heritage Council of NSW, relevant to the listing, conservation and adaptive re-use of heritage assets of state significance.

In summary, the audit assessed whether Heritage NSW:

  • is effectively administering relevant advice and decisions
  • is effectively supporting and overseeing assets
  • has established clear strategic priorities and can demonstrate preparedness to implement these.

What we found

Heritage NSW does not have adequate oversight of state significant heritage assets, presenting risks to its ability to promote the objects of the Heritage Act.

Information gaps and weaknesses in quality assurance processes limit its capacity to effectively regulate activities affecting assets listed on the State Heritage Register.

Heritage NSW has adopted a focus on customer service and recently improved its timeliness in providing advice and making decisions about activities affecting listed assets. But Heritage NSW has not demonstrated how its customer-focused priorities will address known risks to its core regulatory responsibilities.

Listed assets owned by government entities are often of high heritage value. Heritage NSW could do more to promote effective heritage management among these entities.

What we recommended

The report made eight recommendations to Heritage NSW, focusing on:

  • improving quality assurance over advice and decisions
  • improving staff guidance and training
  • defining and maintaining data in the State Heritage Register
  • clarifying its regulatory intent and approach
  • sector engagement and interagency capability to support heritage outcomes.

The Heritage Act 1977 (the Heritage Act) and accompanying regulation provide the legal framework for the identification, conservation and adaptive re-use of heritage assets in New South Wales.

The Department of Planning and Environment (Heritage NSW) has responsibility for policy, legislative and program functions for state heritage matters, including supporting the Minister for Heritage to administer the Heritage Act.

Heritage assets that are rare, exceptional or outstanding beyond a local area or region may be listed on the State Heritage Register under the Heritage Act. These assets include places, buildings, works, relics, moveable objects and precincts, and assets that have significance to Aboriginal communities in New South Wales. Assets nominated for and listed on the State Heritage Register ('listed assets') may be owned privately or publicly, including by local councils and state government entities.

The Heritage Act establishes the Heritage Council of NSW (the Heritage Council) to undertake a range of functions in line with its objectives. Heritage NSW provides administrative support to the Heritage Council, for example providing advice on assets that have been nominated for listing on the State Heritage Register. Many of Heritage NSW’s core activities also relate to exercising functions and powers under delegation from the Heritage Council. These include making administrative decisions about works affecting listed assets, and exercising powers to regulate asset owners’ compliance with requirements under the Heritage Act.

Heritage NSW states that heritage:

…gives us a sense of our history and provides meaningful insights into how earlier generations lived and developed. It also enriches our lives and helps us to understand who we are.  

According to Heritage NSW, an effective heritage system will facilitate the community in harnessing the cultural and economic value of heritage.

The objective of this audit was to assess how effectively the Department of Planning and Environment (Heritage NSW) is overseeing and administering heritage assets of state significance.

For this audit, ‘heritage assets of state significance’ refers to items (including a place, building, work, relic, moveable object or precinct) listed on the State Heritage Register ('listed assets'), and those which have been nominated for listing.

Conclusion

The Department of Planning and Environment (Heritage NSW) does not have adequate oversight of state significant heritage assets. Information gaps and weaknesses in certain assurance processes limit its capacity to effectively regulate activities affecting assets listed on the State Heritage Register. These factors also constrain its ability to effectively support voluntary compliance and promote the objects of the Heritage Act, which include encouraging conservation and adaptive re-use.
Heritage NSW has adopted a focus on customer service and recently improved the timeliness of its advice and decisions on activities affecting listed assets. But Heritage NSW has not demonstrated how its customer service priorities will address known risks to its regulatory responsibilities. It could also do more to enable and promote effective heritage management among state government entities that own listed assets.

The information that Heritage NSW maintains about assets listed on the State Heritage Register ('listed assets') is insufficient for its regulatory and owner engagement purposes. Data quality and completeness issues have arisen since the register was established in 1999. But Heritage NSW's progress to address important gaps in the register, and its other information systems, has been limited in recent years. These gaps limit Heritage NSW’s capacity to detect compliance breaches early and implement risk-based regulatory responses, and to strategically target its owner engagement activities to promote conservation and re-use.

Heritage NSW makes decisions on applications for works on listed assets, requiring technical skills and professional judgement. But Heritage NSW does not provide its staff with adequate guidance to ensure that consistent approaches are used, and it lacks sufficient quality assurance processes. There are similar weaknesses in Heritage NSW's oversight of decisions on applications that are delegated to other government entities.

Heritage NSW has prioritised the implementation of customer service-focused activities, policies, and programs to reduce regulatory burdens on asset owners since 2017. For example, Heritage NSW has refreshed its website, introduced new information management systems, and implemented new regulation for the self-assessment of exemptions for minor works. However, Heritage NSW has not taken steps to mitigate oversight and quality risks introduced with the reduced regulatory burdens. Heritage NSW has made some, but to date insufficient, progress on a key project to update its publications. These documents (over 150 publications) are intended to play an important role in promoting voluntary compliance and supporting heritage outcomes. Heritage NSW started a new project to update relevant publications in April 2023.

Heritage NSW has recently implemented processes to improve its efficiency, such as screening new nominations for listing on the State Heritage Register. Heritage NSW has also reported improvements in the time it takes to decide on applications for works affecting listed assets. In the third quarter of 2022–23, 87% of decisions were made within the statutory timeframes. This compares to 48% in 2021–22. Heritage NSW has similarly improved how quickly it provides heritage advice on major projects, with 90% of advice reported as delivered on time in the third quarter of 2022–23, compared to 44% in 2020–21.

Assets owned by state government entities comprise a large proportion of State Heritage Register listings. These assets are often of high heritage value or situated within large and complex precincts or portfolios. But Heritage NSW does not implement targeted capability building activities to support good practice heritage management among state government entities and to promote compliance with their obligations under the Heritage Act.

The expected interaction between Heritage NSW's strategic plans and activities, and the priorities of the Heritage Council of NSW, is unclear. Actions to clarify the relevant governance arrangements have also been slow following a review in 2020 but this work re-commenced in late 2022.

Heritage NSW has been progressing work to draft reforms to the Heritage Act. This follows recommendations made in a 2021 Upper House Inquiry into the Heritage Act. To build preparedness for future reforms, Heritage NSW will need to do more to address the risks and opportunities identified in this audit report. In particular, it will need to ensure it has sufficient information and capacity to implement a risk-based regulatory approach; clear and effective governance arrangements with the Heritage Council of NSW; and enhanced engagement with government entities to promote the conservation and adaptive re-use of listed assets in public ownership.

This chapter assesses the effectiveness of Heritage NSW's oversight of state heritage assets, including its visibility of listed assets, and its oversight of regulatory decision-making. It also assesses Heritage NSW's activities to engage with owners to meet their obligations under the Heritage Act and to support heritage outcomes.

This chapter assesses the timeliness of Heritage NSW’s provision of advice, recommendations, and decisions on heritage issues to support heritage management outcomes with respect to listed assets.

This chapter assesses whether the Department of Planning and Environment (Heritage NSW) has established clear strategic priorities to effectively oversee and administer activities related to listed assets, and its preparedness to implement reforms. It also assesses the adequacy of planning activities and governance arrangements to support the achievement of strategic directions.

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 #384 - released 27 June 2023

Published

Actions for Regulation of public native forestry

Regulation of public native forestry

Environment
Industry
Compliance
Management and administration
Regulation
Risk

What this report is about

The Forestry Corporation of NSW (FCNSW) is a state-owned corporation that manages over two million hectares of public native forests and plantations supplying timber to sawmills across NSW.

The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is responsible for regulating the native forestry industry in NSW.

FCNSW must comply with Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals (IFOAs), which set out rules for how timber harvesting may occur.

Most harvesting is undertaken under the Coastal IFOA, which commenced in 2018.

This audit assessed how effectively Forestry Corporation of NSW manages its public native forestry activities to ensure compliance, and how effectively the Environment Protection Authority regulates these activities.

What we found

Forestry Corporation of NSW (FCNSW) clearly articulates its compliance obligations.

While FCNSW undertakes monitoring of its contractors, it does not do so consistently and does not target its monitoring activities on a risk basis.

FCNSW has largely fulfilled mandatory Coastal IFOA training requirements, but has not yet trained other staff who would also benefit from the training.

Contractor compliance appears to be improving, but there are gaps and inconsistencies in FCNSW's documentation of this.

FCNSW is not measuring its overall compliance to determine how it is tracking against its target.

The EPA undertakes proactive inspections of Coastal IFOA harvesting operations on a risk basis. However, it does not assess the risk at harvest sites covered by other IFOAs.

Most EPA compliance staff have received basic training, but few have received more advanced training required to effectively undertake forestry inspections.

Some EPA offices do not have the necessary equipment to undertake forestry inspections.

The EPA and FCNSW are not implementing all elements of a Memorandum of Understanding that aims to promote a cooperative relationship between the agencies.

What we recommended

The report made recommendations to FCNSW which aim to improve:

  • staff training
  • consistency of compliance reviews and data capture
  • targeting of compliance activities
  • measurement of performance.

