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Published

Actions for Local Government 2023

Local Government 2023

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

What this report is about

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

Findings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendations

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

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

To improve internal controls, councils should:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Margaret Crawford PSM
Auditor-General for New South Wales

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appendix two – NSW Crown Solicitor’s advice

Appendix three – Status of previous recommendations

Appendix four – Status of audits

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

 

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

Published

Actions for Regional NSW 2023

Regional NSW 2023

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

What this report is about

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

What we found

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

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

What the key issues were

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

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

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

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

What we recommended

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

Portfolio agencies should:

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

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

  • financial reporting
  • audit observations.

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

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

Section highlights

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

 

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

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

Section highlights

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

 

Appendix one – Misstatements in financial statements submitted for audit

Appendix two – Early close procedures

Appendix three – Timeliness of financial reporting

Appendix four – Financial data

 

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

Published

Actions for Premier and Cabinet 2023

Premier and Cabinet 2023

Premier and Cabinet
Whole of Government
Asset valuation
Compliance
Cyber security
Financial reporting
Fraud
Information technology
Procurement
Regulation
Risk
Workforce and capability

What this report is about

Results of the Premier and Cabinet portfolio of agencies' financial statement audits for the year ended 30 June 2023.

What we found

Unqualified audit opinions were issued for all Premier and Cabinet portfolio agencies.

What the key issues were

The Administrative Arrangements Orders, effective 1 July 2023, changed the name of the Department of Premier and Cabinet to the Premier's Department and transferred parts of Department of Premier and Cabinet to The Cabinet Office.

The number of monetary misstatements identified in our audits decreased from 15 in 2021–22 to 12 in 2022–23.

The total number of management letter findings across the portfolio of agencies increased from ten in 2021–22 to 20 in 2022–23.

Thirty per cent of all issues were repeat issues. The most common repeat issues related to deficiencies in controls over financial reporting.

What we recommended

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 Office management letters.

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

Section highlights

  • Unqualified audit opinions were issued on all the portfolio agencies 2022–23 financial statements.
  • The total number of errors (including corrected and uncorrected) in the financial statements decreased compared to the prior year. 

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 Premier and Cabinet portfolio.

Section highlights

  • The 2022–23 audits identified eight moderate risk issues across the portfolio of agencies. Of these, two were repeat issues, and related to password and security configuration and management of excessive annual leave.
  • The total number of findings increased from ten to 20, which mainly related to deficiencies in controls over financial reporting and governance and oversight.
  • The most common repeat issues related to weaknesses in controls over financial reporting.

Appendix one – Early close procedures

 

© 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 Internal controls and governance 2022

Internal controls and governance 2022

Whole of Government
Compliance
Cyber security
Financial reporting
Fraud
Information technology
Internal controls and governance
Procurement
Risk

What the report is about

This report analyses the internal controls and governance of the 25 largest agencies in the NSW public sector, excluding state-owned corporations and public financial corporations, for the year ended 30 June 2022.

What we found

Internal control trends

The proportion of control deficiencies identified as high-risk this year increased to 8.2% (5.9% in 2020–21). Sixteen of the 23 high-risk findings related to financial controls while seven related to IT controls.

Repeat findings of control deficiencies now represent 48% of all findings (47% in 2020–21).

Information technology

There continues to be a high number of deficiencies relating to IT general controls, particularly around user access reviews, which affected 56% of agencies.

Cyber security

Agencies' self-assessed maturity levels against the NSW Cyber Security Policy mandatory requirements are lower than target levels. Overall, maturity levels against the Australian Cyber Security Centre's Essential Eight controls have not improved since last year.

Management of cyber risks relating to third party IT service providers should be improved. IT service providers may pose risks to the agency if the provider's cyber security controls have weaknesses.

Consultants and contractors

Agencies risk over-reliance on the same consultants and contractors. A quarter of agencies have re-engaged the same contractor over the past five years.

Employment screening Twenty-four per cent of agencies have not complied with the employment screening requirements of the Government Sector Employment Act 2013 with regard to citizenship or residency. Screening and induction practices for non-permanent workers are often less stringent than for permanent employees. This can pose increased risks to an entity of not detecting applicants with false credentials or a history of corrupt conduct.