The report made recommendations to the EPA which aim to improve:

  • risk-assessments
  • staff training
  • staff equipment.

The report also recommended that FCNSW and EPA should fully implement their Memorandum of Understanding.

The Forestry Corporation of NSW (FCNSW) is a state-owned corporation that supplies timber to sawmills in New South Wales, including timber harvested from public native forests. FCNSW is responsible for the management of around two million hectares of public native forests and plantations. Around half the area of native forests is permanently set aside for conservation.

Public native forestry is regulated through the Forestry Act 2012, Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 and associated regulations. Under the Forestry Act 2012, the objectives of FCNSW include, where its activities affect the environment, to conduct its operations in compliance with the principles of ecologically sustainable development contained in section 6(2) of the Protection of the Environment Administration Act 1991. This involves the integration of social, economic and environmental considerations in decision-making processes.

In undertaking its native forestry operations, FCNSW must comply with Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals (IFOA), issued jointly by the Minister for the Environment and the Minister for Agriculture, which set out rules to protect species and ecosystems where timber harvesting is occurring, and aim to ensure forests are managed in an ecologically sustainable way. FCNSW must also ensure that its contractors undertake forestry operations in line with IFOAs. The Coastal IFOA, developed in 2018, consolidated the four IFOAs for the Eden, Southern, Upper and Lower North East coastal regions of New South Wales into a single IFOA. The other three current IFOAs are Brigalow Nandewar, South Western Cypress and Riverina Redgum (the Western IFOAs).

The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is responsible for regulating native forestry in New South Wales. Under the Protection of the Environment Administration Act 1991, one of the objectives of the EPA is to protect, restore and enhance the quality of the environment in New South Wales, having regard to the need to maintain ecologically sustainable development. This includes monitoring FCNSW’s compliance with IFOA conditions, including by maintaining and enforcing a compliance program.

The Coastal IFOA also introduced a new structure and regulatory approach for IFOAs, establishing outcomes, conditions and protocols. The conditions set mandatory actions and controls intended to protect threatened plants, animals, habitats, soils and water. The protocols, referenced in the conditions, set out additional enforceable actions and controls intended to support the effective implementation of the conditions.

Public native forestry is the largest component of hardwood supply in New South Wales. The 2019–20 bushfires had a major impact on regional communities, and large areas of native forest. This heightened environmental risks and challenges in public native forestry. Five million hectares of New South Wales was impacted, including more than 890,000 hectares of native State Forests. This is over 40% of the coastal and tablelands native State Forests in New South Wales.

In addition to effective compliance activities, the success of the regulatory approach to public native forestry operations depends on how wood supply yields are modelled, and ensuring that harvested volumes do not exceed these yields. This is of particular importance in areas where forests have been severely damaged by fire. This audit did not consider sustainable yields. Recent reviews of this include an independent review of the FCNSW sustainable yield model and a Natural Resources Commission review in 2021.

This audit assessed how effectively Forestry Corporation of NSW manages its public native forestry activities to ensure compliance, and how effectively the Environment Protection Authority regulates these activities.

Conclusion

Forestry Corporation of NSW (FCNSW) clearly articulates its compliance obligations at the corporate level and for each harvest site. However, there are deficiencies in FCNSW’s compliance approach. While FCNSW undertakes monitoring of its contractors in a number of ways, it does not consistently monitor compliance across its contractors and does not target its monitoring activities on a risk basis. This increases the risk that non-compliant practices will not be identified, potentially leading to environmental harm.

FCNSW has a compliance strategy and program that sets out its compliance obligations and how they will be managed. FCNSW’s Compliance Policy outlines compliance requirements, actions to ensure compliance, and responsibilities for staff, supervisors, senior management and board members. FCNSW also has a compliance monitoring system manual that outlines its monitoring program, and its risk-assessment and incident reporting procedures. These corporate documents set out FCNSW’s overall approach to managing compliance.

Harvesting in State Forests is undertaken by contractors or sub-contractors. FCNSW provides training to its staff and contractors and undertakes monitoring to identify contractor compliance with relevant requirements through a variety of means, including its quality assurance assessment (QAA) program. FCNSW also communicates compliance obligations to contractors in harvest plans.

FCNSW is not undertaking its monitoring activities on a risk basis. The frequency of contractor supervision is inconsistent and is not tied to the contractor’s past performance, meaning that monitoring resources are not necessarily being targeted at the areas of highest -risk.

FCNSW also does not target its QAAs on a risk basis. FCNSW does not have procedures for how QAAs should occur outside the North Coast region. QAAs are conducted inconsistently, with some reviews occurring in only part of the harvest site while others cover the whole harvest site. In addition, some QAAs do not meet FCNSW’s minimum standards. FCNSW’s record keeping of QAAs is also inconsistent, making it difficult to determine true levels of compliance and the cause of identified potential non-compliances.

In addition, FCNSW does not collate and analyse the results of its compliance monitoring to target its compliance audits. Undertaking these audits on a risk basis would allow FCNSW to apply its resources to the highest-risk harvest sites and contractors.

The EPA identifies native forestry as a high priority regulatory activity and undertakes proactive inspections of Coastal IFOA harvest sites on a risk basis. However, the EPA does not assess the risk at Western IFOA harvest sites, leaving a significant gap in its inspection regime. This means that the EPA may not be inspecting all high-risk harvest sites to ensure compliance with regulations across those sites. The EPA has started to train more of its staff in conducting forestry inspections, but it currently has a limited number of trained and experienced staff to undertake this work.

The EPA has developed a Regulatory and Compliance Priorities Statement 2022–23 which identifies native forestry as a key risk. This statement identifies that forestry is a priority area for its compliance activities because of the increased environmental risk and sensitivity in forests following the 2019–20 bushfires. A divisional plan for its regulatory operations contains specific actions for forestry, including ensuring that the EPA has a consistent approach to recording regulatory actions undertaken and identifying priority areas for assurance over State Forests.

As part of its compliance activities, the EPA responds to complaints received, or reports of non-compliance, across all four IFOA areas and also carries out proactive inspections in the Coastal IFOA area. To guide these inspections, the EPA determines the level of risk posed by each harvest site in the Coastal IFOA area using information it gathers from FCNSW. The EPA prioritises inspections of sites rated as high and medium-risk, but the EPA has not undertaken risk-assessments for the three Western IFOAs. By not determining the risks in these areas, the EPA does not have assurance that it is checking FCNSW compliance with regulations across all high-risk sites.

Most EPA staff have basic training in forestry matters, but few staff have the more advanced training required to effectively undertake forestry inspections. In addition, not all EPA officers have access to the technology required to undertake forestry inspections, such as internet-enabled tablets and specialised tapes for measuring tree diameter. This limits the EPA’s ability to determine the level of compliance with regulations and respond effectively to instances of environmental harm in relation to public native forestry.

The Coastal IFOA does not contain provisions which allow the EPA to unilaterally restrict forestry activities in the aftermath of a catastrophic event such as the 2019–20 bushfires. Following the bushfires, FCNSW approached the EPA and asked for additional site-specific operating conditions (SSOC) at some locations to assist it in maintaining compliance. The SSOCs were issued by the EPA and FCNSW was required to carry out forestry operations in accordance with the SSOCs at relevant harvest sites. These SSOCs were in place for 12 months. After a year, FCNSW decided not to renew this approach with the EPA, but implemented its own voluntary measures during harvesting operations. Unlike the SSOCs, the EPA was unable to undertake enforcement activities for breaches of voluntary measures.

Appendix one – Responses from agencies
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 #382 - released 22 June 2023

Published

Actions for Natural disasters

Natural disasters

Community Services
Environment
Finance
Local Government
Planning
Transport
Treasury
Whole of Government
Asset valuation
Compliance
Financial reporting
Infrastructure
Regulation
Risk
Service delivery

What this report is about

This report draws together the financial impact of natural disasters on agencies integral to the response and impact of natural disasters during 2021–22.

What we found

Over the 2021–22 financial year $1.4 billion from a budget of $1.9 billion was spent by the NSW Government in response to natural disasters.

Total expenses were less than the budget due to underspend in the following areas:

  • clean-up assistance, including council grants
  • anticipated temporary accommodation support
  • payments relating to the Northern Rivers Business Support scheme for small businesses.

Natural disaster events damaged council assets such as roads, bridges, waste collection centres and other facilities used to provide essential services. Additional staff, contractors and experts were engaged to restore and repair damaged assets and minimise disruption to service delivery.

At 30 June 2022, the estimated damage to council infrastructure assets totalled $349 million.

Over the first half of the 2022–23 financial year, councils experienced further damage to infrastructure assets due to natural disasters. NSW Government spending on natural disasters continued with a further $1.1 billion spent over this period.

Thirty-six councils did not identify climate change or natural disaster as a strategic risk despite 22 of these having at least one natural disaster during 2021–22.

Section highlights

  • $1.4 billion from a budget of $1.9 billion was spent by the NSW Government in response to natural disasters during 2021–22.
  • Budget underspent for temporary housing and small business support as lower than expected need.

Section highlights

  • 83 local council areas were impacted by natural disasters during 2021–22, with 58 being impacted by more than one type of natural disaster.
  • $349 million damage to council infrastructure assets at 30 June 2022.

 

Published

Actions for Regulation and monitoring of local government

Regulation and monitoring of local government

Planning
Whole of Government
Environment
Local Government
Compliance
Regulation
Risk

What the report is about

The Office of Local Government (OLG) in the Department of Planning and Environment is responsible for strengthening the local government sector, including through its regulatory functions.

This audit assessed whether the OLG is effectively monitoring and regulating the sector under the Local Government Act 1993. The audit covered:

  • the effectiveness of departmental arrangements for the OLG to undertake its regulatory functions
  • whether the OLG has effective mechanisms to monitor and respond to risks and issues relating to council compliance and performance.

What we found

The OLG does not conduct effective, proactive monitoring to enable timely risk-based responses to council performance and compliance issues.

The OLG has not clearly defined and communicated its regulatory role to ensure that its priorities are well understood.

The OLG does not routinely review the results of its regulatory activities to improve its approaches.

The department lacks an adequate framework to define, measure and report on the OLG's performance, limiting transparency and its accountability.

The OLG's new strategic plan presents an opportunity for the OLG to better define, communicate, and deliver on its regulatory objectives.

What we recommended

The OLG should:

  • publish a tool to support councils to self-assess risks and report on their performance and compliance
  • ensure its council engagement strategy is consistent with its regulatory approach
  • report each year on its regulatory activities and performance
  • publish a calendar of its key sector support and monitoring activities
  • enhance processes for internally tracking operational activities
  • develop and maintain a data management framework
  • review and update frameworks and procedures for regulatory responses.

 

The Local Government Act 1993 (the LG Act) provides the legal framework for the system of local government in New South Wales. The LG Act describes the functions of councils, county councils and joint organisations which should be exercised consistent with the guiding principles and requirements of the LG Act. Councils also have functions and responsibilities under other Acts.

There are 128 local councils, nine county councils and 13 joint organisations of councils in the New South Wales local government sector. Each council is unique in size and location, owns and manages assets, and delivers services for their communities. According to 2021–22 data provided by the Department of Planning and Environment (the department), local councils managed $175.2 billion in infrastructure, property plant and equipment, held $16.8 billion of cash and investments, collected $7.8 billion in rates and charges and entered into $3.7 billion of borrowings. Councils' decision-making responsibilities directly impact the communities they serve, including responsibilities relevant to financial management, economic development, environmental sustainability and community wellbeing.

Under the LG Act, each elected council is accountable to the community they serve. In addition to Auditor-General reports, issues relating to council performance and compliance have been identified in public inquiries commissioned by the Minister for Local Government and investigations by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, NSW Ombudsman and Office of Local Government (OLG). Challenges and opportunities related to the operations and sustainability of the local government sector have also been reported by the sector and identified in reports by NSW government agencies such as the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal.

The department is the primary state government agency with responsibility for policy, legislative, regulatory and program functions for local government matters. The Office of Local Government (OLG) is a business unit within the department that advises the Minister for Local Government and exercises delegated functions of the Secretary of the Department of Planning and Environment under the LG Act.

Key departmental planning documents state that the OLG is responsible for strengthening the sustainability, performance, integrity, transparency and accountability of the local government sector. As the state regulator of the local government sector, the OLG aims to promote voluntary compliance, build councils' capacity for high performance, and intervene only when 'warranted and appropriate'. Relevant regulatory activities include issuing guidelines, investigating councils and councillors, and supporting the Minister for Local Government's discretionary intervention powers. The OLG's other functions include developing policy, administering grants and programs, supporting local government election processes, and issuing certain approvals.

The objective of this audit was to assess whether the OLG is effectively monitoring and regulating the local government sector under the LG Act. The assessment included:

  • the effectiveness of departmental arrangements for the OLG to undertake its regulatory functions
  • whether the OLG has effective mechanisms to monitor and respond to risks and issues relating to council compliance and performance.

This report focuses on the OLG’s activities relevant to powers under Chapter 13 of the LG Act, and related regulatory activities, such as monitoring risks, issuing guidance and engaging with councils. It also examines strategic and operational planning for these activities in the context of the OLG's other activities, and departmental arrangements to oversee and enable the OLG's regulatory effectiveness.

Other OLG activities were not in scope of the audit but are commented on in this report where contextually relevant. This includes the OLG's responsibilities under the LG Act with respect to councillor misconduct, and the 2022 review of the councillor misconduct framework commissioned by the former Minister for Local Government.

Conclusion

The Office of Local Government (OLG) in the Department of Planning and Environment (the department) does not conduct effective, proactive monitoring to enable timely risk-based responses to council performance and compliance issues. Council performance and compliance varies and a range of issues continue across the local government sector – some significant – that can impact on councils' operations and sustainability.

The department recognises that an effective and efficient sector is 'crucial to the economic and social wellbeing of communities across the State,' but the OLG does not routinely review the results of its regulatory activities to improve its approaches. The OLG has also not clearly defined and communicated its regulatory role to ensure that its priorities are well understood.

Inadequate performance measurement and reporting on its regulatory activities is a significant transparency and accountability issue, and the OLG cannot demonstrate that it is effectively regulating the local government sector.

The department lacks an adequate framework to define, measure and report on the OLG's performance as the state regulator of the sector under the Local Government Act 1993 (the LG Act). The OLG's various council engagement activities are not well structured and coordinated towards delivering on a clearly defined regulatory role and its regulatory priorities are not well understood. In 2022, the OLG identified, in its new strategic plan, that there is a need for it to define its role in the sector. It would be expected that a clearly defined role already underpins its aim to 'strike the right mix of monitoring, intervention, capability improvement and engagement activities'.

The OLG collects various sources of information about council compliance and performance but its systems and processes do not enable structured, proactive sector monitoring to enable timely, risk-based responses. Ineffective sector monitoring is a particular issue in the context of compliance, financial management and governance risks that have been identified in inquiries and reviews by other government agencies including integrity bodies and reported by the sector. Audit Office data for 2021–22 shows that 62 councils did not have or regularly update key corporate governance policies, and 63 do not have basic controls to manage cyber security risks. Further, 31 councils or joint organisations did not meet the statutory requirement to have an audit, risk and improvement committee by 30 June 2022.1

Overall, the OLG has made limited progress on projects that have been identified since 2019 to improve its sector monitoring, such as updating its performance measurement framework for councils. These factors limit its capacity to identify and act on issues early. In early 2023, the OLG started to implement a new council risk assessment tool.

The OLG's two main frameworks to guide its sector improvement and intervention activities were last updated in 2014 and 2017. The OLG considered relevant statutory criteria when advising the Minister on the use of powers to issue performance improvement and suspension orders under the LG Act. But the OLG lacks complete and approved procedures to guide staff when preparing advice and recommendations related to interventions, and other response options. This creates risks to the consistency and transparency of relevant processes.

The department and the OLG have identified that resourcing issues present a risk to the OLG's regulatory functions. Projects since 2021 to review the OLG's budget did not progress. The OLG does not routinely review the costs or evaluate the effectiveness of its regulatory activities.

The OLG's 2022–2026 strategic plan sets out a vision to be, 'A trusted regulator and capability builder enabling councils to better serve their communities'. Implementing the strategic plan presents an opportunity for the OLG to better define, communicate, and deliver on its regulatory objectives towards strengthening the sector. The OLG advises that a delivery plan and performance indicators for its new strategy are being developed, alongside work resulting from the 2022 review of the councillor misconduct framework.

 


1 This data has been sourced through the Audit Office's financial audits of councils. The Local Government 2022 report, which compiles results from the local government sector financial statement audits for the year ended 30 June 2022, will include this and additional data, and related information. This report is expected to be tabled in June 2023.

This chapter considers the effectiveness of departmental arrangements for the OLG to undertake its regulatory functions.

This chapter assesses whether the OLG has effective mechanisms to monitor and respond to risks and issues relating to council compliance and performance.

The OLG’s 2017 Improvement and Intervention Framework is intended to guide appropriate responses to council compliance or performance risks and issues. The publicly available framework states that generally, the OLG will encourage councils to meet their obligations before a more formal intervention will be considered. It also states that any intervention or improvement response will be proportionate to the circumstances.

Appendix one – Response from agency

Appendix two – Statutory powers relevant to council accountability under the Local Government Act

Appendix three – About the audit

Appendix four – Performance auditing

 

Copyright notice

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

 

Parliamentary reference - Report number #380 - released 23 May 2023

Published

Actions for Planning and managing bushfire equipment

Planning and managing bushfire equipment

Community Services
Justice
Planning
Environment
Local Government
Asset valuation
Compliance
Financial reporting
Information technology
Infrastructure
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Procurement
Regulation
Risk
Shared services and collaboration
Workforce and capability

What the report is about

This audit assessed the effectiveness of the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and local councils in planning and managing equipment for bushfire prevention, mitigation, and suppression.