Contract management

Half of all agencies' procurement contract registers are incomplete, which is non-compliant with the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009.

What we recommended

Agencies should:

  • prioritise actions to address repeat control deficiencies
  • prioritise improvements to their cyber security and resilience
  • reinforce mandatory cyber training to all staff and improve completion rates
  • ensure that contractor engagements that have been renewed over multiple years are periodically reassessed against the market.

Internal controls are processes, policies and procedures that help agencies to:

  • operate effectively and efficiently
  • produce reliable financial reports
  • comply with laws and regulations
  • support ethical government.

This chapter outlines the overall trends for agency controls and governance issues, including the number of audit findings, the degree of risk those deficiencies pose to the agency, and a summary of the most common deficiencies we found across agencies. The rest of this report presents this year's controls and governance findings in more detail.

For consistency and comparability, we have adjusted the 2021 results to incorporate additional audit findings that were reported after the date of the 'Internal controls and governance 2021' report. Therefore, the 2021 figures will not necessarily align with those reported in our 2021 report.

This section also covers how agencies have complied with TD 21-04 during 2021–22.

Section highlights

We identified 23 high-risk findings, compared to 20 last year, with ten repeated from last year. Sixteen of the 23 findings related to financial controls and seven related to IT controls.

  • The proportion of repeat deficiencies has increased from 47% in 2020–21 to 48% in 2021–22.
  • We identified a low level of compliance with TD 21-04 during 2021–22. Most agencies do not have a policy on gifts of government property, and did not annually certify their register of gifts of government property or attest that the agency has not made any gifts.

This chapter outlines our audit observations, conclusions and recommendations arising from our review of agency controls to manage key financial systems.

Section highlights

  • We continue to see a high number of deficiencies related to IT General Controls, particularly those related to user access administration and privileged user access.
  • We identified deficiencies within IT governance related to IT policies and procedures not effective in managing IT risks. We also identified weaknesses in arrangements with third-party IT service providers which can increase cyber security risk.

This chapter outlines our audit observations, conclusions and recommendations arising from our review of agencies' cyber security planning and governance arrangements.

Section highlights

  • Only 80% of agencies specify how they monitor or ensure that third-party IT service providers comply with the agencies' cyber security policies. IT service providers may pose certain risks to the agency if the provider's cyber security controls have weaknesses.
  • There are inconsistent practices and definitions of cyber security incidents across agencies with respect to maintaining incident registers. Five agencies reported nil incidents in their registers for 2021–22, while other agencies recorded up to 1,913 incidents.
  • Agencies' self-assessed maturity levels against the NSW Cyber Security Policy mandatory requirements are lower than their target levels in at least one requirement. Maturity levels against the Australian Cyber Security Centre's Essential Eight controls have not improved since last year. 

This chapter outlines our audit observations, conclusions and recommendations arising from our review of agencies' practices in engaging external experts, such as consultants and contractors.

Section highlights

  • Agencies risk over-reliance on the same consultants, as some firms continue to be the highest paid consultants at 60% of agencies for at least three of the past five years.
  • Agencies could improve their policies on engaging consultants to include consideration of:
    • probity requirements/conflict of interests
    • rotation of independent consultants from time-to-time
    • additional review where multiple consultants are engaged on the same topic to address the risk of opinion shopping.
  • A quarter of agencies have re-engaged the same contractor over the past five years, with one contractor engaged for 19 years. Long-term engagements without reassessment against market increase the risk of dependency on the contractor.

This chapter outlines our audit observations, conclusions and recommendations arising from our review of agencies' employment screening practices.

Section highlights

  • We identified that most agencies do not include the risk of employment application fraud in their risk registers.
    Post-employment screening has an important role in preventing fraud and managing risk as roles often change and the initial employment screening procedures may not be sufficient to control risk over time. Only 57% of agencies that have an employment screening policy include post-employment screening guidance.
  • Screening and induction practices for non-permanent workers are often less stringent than for permanent employees. There is an increased risk that agencies will:
    • fail to identify an applicant with a past history of corrupt or criminal conduct
    • not identify applications with false credentials
    • hire a worker with unsuitable qualifications, skills or experience.