What we found

The RFS has focused its fleet development activity on modernising and improving the safety of its firefighting fleet, and on the purchase of new firefighting aircraft.

There is limited evidence that the RFS has undertaken strategic fleet planning or assessment of the capability of the firefighting fleet to respond to current bushfire events or emerging fire risks.

The RFS does not have an overarching strategy to guide its planning, procurement, or distribution of the firefighting fleet.

The RFS does not have effective oversight of fleet maintenance activity across the State, and is not ensuring the accuracy of District Service Agreements with local councils, where maintenance responsibilities are described.

What we recommended

  1. Develop a fleet enhancement framework and strategy that is informed by an assessment of current fleet capability, and research into appropriate technologies to respond to emerging fire risks.
  2. Develop performance measures to assess the performance and capabilities of the fleet in each RFS District by recording and publicly reporting on fire response times, fire response outcomes, and completions of fire hazard reduction works.
  3. Report annually on fleet allocations to RFS Districts, and identify the ways in which fleet resources align with district-level fire risks.
  4. Develop a strategy to ensure that local brigade volunteers are adequate in numbers and appropriately trained to operate fleet appliances in RFS Districts where they are required.
  5. Establish a fleet maintenance framework to ensure regular update of District Service Agreements with local councils.
  6. Review and improve processes for timely recording of fleet asset movements, locations, and maintenance status.

This audit assessed how effectively the NSW Rural Fire Service (the RFS) plans and manages the firefighting equipment needed to prevent, mitigate, and suppress bushfires. This audit also examined the role of local councils in managing bushfire equipment fleet assets. Local councils have vested legal ownership of the majority of the land-based firefighting fleet, including a range of legislated responsibilities to carry out fleet maintenance and repairs. The RFS has responsibilities to plan and purchase firefighting fleet assets, and ensure they are ready for use in response to fires and other emergencies.

This report describes the challenges in planning and managing the firefighting fleet, including a confusion of roles and responsibilities between the RFS and local councils in relation to managing certain land-based rural firefighting fleet – a point that has been made in our Local Government financial audits over several years. This role confusion is further demonstrated in the responses of the RFS and local councils to this audit report – included at Appendix one.

The lack of cohesion in roles and responsibilities for managing rural firefighting vehicles increases the risk that these firefighting assets are not properly maintained and managed, and introduces a risk that this could affect their readiness to be mobilised when needed.

While the audit findings and recommendations address some of the operational and organisational inefficiencies in relation to rural firefighting equipment management, they do not question the legislative arrangements that govern them. This is a matter for the NSW Government to consider in ensuring the fleet arrangements are fit for purpose, and are clearly understood by the relevant agencies.

The NSW Rural Fire Service (hereafter the RFS) is the lead combat agency for bushfires in New South Wales, and has the power to take charge of bushfire prevention and response operations anywhere in the State. The RFS has responsibilities to prevent, mitigate and suppress bushfires across 95% of the State, predominantly in the non-metropolitan areas of New South Wales. Fire and Rescue NSW is responsible for fire response activity in the cities and large townships that make up the remaining five per cent of the State.

The RFS bushfire fleet is an integral part of the agency's overall bushfire risk management. The RFS also uses this fleet to respond to other emergencies such as floods and storms, motor vehicle accidents, and structural fires. Fleet planning and management is one of a number of activities that is necessary for fire mitigation and suppression.

The Rural Fires Act 1997 (Rural Fires Act) imposes obligations on all landowners and land managers to prevent the occurrence of bushfires and reduce the risk of bushfires from spreading. Local councils have fire prevention responsibilities within their local government areas, principally to reduce fire hazards near council owned or managed assets, and minor roads.

The RFS is led by a Commissioner and is comprised of both paid employees and volunteer rural firefighters. Its functions are prescribed in the Rural Fires Act and related legislation such as the State Emergency Rescue Management Act 1989. The RFS functions are also described in Bush Fire Risk Management Plans, the State Emergency Management Plan, District Service Agreements, and RFS procedural documents. Some of the core responsibilities of the RFS include:

  • preventing, mitigating, and suppressing fires across New South Wales
  • recruiting and managing volunteer firefighters in rural fire brigades
  • purchasing and allocating firefighting fleet assets to local councils
  • establishing District Service Agreements with local councils to give the RFS permissions to use the fleet assets that are vested with local councils
  • carrying out fleet maintenance and repairs when authorised to do so by local councils
  • inspecting the firefighting fleet
  • supporting land managers and private property owners with fire prevention activity.

In order to carry out its legislated firefighting functions, the RFS relies on land-based vehicles, marine craft, and aircraft. These different firefighting appliance types are referred to in this report as the firefighting fleet or fleet assets.

RFS records show that in 2021 there were 6,345 firefighting fleet assets across NSW. Most of the land-based appliances commonly associated with firefighting, such as water pumpers and water tankers, are purchased by the RFS and vested with local councils under the Rural Fires Act. The vesting of firefighting assets with local councils means that the assets are legally owned by the council for which the asset has been purchased. The RFS is able to use the firefighting assets through District Service Agreements with local councils or groups of councils.

In addition to the land-based firefighting fleet, the RFS owns a fleet of aircraft with capabilities for fire mitigation, suppression, and reconnaissance during fire events. The RFS hires a fleet of different appliances to assist with fire prevention and hazard reduction works. These include aircraft for firefighting and fire reconnaissance, and heavy plant equipment such as graders and bulldozers for hazard reduction. Hazard reduction works include the clearance of bush and grasslands around major roads and protected assets, and the creation and maintenance of fire trails and fire corridors to assist with fire response activity.

The RFS is organised into 44 RFS Districts and seven Area Commands. The RFS relies on volunteer firefighters to assist in carrying out most of its firefighting functions. These functions may include the operation of the fleet during fire response activities and training exercises, and the routine inspection of the fleet to ensure it is maintained according to fleet service standards. Volunteer fleet inspections are supervised by the RFS Fire Control Officer.

In 2021 there were approximately 73,000 volunteers located in 1,993 rural fire brigades across the State, making the RFS the largest volunteer fire emergency service in Australia. In addition to brigade volunteers, the RFS has approximately 1,100 salaried staff who occupy leadership and administrative roles at RFS headquarters and in the 44 RFS Districts.

Local councils have legislative responsibilities relating to bushfire planning and management. Some of the core responsibilities of local councils include:

  • establishing and equipping rural fire brigades
  • contributing to the Rural Fire Fighting Fund
  • vested ownership of land-based rural firefighting equipment
  • carrying out firefighting fleet maintenance and repairs
  • conducting bushfire prevention and hazard reduction activity.

The objective of this audit was to assess the effectiveness of the RFS and local councils in planning and managing equipment for bushfire prevention, mitigation, and suppression. From the period of 2017 to 2022 inclusive, we addressed the audit objective by examining whether the NSW RFS and local councils effectively:

  • plan for current and future bushfire fleet requirements
  • manage and maintain the fleet required to prevent, mitigate, and suppress bushfires in NSW.

This audit did not assess:

  • the operational effectiveness of the RFS bushfire response
  • the effectiveness of personal protective equipment and clothing
  • the process of vesting of rural firefighting equipment with local councils
  • activities of any other statutory authorities responsible for managing bushfires in NSW.

As the lead combat agency for the bushfire response in NSW, the RFS has primary responsibility for bushfire prevention, mitigation, and suppression.

Three local councils were selected as case studies for this audit, Hawkesbury City Council, Wagga Wagga City Council and Uralla Shire Council. These case studies highlight the ways in which the RFS and local councils collaborate and communicate in rural fire districts.

Conclusion

The RFS has focused its fleet development activity on modernising and improving the safety of its land-based firefighting fleet, and on the purchase of new firefighting aircraft

The RFS has reduced the average age of the firefighting fleet from approximately 21 years in 2017, to approximately 16 years in 2022. The RFS has also enhanced the aerial fleet with the addition of six new aircraft to add to the existing three aircraft.

Recommendations from inquiries into the 2019–20 bushfires have driven significant levels of fleet improvement activity, mainly focused on the addition of safety features to existing fleet appliances. The RFS has dedicated most of its efforts to purchasing and refurbishing firefighting appliances of the same type and in the same volumes year on year.

However, the RFS is unable to demonstrate how the composition, size, or the locations of the NSW firefighting fleet is linked to current fire prevention, mitigation, and suppression requirements, or future fire risks.

There is limited evidence that the RFS has undertaken strategic fleet planning or assessment of the capability of the firefighting fleet to respond to current bushfire events or emerging fire risks

The RFS has not established a methodology to assess the composition or volumes of the firefighting fleet against fire activity and fire risks in the 44 NSW Rural Fire Districts. The RFS has not developed performance measures or targets to assess or report on fire response times in each of its districts, nor has it developed measures to assess the effectiveness of responses according to fire sizes and fire types. Similarly, the RFS has limited performance measures to assess fire prevention activity, or to assess fuel load reduction works, so it is not possible to assess whether its fleet capabilities are fit for these purposes.

The RFS does not have an overarching strategy to guide its planning, procurement, or distribution of the firefighting fleet

RFS fleet planning and fleet allocations are based on historical fleet sizes and compositions, and distributed to locations where there are appropriately trained brigade volunteers.

The RFS takes an asset protection approach to bushfire prevention and planning that is based on the Australian and New Zealand Standard for Risk Management. This approach requires that the RFS identify assets at risk of fire, and develop treatment plans to protect these assets. However, fleet requirements are not linked to NSW asset protection plans, meaning that fleet is not allocated according to the identified risks in these plans. Further, the RFS does not develop fire prevention plans for areas where there are no identified assets.

The RFS has not conducted future-focused fleet research or planning into technologies that match fleet capabilities to emerging or future fire risks. Since the significant fire events of 2019–2020, the RFS has not changed its approach to planning for, or assessing, the operational capabilities of the fleet. The RFS advises it is scoping a project to match resources to risk, which it plans to commence in 2023.

The RFS does not have effective oversight of fleet maintenance activity across the State, and is not ensuring the accuracy of District Service Agreements where maintenance responsibilities are described

The RFS does not have a framework to ensure that District Service Agreements with local councils are accurate. Almost two thirds of service agreements have not been reviewed in the last ten years, and some do not reflect actual maintenance practices. There is no formalised process to ensure communication occurs between the RFS and local councils for fleet management and maintenance.

RFS fleet management systems at the central level are not integrated with RFS district-level databases to indicate when fleet assets are in workshops being maintained and serviced. The RFS has a new centralised Computer Aided Dispatch System that relies on accurate fleet locations and fleet condition information in order to dispatch vehicles to incidents and fires. A lack of interface between the district-level fleet systems and the centralised RFS fleet dispatch system, may impact on operational responses to bushfires. 

The RFS has not made significant changes to the size or composition of the firefighting fleet in the past five years and does not have an overarching strategy to drive fleet development

Since 2017, the RFS has made minimal changes to its firefighting fleet volumes or vehicle types. The RFS is taking a fleet renewal approach to fleet planning, with a focus on refurbishing and replacing ageing firefighting assets with newer appliances and vehicles of the same classification and type. While the RFS has adopted a fleet renewal approach, driven by its Appliance Replacement Program Guide, it does not have a strategy or framework to guide its future-focused fleet development. There is no document that identifies and analyses bushfire events and risks in NSW, and matches fleet resources and fleet technologies to meet those risks. The RFS does not have fleet performance measures or targets to assess whether the size and composition of the fleet is meeting current or emerging bushfire climate hazards, or fuel load risks across its 44 NSW Fire Districts.

The RFS fleet currently comprises approximately 4,000 frontline, operational firefighting assets such as tankers, pumpers, and air and marine craft, and approximately 2,300 logistical vehicles, such as personnel transport vehicles and specialist support vehicles. Of the land-based firefighting vehicles, the RFS has maintained a steady number of approximately 3,800 tankers and 65 pumpers, year on year, for the past five years. This appliance type is an essential component of the RFS land-based, firefighting fleet with capabilities to suppress and extinguish fires.

Since 2017, most RFS fleet enhancement activity has been directed to upgrades and the modernisation of older fleet assets with new safety features. There is limited evidence of research into new fleet technologies for modern firefighting. The RFS fleet volumes and fleet types have remained relatively static since 2017, with the exception of the aerial firefighting fleet. Since 2017, the RFS has planned for, and purchased, six additional aircraft to add to the existing three aircraft in its permanent fleet.

While the RFS has made minimal changes to its fleet since 2017, in 2016 it reduced the overall number of smaller transport vehicles, by purchasing larger vehicles with increased capacity for personnel transport. The consolidation of logistical and transport vehicles accounts for an attrition in fleet numbers from 7,058 in 2016, to 6,315 in 2017 as shown in Exhibit 2.

The firefighting fleet management system is not always updated in a timely manner due to insufficient RFS personnel with permissions to make changes in the system

The RFS uses a fleet management system known as SAP EAM to record the location and status of firefighting fleet assets. The system holds information about the condition of the firefighting fleet, the home location of each fleet asset, and the maintenance, servicing, and inspection records of all assets. The RFS uses the system for almost all functions related to the firefighting fleet, including the location of vehicles so that they can be dispatched during operational exercises or fire responses.

Staff at RFS Headquarters are responsible for creating and maintaining asset records in the fleet management system. RFS District staff have limited permissions in relation to SAP EAM. They are able to raise work orders for repairs and maintenance, upload evidence to show that work has been done, and close actions in the system.

RFS District staff are not able to enter or update some fleet information in the system, such as the location of vehicles. When an RFS District receives a fleet appliance, it cannot be allocated to a brigade until the location of the asset is accurately recorded in the system. The location of the asset must be updated in the SAP EAM system by staff at RFS Headquarters. District staff can request system support from staff at RFS Headquarters to enter this information. At the time of writing, the position responsible for updating the fleet management system at RFS Headquarters was vacant, and RFS District personnel reported significant wait times in response to their service requests.

The RFS conducts annual audits of SAP EAM system information to ensure data is accurate and complete. RFS staff are currently doing data cleansing work to ensure that fleet allocations are recorded correctly in the system.

Communication between brigades, local councils and the RFS needs improvement to ensure that fleet information is promptly updated in the fleet management system

RFS brigade volunteers do not have access to the fleet management system. When fleet assets are used or moved, volunteers report information about the location and condition of the fleet to RFS District staff using a paper-based form, or by email or phone. Information such as vehicle mileage, engine hours, and defects are all captured by volunteers in a logbook which is scanned and sent to RFS District staff. RFS District staff then enter the relevant information into the fleet management system, or raise a service ticket with RFS Headquarters to enter the information.

Brigade volunteers move fleet assets for a range of reasons, including for fire practice exercises. If volunteers are unable to report the movement of assets to RFS District staff in a timely manner, this can lead to system inaccuracies. Lapses and backlogs in record keeping can occur when RFS staff at district offices or at Headquarters are not available to update records at the times that volunteers report information. A lack of accurate record keeping can potentially impact on RFS operational activities, including fire response activity.

Brigade volunteers notify RFS District staff when fleet appliances are defective, or if they have not been repaired properly. District staff then enter the information into the fleet management system. The inability of volunteers to enter information into the system means they have no visibility over their requests, including whether they have been approved, actioned, or rejected.

Local councils are responsible for servicing and maintaining the firefighting fleet according to the Rural Fires Act, but this responsibility can be transferred to the RFS through arrangements described in local service agreements. Council staff record all fleet servicing and maintenance information in their local systems. The types of fleet information that is captured in local council records can vary between councils. RFS staff described the level of council reporting, and the effectiveness of this process, as 'mixed'.

Councils use different databases and systems to record fleet assets, and some councils are better resourced for this activity than others

Firefighting fleet information is recorded in different asset management systems across NSW. Each council uses its own asset management system to record details about the vested fleet assets. All three councils that were interviewed for this audit had different systems to record information about the fleet. In addition, the type of information captured by the three councils was varied.

Exhibit 10: Systems used by local councils to manage the firefighting fleet
System Hawkesbury City Council Uralla Shire Council Wagga Wagga City Council
Financial asset management system TechnologyOne Civica Assetic
Asset management system TechnologyOne Manual MEX

Source: Audit Office analysis of information provided by the RFS and local councils.

Local councils have varying levels of resources and capabilities to manage the administrative tasks associated with the firefighting fleet. Some of the factors that impact on the ability of councils to manage administrative tasks include: the size of the council; the capabilities of the information management systems, the size of the staff team, and the levels of staff training in asset management.

Uralla Shire Council is a small rural council in northern NSW. This council uses financial software to record information about the firefighting fleet. While staff record information about the condition of the asset, its replacement value, and its depreciation, staff do not record the age of the asset, or its location. Staff manually enter fleet maintenance information into their systems. Uralla Shire Council would like to purchase asset maintenance software that generates work orders for fleet repairs and maintenance. However, the council does not have trained staff in the use of asset management software, and the small size of the fleet may not make it financially worthwhile.

The Hawkesbury City Council uses a single system to capture financial and asset information associated with the firefighting fleet. Hawkesbury is a large metropolitan council located north-west of Sydney, with a relatively large staff team in comparison with Uralla Shire Council. The Hawkesbury City Council has given RFS District staff access to their fleet information system. RFS District staff can directly raise work orders for fleet repairs and maintenance through the council system, and receive automated notifications when the work is complete.

Two of the three audited councils report that they conduct annual reviews of fleet assets to assess whether the information they hold is accurate and up-to-date.

More than half of the fleet maintenance service agreements between the RFS and local councils have not been reviewed in ten years, and some do not reflect local practices

Local councils have a legislated responsibility to service, repair, and maintain the firefighting fleet to service standards set by the RFS. Councils may transfer this responsibility to the RFS through District Service Agreements. The RFS Districts are responsible for ensuring that the service agreements are current and effective.

The RFS does not have monitoring and quality control processes to ensure that service agreements with local councils are reviewed regularly. The RFS has 73 service agreements with local councils or groups of councils. Sixty-three per cent of service agreements had not been reviewed in the last ten years. Only four service agreements specify an end date and, of those, one agreement expired in 2010 and had not been reviewed at the time of this audit.