This chapter outlines our audit observations, conclusions and recommendations arising from our review of agencies' contract management processes.

Section highlights

  • All agencies maintain a central contract register but 40% are incomplete, risking non-compliance with the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (GIPA Act).
  • The contract renewal process could be improved. We identified only 76% of agencies assessed value for money before deciding to renew/extend the contract.
  • Most agencies provide some training and support to staff on procurement procedures. Ongoing training and awareness programs allow agencies to communicate to all staff their responsibilities and obligations in relation to procurement activities. 

Published

Actions for Regional NSW 2022

Regional NSW 2022

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

What the report is about

Result of the Regional NSW cluster agencies' financial statement audits for the year ended 30 June 2022.

What we found

Unmodified audit opinions were issued for Regional NSW cluster agencies. Two audits are ongoing.

What the key issues were

The Department of Regional NSW (the department) and Local Land Services (LLS) accepted changes to their office leasing arrangements managed by Property NSW.

These changes resulted in the collective derecognition of $100.6 million of rights-of-use-assets and $110.4 million of lease liabilities.

In 2021–22, the cluster agencies continued to assist communities in their recovery from recent weather emergencies, including significant flooding in New South Wales.

The Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation was established in May 2022 to rebuild communities in the Lismore and Northern Rivers region impacted by floods.

The number of matters reported to management decreased from 36 in 2020–21 to 14 in 2021–22.

Five moderate risk issues were identified and 14% of reported issues were repeat issues.

One moderate risk issue was a repeat issue related to Local Land Services' annual fair value assessment of the asset improvements on land reserves used for moving stock.

This report provides Parliament and other users of the Regional NSW cluster 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 cluster (the cluster) for 2022.

Section highlights

  • Unqualified audit opinions were issued on the financial statements of cluster agencies. Two audits are ongoing.
  • Cluster agencies completed all required early close procedures.
  • Changes to accommodation arrangements managed by Property NSW on behalf of the department and cluster agencies resulted in the collective derecognition of approximately $100.6 million in right-of-use assets and corresponding lease liabilities totalling $110.4 million from the balance sheets of these agencies.
  • Cluster agencies continue to provide financial assistance to communities affected by natural disasters.

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 cluster.

Section highlights

  • The 2021–22 audits identified five moderate issues across the cluster. One moderate risk issue was a repeat issue related to Local Land Services' annual fair value assessment of the asset improvements on land reserves used for moving stock.
  • Of the four newly identified moderate rated issues, one related to internal control deficiencies and improvements and three related to financial reporting.
  • The number of findings reported to management has decreased from 36 in 2020–21 to 14 in 2021–22.

Published

Actions for Audit Insights 2018-2022

Audit Insights 2018-2022

Community Services
Education
Environment
Finance
Health
Industry
Justice
Local Government
Premier and Cabinet
Planning
Transport
Treasury
Universities
Whole of Government
Asset valuation
Cross-agency collaboration
Compliance
Cyber security
Financial reporting
Fraud
Information technology
Infrastructure
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Procurement
Project management
Regulation
Risk
Service delivery
Shared services and collaboration
Workforce and capability

What the report is about

In this report, we have analysed the key findings and recommendations from our audit reports over the past four years.

This analysis includes financial audits, performance audits, and compliance audits of state and local government entities that were tabled in NSW Parliament between July 2018 and February 2022.

The report is framed by recognition that the past four years have seen significant challenges and emergency events.

The scale of government responses to these events has been wide-ranging, involving emergency response coordination, service delivery, governance and policy.

The report is a resource to support public sector agencies and local government to improve future programs and activities.

What we found

Our analysis of findings and recommendations is structured around six key themes:

  • Integrity and transparency
  • Performance and monitoring
  • Governance and oversight
  • Cyber security and data
  • System planning for disruption
  • Resource management.

The report draws from this analysis to present recommendations for elements of good practice that government agencies should consider in relation to these themes. It also includes relevant examples from recent audit reports.

In this report we particularly call out threats to the integrity of government systems, processes and governance arrangements.

The report highlights the need for balanced advice to government on options and risks, for transparent documentation and reporting of directions and decisions, and for early and open sharing of information with integrity bodies and audit.