The RFS does not have a framework to ensure that service agreements with local councils reflect actual practices. Of the three councils selected for audit, one agreement does not describe the actual arrangements for fleet maintenance practices in RFS Districts. The service agreement with Hawkesbury City Council specifies that the RFS will maintain the firefighting fleet on behalf of council when, in fact, council maintains the firefighting fleet. The current agreement commenced in 2012, and at the time of writing had not been updated to reflect local maintenance practices.

When District Service Agreements are not reviewed periodically, there is a risk that neither local councils nor the RFS have clear oversight of the status of fleet servicing, maintenance, and repairs.

RFS District Service Agreements set out a requirement that RFS and local councils establish a liaison committee. Liaison committees typically include council staff, RFS District staff, and RFS brigade volunteers. While service agreements state that liaison committees must meet periodically to monitor and review the performance of the service agreement, committee members determine when and how often the committee meets.

RFS District staff and staff at the three audited councils are not meeting routinely to review or update their service agreements. At Wagga Wagga City Council, staff meet with RFS District staff each year to report on activity to fulfil service agreement requirements. Uralla Shire Council staff did not meet routinely with RFS District staff before 2021. When liaison committees do not meet regularly, there is a risk that the RFS and local councils have incorrect or outdated information about the location, status, or condition of the firefighting fleet. Given that councils lack systems to track and monitor fleet locations, regular communication between the RFS and local councils is essential.

The RFS has not established processes to ensure that local councils and RFS District personnel meet and exchange information about the fleet. Of the three councils selected for this audit, one council had not received information about the number, type, or status of the fleet for at least five years, and did not receive an updated list of appliances until there was a change in RFS District personnel. This has impacted on the accuracy of council record keeping. Councils do not always receive notification about new assets or information about the location of assets from the RFS, and therefore cannot reflect this information in their accounting and reporting.

RFS area commands audit system records to ensure fleet inspections occur as planned, but central systems are not always updated, creating operational risks

RFS District staff are required by the Rural Fires Act to ensure the firefighting fleet is inspected at least once a year. Regular inspections of the fleet are vital to ensure that vehicles are fit-for-purpose and safe for brigade volunteers. Inspections are also fundamental to the operational readiness and capability of RFS to respond to fire incidents.

RFS Area Command personnel conduct audits of fleet maintenance data to ensure that fleet inspections are occurring as planned. These inspections provide the RFS with assurance that the fleet is being maintained and serviced by local council workshops, or third-party maintenance contractors.

Some RFS Districts run their own fleet management systems outside of the central management system. They do this to manage their fleet inspection activity effectively. Annual fleet inspection dates are programmed by staff at RFS Headquarters. Most of the inspection dates generated by RFS Headquarters are clustered together and RFS Districts need to separate inspection times to manage workloads over the year. Spreading inspection dates is necessary to avoid exceeding the capacity of local council workshops or third party contractors, and to ensure that fleet are available during the bushfire season.

The fleet inspection records at RFS Headquarters are not always updated in a timely manner to reflect actual inspection and service dates of vehicles. District staff are not able to change fleet inspection and service dates in the central management system because they do not have the necessary permissions to access the system. The usual practice is for RFS District staff to notify staff at RFS Headquarters, and ask them to retrospectively update the system. As there is a lag in updating the central database, at a point in time, the actual inspection and service dates of vehicles can be different to the dates entered in the central fleet management system.

Fleet inspection and maintenance records must be accurately recorded in the central RFS management system for operational reasons. RFS Headquarters personnel need to know the location and maintenance status of fleet vehicles at all times in order to dispatch vehicles to incidents and fires. The RFS fleet management system is integrated with a new Computer Aided Dispatch System. The Computer Aided Dispatch System assigns the nearest and most appropriate vehicles to fire incidents. The system relies on accurate fleet locations and fleet condition information in order to dispatch these vehicles.

There is a risk that RFS Headquarters' systems do not contain accurate information about the location and status of vehicles. Some may be in workshops for servicing and repair, while the system may record them as available for dispatch. As there are many thousands of fleet vehicles, all requiring an annual service and inspection, a lack of accurate record keeping has wide implications for State fire operations.

RFS is currently exploring ways to improve the ways in which fleet inspections are programmed into the fleet management system.

RFS provides funds to councils to assist with maintaining the firefighting fleet, but does not receive fleet maintenance cost information from all local councils

Each year the RFS provides local councils with a lump sum to assist with the cost of repairing and maintaining the firefighting fleet. This lump sum funding is also used for meeting the costs of maintaining brigade stations, utilities, and other miscellaneous matters associated with RFS business.

In 2020–21, the RFS provided NSW local councils with approximately $23 million for maintenance and repairs of appliances, buildings, and utilities. Ninety councils were provided with lump sum funding in 2021, receiving on average $257,000. The amounts received by individual councils ranged from $56,200 to $1,029,884.

Some councils provide itemised repairs and maintenance reports to RFS District staff, showing the work completed and the cost of that work. However, not all councils collect this information or provide it to the RFS. Local councils collect fleet maintenance information in their local council systems. In some cases, the responsibility for fleet maintenance is shared across a group of councils, and not all councils have oversight of this process.

The RFS has not taken steps to require local councils to provide itemised maintenance costings for the firefighting fleet. Thus, the RFS does not have a clear understanding of how local councils are spending their annual fleet maintenance funding allocations. The RFS does not know if the funding allocations are keeping pace with the actual cost of repairing and maintaining the fleet.

RFS District staff report that funding shortfalls are impacting on the prioritisation of fleet servicing and maintenance works in some council areas. When fleet servicing and maintenance is not completed routinely or effectively, there is a risk that it can negatively impact the overall condition and lifespan of the vehicle. Poor processes in relation to fleet maintenance and repair risk impacting on the operational capabilities of the fleet during fire events.

The timeliness and effectiveness of fleet servicing and maintenance is affected by resource levels in RFS Districts and local councils

Local councils have a legislated responsibility to service and maintain the firefighting fleet to the service standards set by the RFS. Fleet maintenance is usually done by the entity with the appropriate workshops and resources, and the maintenance arrangements are described in District Service Agreements. RFS District staff conduct annual inspections to ensure that the firefighting fleet has been serviced and maintained appropriately, and is safe for use by brigade volunteers. If the fleet has not been maintained to RFS service standards or timelines, RFS District staff may work with local councils to support or remediate these works.

The effectiveness of this quality control activity is dependent on relationships and communication between the RFS Districts and local councils. While some RFS staff reported having positive relationships with local councils, others said they struggled to get fleet maintenance work done in a timely manner. Some councils reported that funding shortfalls for fleet maintenance activity was impacting on the prioritisation of RFS fleet maintenance works. When fleet maintenance work is not completed routinely or effectively, it can negatively impact on the overall condition and lifespan of the vehicle. It can also reduce the capacity of the RFS to respond to fire events.

Fleet quality control activities are carried out by RFS District staff. In some of the smaller RFS Districts, one person is responsible for liaising with local councils and brigade volunteers about fleet maintenance and repairs. In the regions where resources are limited, there is less ability to maintain ongoing communication. This is impacting on fleet service and maintenance timelines and the timeliness of fleet monitoring activity.

The RFS has mutual support arrangements with agencies in NSW and interstate, though shared fleet levels are yet to be quantified

The RFS has arrangements with state, federal, and international fire authorities to provide mutual support during fire incidents. In NSW, the RFS has agreements with the three statutory authorities – Fire and Rescue NSW, the Forestry Corporation of NSW, and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. The agreement with Fire and Rescue NSW provides a framework for cooperation and joint operations between the agencies. The agreements with the Forestry Corporation of NSW and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service describe the control and coordination arrangements for bush and grass fires across NSW. These arrangements are set out in legislation and incorporated into local Bush Fire Risk Management Plans.

The RFS has agreements with fire authorities in three of the four Australian states and territories that share a border with NSW – the Australian Capital Territory, Queensland, and South Australia. Each agreement sets out the arrangements for mutual assistance and joint operations, including arrangements for sharing aircraft. The agreement between the RFS and Victoria had lapsed. The RFS told the NSW Bushfire Inquiry that the agreement with Victoria would be finalised by June 2020. In June 2022, the RFS reported that the agreement was in the process of being finalised.

The arrangements for mutual aid from Western Australia, Northern Territory and Tasmania, are managed by the National Resource Sharing Centre. These agreements set out the arrangements for interstate assistance between Australian fire services, emergency services, and land management agencies in those states and territories.

These mutual support arrangements may assist during state-based fire events. However, when there are competing demands for resources, such as during the bushfires of 2019–2020, there can be limits on fleet availability. During the 2019–2020 fires, resources were stretched in all jurisdictions as these fires affected NSW, Victoria, and Queensland.

There are opportunities for the RFS and other NSW agencies to quantify fleet resources across the State and identify assets that can be mobilised for different fire activities. This form of fleet planning may be used to enhance surge capabilities during times of high fire activity. There are also opportunities for the RFS and other agencies to match the levels of shared assets to projected bushfire risks.