A number of the matters highlighted in this report are similar to those described in our previous Insights Report, (Performance Audit Insights: key findings from 2014–2018) specifically in relation to cyber and information security, to performance measurement, reporting and evaluation, and system and workforce planning and capability.

Fast facts

  • 72 audits included in the Audit Insights 2018–2022 analysis
  • 4 years of audits tabled by the Auditor-General for New South Wales
  • 6 key themes for Audit Insights 2018–2022.

picture of Margaret Crawford Auditor-General for New South Wales in black dress with city skyline as backgroundI am pleased to present the Audit Insights 2018–2022 report. This report describes key findings, trends and lessons learned from the last four years of audit. It seeks to inform the New South Wales Parliament of key risks identified and to provide insights and suggestions to the agencies we audit to improve performance across the public sector.

The report is framed by a very clear recognition that governments have been responding to significant events, in number, character and scale, over recent years. Further, it acknowledges that public servants at both state and council levels generally bring their best selves to work and diligently strive to deliver great outcomes for citizens and communities. The role of audit in this context is to provide necessary assurance over government spending, programs and services, and make suggestions for continuous improvement.

A number of the matters highlighted in this report are similar to those described in our previous Insights Report, (Performance Audit Insights: key findings from 2014–2018) specifically in relation to cyber and information security, to performance measurement, reporting and evaluation, and system and workforce planning and capability.

However, in this report we particularly call out threats to the integrity of government systems, processes and governance arrangements. We highlight the need for balanced advice to government on options and risks, for transparent documentation and reporting of directions and decisions, and for early and open sharing of information with integrity bodies and audit. Arguably, these considerations are never more important than in an increasingly complex environment and in the face of significant emergency events and they will be key areas of focus in our future audit program.

While we have acknowledged the challenges of the last few years have required rapid responses to address the short-term impacts of emergency events, there is much to be learned to improve future programs. I trust that the insights developed in this report provide a helpful resource to public sector agencies and local government across New South Wales. I would be pleased to receive any feedback you may wish to offer.

Margaret Crawford
Auditor-General for New South Wales

Integrity and transparency Performance and monitoring Governance and oversight Cyber security and data System planning Resource management
Insufficient documentation of decisions reduces the ability to identify, or rule out, misconduct or corruption. Failure to apply lessons learned risks mistakes being repeated and undermines future decisions on the use of public funds. The control environment should be risk-based and keep pace with changes in the quantum and diversity of agency work. Building effective cyber resilience requires leadership and committed executive management, along with dedicated resourcing to build improvements in cyber security and culture. Priorities to meet forecast demand should incorporate regular assessment of need and any emerging risks or trends. Absence of an overarching strategy to guide decision-making results in project-by-project decisions lacking coordination. Governments must weigh up the cost of reliance on consultants at the expense of internal capability, and actively manage contracts and conflicts of interest.
Government entities should report to the public at both system and project level for transparency and accountability. Government activities benefit from a clear statement of objectives and associated performance measures to support systematic monitoring and reporting on outcomes and impact. Management of risk should include mechanisms to escalate risks, and action plans to mitigate risks with effective controls. In implementing strategies to mitigate cyber risk, agencies must set target cyber maturity levels, and document their acceptance of cyber risks consistent with their risk appetite. Service planning should establish future service offerings and service levels relative to current capacity, address risks to avoid or mitigate disruption of business and service delivery, and coordinate across other relevant plans and stakeholders. Negotiations on outsourced services and major transactions must maintain focus on integrity and seeking value for public funds.
Entities must provide balanced advice to decision-makers on the benefits and risks of investments. Benefits realisation should identify responsibility for benefits management, set baselines and targets for benefits, review during delivery, and evaluate costs and benefits post-delivery. Active review of policies and procedures in line with current business activities supports more effective risk management. Governments hold repositories of valuable data and data capabilities that should be leveraged and shared across government and non-government entities to improve strategic planning and forecasting. Formal structures and systems to facilitate coordination between agencies is critical to more efficient allocation of resources and to facilitate a timely response to unexpected events. Transformation programs can be improved by resourcing a program management office.
Clear guidelines and transparency of decisions are critical in distributing grant funding. Quality assurance should underpin key inputs that support performance monitoring and accounting judgements. Governance arrangements can enable input into key decisions from both government and non-government partners, and those with direct experience of complex issues.     Workforce planning should consider service continuity and ensure that specialist and targeted roles can be resourced and allocated to meet community need.
Governments must ensure timely and complete provision of information to support governance, integrity and audit processes.          
Read more Read more Read more Read more Read more Read more