Appendix one – Responses from agencies 

Appendix two – About the audit 

Appendix three – Performance auditing

 

Copyright notice

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

 

Parliamentary reference - Report number #376 - released 27 February 2023

 

Published

Actions for Bushfire recovery grants

Bushfire recovery grants

Environment
Industry
Compliance
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Service delivery

What the report is about

The Bushfire Local Economic Recovery (BLER) program was created after the 2019–20 bushfires, and commits $541.8 million to bushfire affected areas in New South Wales. It is co-funded by the Commonwealth and NSW governments.

This audit assessed how effectively the Department of Regional NSW (the department) and Resilience NSW administered rounds one and two of the BLER program. These rounds were:

  • Round one: early co-funding, split between two streams:
    • ­Fast-Tracked projects 
    • ­Sector Development Grants (SDG)
  • Round two: open round.

What we found

The Department of Regional NSW did not effectively administer the Fast-Tracked stream of the BLER. 

The administration process lacked integrity, given it did not have sufficiently detailed guidelines and the assessment process for projects lacked transparency and consistency. 

At the request of the Deputy Premier's office, a $1 million threshold was applied, below which projects were not approved for funding. The department advises that some of the projects excluded were subsequently funded from other programs. 

This threshold resulted in a number of shortlisted projects in areas highly impacted by the bushfires being excluded, including all shortlisted projects located in Labor Party-held electorates.

The department's administration of the SDG stream had a detailed and transparent assessment process. However, conflicts of interest were not effectively managed. 

The department's administration of the open round included a clearly documented, detailed and transparent assessment framework. Some weaknesses in the approach to conflicts of interest remained.

What we recommended

The Department of Regional NSW should ensure that for all future grant programs it:

  1. establishes and follows guidelines that align with relevant good practice guidance 
  2. ensures a communications plan is in place, including the communication of guidelines to potential applicants
  3. ensures staff declare conflicts of interest prior to the commencement of a grants stream, and that these conflicts of interest are recorded and managed
  4. ensures regular monitoring is in place as part of funding deeds 
  5. documents all key decisions and approvals in line with record keeping obligations.

This audit assessed how effectively the Department of Regional NSW and Resilience NSW administered rounds one and two of the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery (BLER) program.

As noted in this report, Resilience NSW was involved in the set-up and ongoing administration and monitoring of the BLER program. During the audited period, Resilience NSW was tasked with working with the Department of Regional NSW to create program objectives, guidelines and criteria. Their role also involved liaising with the Commonwealth Government, which provided co-funding for the program. Resilience NSW also had an ongoing role in quality assurance and compliance to ensure agencies administering disaster assistance did so in accordance with relevant guidelines. On 16 December 2022, the NSW Government abolished Resilience NSW.

Our work for this performance audit was completed on 3 November 2022, when we issued the final report to the two audited agencies. The audit report does not make specific recommendations to Resilience NSW. On 24 November 2022, the then Commissioner of Resilience NSW provided a response to the final report, which we include as it is the formal response from the audited entity at the time the audit was conducted.

During the 2019–20 bushfire season, New South Wales experienced 11,774 fire incidents, burning 5.5 million hectares of the state. There were 26 fatalities and 2,476 homes destroyed. The agriculture sector was heavily impacted with 601,858 hectares of pasture damaged.

Due to the widespread impacts of these fires on the state, the NSW and Commonwealth governments committed $4.4 billion toward bushfire response, recovery, and preparedness. This included the establishment of the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery (BLER) program, with $541.8 million committed to support job retention and creation in areas impacted by bushfires. The program also aims to strengthen community resilience and reduce the impact of future natural disasters. The BLER program is co-funded, with the Commonwealth and NSW governments funding 50% each.

The BLER program is comprised of three funding rounds:

  • round one early co-funding, split between
    • Fast-Tracked projects
    • Sector Development Grants (SDG)
  • round two: open round
  • round three: final projects and initiatives.

Resilience NSW was involved in setting up the BLER program and the Department of Regional NSW (the department) is responsible for administering it. The Commonwealth National Recovery and Resilience Agency must also endorse any projects proposed by the NSW Government for funding as part of the funding agreement between the State and Commonwealth governments.

Successful projects under the SDG stream were announced in September 2020 and projects funded through the Fast-Tracked stream were announced in October 2020. Round two (the open round) was administered after these two streams and successful projects were announced in June 2021.

The Department of Premier and Cabinet established the 'Good Practice Guide to Grants Administration' (the Good Practice Guide) in 2010 to assist the NSW Government in ensuring grants administration was performed consistently across all NSW Government grants programs. Compliance with the Good Practice Guide was not compulsory, but provided an outline of best practice covering the entire lifecycle of a grants program. This guide was in place at the time these grants were designed and administered.

The design and delivery of round one of the program occurred quickly, as part of the response to the 2019–20 bushfires, and was responding to a request from the Commonwealth Government for rapid project identification.

The objective of this audit was to assess how effectively the Department of Regional NSW and Resilience NSW administered rounds one and two of the BLER program. Round three was excluded from this audit because it had not been announced at the time of the audit.

We addressed this objective by examining whether the audited agencies:

  • effectively planned administration of the BLER program and established appropriate guidelines
  • implemented an effective assessment process for the BLER program
  • are effectively monitoring implementation of projects and program outcomes.

Conclusion

The Department of Regional NSW did not effectively administer the Fast-Tracked stream of the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery program. The administration process lacked integrity, given it did not have sufficiently detailed guidelines, and the assessment process for projects lacked transparency and consistency.

There were significant gaps in the documentation of decision-making throughout this funding stream. At the request of the Deputy Premier's office, a $1 million threshold was applied, below which projects were not approved for funding. This threshold was applied without a documented reason and was not part of the program guidelines. The department advises that some of the projects excluded through application of the threshold were subsequently funded from other programs.

The department's administration of the Sector Development Grants stream had a detailed and transparent assessment process. That said, conflicts of interest were not effectively managed, and the department did not effectively engage with stakeholders during the grants process.

The department's administration of the open round included a clearly documented, detailed and transparent assessment framework that it followed throughout. The department also implemented probity arrangements in the open round, although some weaknesses in the department's approach to conflicts of interest remained.

Fast-Tracked stream

Following requests from the Commonwealth Government in May and June 2020 to identify projects rapidly and as soon as practical, the department used an expedited process to identify relevant projects that had applied for other grants programs but had not received funding or which were identified as local priority projects. The department developed a set of guidelines for the Fast-Tracked stream based on draft Commonwealth funding criteria, but the department's guidelines lacked sufficient detail to ensure transparent and consistent decision-making. The guidelines also did not contain detailed information on how the assessment and approval processes would work. The department did not implement conflict of interest declarations for staff involved in the assessment process.

The assessment process implemented for the Fast-Tracked stream deviated from the guidelines. For example, the guidelines did not set out a role for the then Deputy Premier or his office in the assessment process, but the Deputy Premier's office played a key role in project selection. At the direction of the Deputy Premier's office, a $1 million minimum threshold, not mentioned in the guidelines, was applied to projects, below which, projects would not be funded. This resulted in a number of shortlisted projects in areas highly impacted by the bushfires, including all shortlisted projects located in Labor Party-held electorates, being excluded without a rationale being documented at the time. The department advised that some of these projects were subsequently funded through other funding streams.

The department's assessment process was inconsistent, poorly documented and lacked transparency. The department initially identified 445 potential projects through consultation with councils and through identifying projects that had been unsuccessful for other grant programs. The department only assessed 164 of these 445 projects for funding against the criteria in the guidelines. The department did not document the rationale for not assessing the remaining 281 projects against the criteria. The department also sought advice from Public Works Advisory (PWA) on whether projects could commence within six months, which was an eligibility criterion for the Fast-Tracked stream. PWA were only asked to assess 25 of the 445 projects, of which 19 were funded through the Fast-Tracked stream. The department also did not consistently follow PWA's advice and funded projects which PWA had advised were unable to commence within six months, which was not in line with the guidelines.

The department monitors 21 of the 22 Fast-Tracked projects on a quarterly basis to ensure projects are on track. Resilience NSW is responsible for the remaining project and does not monitor this on a quarterly basis but has established a project control group that performs a similar function. The agencies advised that this project is being transitioned to the department's management.

Sector Development Grants (SDG)

The department designed and published guidelines for the SDG stream. The guidelines largely align with the Department of Premier and Cabinet's 'Good Practice Guide to Grants Administration', although they could have been strengthened by including more detail on the eligibility of projects and the role of cost benefit analyses in the assessment process. The guidelines included a detailed and transparent assessment process which the department largely followed.

There were gaps in the administration of the SDG stream assessment process. The department did not effectively manage conflicts of interest as it did not ensure all required conflict of interest forms were completed and some forms were completed after the assessment process was finalised. The department also advised that the final version of the conflict of interest register, which contained the declarations for the SDG stream, was lost during a record management system change. The department did not develop guidance for communicating with stakeholders for the SDG stream. Feedback was received from industries which had been excluded from the SDG stream, relaying their concerns, and requesting a broader range of agribusiness sectors be considered for eligibility. A communications plan or strategy could have incorporated guidance on engaging agribusiness stakeholders during the planning stages of the stream, ensuring they were aware of the rationale for the eligible industries selected.

The majority of SDG funding went to areas highly impacted by the bushfires, although some highly impacted areas received less funding than lower impacted areas, and there is no clear reason for this.

The department does not monitor SDG projects on a quarterly basis to ensure that they remain on track but it ensures it has sufficient evidence that milestones have been completed before making funding payments.

Open round

The department designed and implemented a clearly documented and detailed assessment process for the open round. There were some areas where the process could have been improved, for example, the published guidelines did not set out the role of the former Deputy Premier or include reference to consultation with members of Parliament (MP) as part of the process, despite the fact that MPs were consulted as part of this round.

The department improved its management of conflicts of interest compared to the Fast-Tracked and SDG streams by maintaining a conflict of interest register, though not all conflict of interest declarations were collected. The department also developed a communications plan which led to improvements in stakeholder engagement.

One of the purposes of the open round was to distribute funding to local government areas (LGA) which did not receive funding through the Fast-Tracked stream. This intention was not outlined in the guidelines for this funding stream. The majority of funding from the open round went to LGAs which had been highly impacted by the bushfires.

The department monitors the open round projects on a quarterly basis to ensure that they are on track.

1. Recommendations

To promote integrity and transparency, the Department of Regional NSW should ensure that for all future grant programs it:

  1. establishes and follows guidelines that align with relevant good practice guidance including accountabilities, key assessment steps and clear assessment criteria
  2. ensures a communications plan is in place, including the communication of guidelines to potential applicants
  3. ensures staff declare conflicts of interest prior to the commencement of a grants stream, and that these conflicts of interest are recorded and managed
  4. ensures regular monitoring is in place as part of funding deeds
  5. documents all key decisions and approvals in line with record keeping obligations.

Stage one of the BLER program consisted of early co-funded projects valued at a total of $180 million. This included 22 Fast-Tracked priority projects valued at a total of $107.8 million. The purpose of these projects was to deliver immediate and significant economic impacts to high and moderate bushfire-impacted areas.

A timeline of key dates may be found at Exhibit 5.

Fifty-two projects worth a total of $73.2 million were funded through the SDG stream. One grantee withdrew their project from the stream in early 2021, leaving a total of 51 projects (of which 49 are co-funded with the Commonwealth Government).

A timeline of key dates may be found at Exhibit 9.

The department distributed $283 million to 195 successful projects as part of the open round of the BLER program.

A timeline of key dates may be found at Exhibit 11.

The department entered into funding deeds with successful applicants

The Good Practice Guide advises that the agency administering a grant should enter into a formal agreement with each grant recipient which sets out the arrangements under which a grant is provided, received, managed and acquitted. Across all three streams, the department sent out a letter of offer to successful project managers to let them know that they had been successful in receiving funding, and then entered into funding deeds with grantees. The one exception was the project that RNSW managed, discussed below.

The reviewed funding deeds were signed by department staff with the appropriate level of delegation. They contained an appropriate level of information and key clauses that would allow the department to monitor the progress of the grant to ensure its completion as agreed with the grantee. The reviewed funding deeds contained key information, including:

  • total value of the grant
  • key deliverables at each milestone
  • expected completion date of both the overall project and each milestone
  • reporting requirements, including provisions to allow the department to request relevant information
  • variation procedures.

The department only makes payments after confirming that milestones have been reached

The department has provided payments to grantees only after they could demonstrate that they had completed the agreed milestone. To ensure each milestone has been completed, the department requires grantees to provide evidence that they have fulfilled the milestone. Types of evidence provided includes photographs and invoices. Where the grantee provides insufficient evidence to the department, the department follows-up with the grantee to ensure that enough information is provided to justify the milestone payment.

The department also plans to undertake site visits of projects at select milestones and at the completion of most projects. The department has undertaken a risk assessment of each SDG and open round project, and uses this risk assessment to determine the number of milestones for the project, as well as the number of site visits that the department will undertake. Fast-Tracked projects all had PWA providing either project management or assurance and as such oversight is being provided through that mechanism. The milestones and site visits at each level of risk can be seen in Exhibit 15 for SDG and Exhibit 16 for open round.

Exhibit 15: Milestones and site visits for each level of risk - SDG
Risk rating Milestones Site visits
Low Two Zero
Medium Three One
High Four Two
Source: Department of Regional NSW.
 
Exhibit 16: Milestones and site visits for each level of risk - open round
Risk rating Milestones Site visits
Low Three One
Medium Four Two
High Five Three
 Source: Department of Regional NSW.

The department does not monitor quarterly progress for SDG grants

As part of the LER framework, the department reports to the Commonwealth every quarter on the status and financials of each project, including whether there are any risks to project delivery and the mitigations in place for those risks. For projects funded through the Fast-Tracked stream and the open round, the department collects quarterly progress reports from the grantees. These progress reports allow the department to determine if there are project risks, which can then be reported to the Commonwealth. The progress reports also allow the department to determine if a milestone is likely to be met within the next quarter or whether a project variation may be needed.

While the department monitors projects funded through the Fast-Tracked stream and the open round on a quarterly basis, there is no quarterly monitoring of progress for projects funded through the SDG stream. The SDG funding deeds do not include a provision to require quarterly reporting to the department. The department only collects progress reports from grantees when the grantee reports that it has completed a milestone. Quarterly monitoring of the SDG stream would allow the department to determine if projects require corrective action.

Resilience NSW is not collecting quarterly reports for the Fast-Tracked grant it is responsible for administering

One of the projects funded through the Fast-Tracked stream was the rebuilding of three local halls across two LGAs, for a total value of $3 million. RNSW is responsible for managing this grant and entered into funding deeds with the relevant councils. It is not documented why RNSW is responsible for these funding deeds rather than the department, which is the signatory for all of the other Fast-Tracked stream funding deeds. RNSW advised it was due to the responsible RNSW Director having a strong working relationship with the relevant councils.

The funding deeds which RNSW signed with the relevant councils set out a requirement that the councils would report on this project to RNSW every quarter. The second milestone of each of these projects involved the submission of a quarterly report. However, RNSW was unable to provide evidence that it carried out this monitoring of the project. At the time of the audit, no second milestone payment had been made. Undertaking quarterly monitoring would provide RNSW with assurance that the money is being expended for the proper purpose and whether the projects will be completed by the target date.

RNSW and the relevant councils developed project control groups for each project, which allows it to monitor the implementation of the projects. PWA is also represented on these project control groups and provides an advisory role in the implementation of the projects.

RNSW and the department advised that responsibility for this project will be transitioned to the department and it will be monitored on a quarterly basis, in line with the other Fast-Tracked projects.

The department has a consistent approach to validating variations

The department's funding deeds with grantees allow for the variation of contracts at the department's discretion after the grantee has written to the department. It is important for the department to consider the impact of any project variation request on the overall program objectives, because a project which costs more than was originally planned or which takes additional time may put at risk the objectives of the BLER program. To ensure that requests for variation are handled consistently and appropriately, the department's Grants Management Office (GMO) has developed a process document which applies to variation requests across the BLER program.

For the grants reviewed as part of this audit, the GMO applied this variation process consistently and has documented the outcomes. Larger variations are reviewed at a higher level of delegation and sign-off. To determine whether a variation is accepted, the GMO considers the following factors:

  • consistency with BLER program objectives
  • delivery within the timeframes of the BLER program
  • eligibility under the BLER program guidelines
  • financial viability to deliver within the requested budget.

The department is preparing multiple evaluations, but it has delayed its process evaluation

When developing round one of the BLER program, the department developed an evaluation plan. A total of $1.1 million has been reserved for conducting process, outcome, and economic evaluations of the BLER program and two other bushfire recovery grant programs.

To assist with evaluating program outcomes and economic impact, the department is planning a post-completion survey in 2023–24. This timeline will allow most projects to be completed and enough time for project outcomes to be realised. The department advised that the data collected through this survey would allow the department to determine whether the BLER program has achieved its objectives, as it includes information such as the number of jobs created through each project.

The process evaluation was initially planned for March to June 2021. This would have aligned with the announcement of the open round funding and would have allowed for the learnings from rounds one and two of the BLER program to be applied to the development of round three. However, the department did not conduct this evaluation in a timely way. The department advised that this was because funding deed negotiations were still ongoing, and the department was waiting for 50% of funding deeds to be signed. Given this, the department was not in a position to commence its process evaluation. In December 2021, the department revised its evaluation plan and advised that it commenced its process evaluation in April 2022. It is unlikely that this will allow time for the department to apply learnings to round three, which is currently underway.

Appendix one – Responses from agencies

Appendix two – BLER program distribution

Appendix three – About the audit

Appendix four – Performance auditing

 

Copyright notice

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

 

Parliamentary reference - Report number #373 - released 2 February 2023