 

This report brings together a summary of key findings arising from NSW Audit Office reports tabled in the New South Wales Parliament between July 2018 and February 2022. This includes analysis of financial audits, performance audits, and compliance audits tabled over this period.

  • Financial audits provide an independent opinion on the financial statements of NSW Government entities, universities and councils and identify whether they comply with accounting standards, relevant laws, regulations, and government directions.
  • Performance audits determine whether government entities carry out their activities effectively, are doing so economically and efficiently, and in accordance with relevant laws. The activities examined by a performance audit may include a selected program or service, all or part of an entity, or more than one government entity. Performance audits can consider issues which affect the whole state and/or the local government sectors.
  • Compliance audits and other assurance reviews are audits that assess whether specific legislation, directions, and regulations have been adhered to.

This report follows our earlier edition titled 'Performance Audit Insights: key findings from 2014–2018'. That report sought to highlight issues and themes emerging from performance audit findings, and to share lessons common across government. In this report, we have analysed the key findings and recommendations from our reports over the past four years. The full list of reports is included in Appendix 1. The analysis included findings and recommendations from 58 performance audits, as well as selected financial and compliance reports tabled between July 2018 and February 2022. The number of recommendations and key findings made across different areas of activity and the top issues are summarised at Exhibit 1.

The past four years have seen unprecedented challenges and several emergency events, and the scale of government responses to these events has been wide-ranging involving emergency response coordination, service delivery, governance and policy. While these emergencies are having a significant impact today, they are also likely to continue to have an impact into the future. There is much to learn from the response to those events that will help the government sector to prepare for and respond to future disruption. The following chapters bring together our recommendations for core elements of good practice across a number of areas of government activity, along with relevant examples from recent audit reports.

This 'Audit Insights 2018–2022' report does not make comparative analysis of trends in public sector performance since our 2018 Insights report, but instead highlights areas where government continues to face challenges, as well as new issues that our audits have identified since our 2018 report. We will continue to use the findings of our Insights analysis to shape our future audit priorities, in line with our purpose to help Parliament hold government accountable for its use of public resources in New South Wales.

Appendix one – Included reports, 2018–2022

Appendix two – About this report

 

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.

Planned

Actions for Water management and regulation

Water management and regulation

Planning
Environment
Compliance
Fraud
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Regulation
Service delivery

Water regulation aims to achieve sustainable environmental, economic and social outcomes from the management of water resources, consistent with the Water Management Act 2000. Following recommendations from reviews into water theft, reforms were made to strengthen water regulation, compliance and enforcement – including the establishment of the Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) in 2018. The Department of Planning and Environment shares responsibility for issuing water access licences and approvals with the state-owned corporation, WaterNSW.

This audit could assess how effectively the Department, WaterNSW and NRAR are undertaking relevant planning, licensing and regulatory functions to ensure secure, sustainable and transparent water sharing in New South Wales. This topic could also consider how effectively the Department has implemented reforms to enhance water metering technology and rules, and the efficacy of NRAR’s activities to support this program.

Published

Actions for Grants administration for disaster relief

Grants administration for disaster relief

Treasury
Finance
Compliance
Fraud
Management and administration
Project management

What the report is about

The report examined whether NSW Treasury, Service NSW and the Department of Customer Service effectively administered grants programs funded under the $750 million Small Business Support Fund, including:

  • $10,000 Small Business Support Grant
  • $3,000 Small Business Recovery Grant.

What we found

The agencies effectively implemented the grants within required timeframes, reflecting the NSW Government’s decision to deliver urgent financial support to small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

NSW Treasury met urgent timeframes to design the grants and Service NSW made timely payments in line with the grants' objectives and eligibility criteria.

Service NSW and the Department of Customer Service strengthened processes to detect and minimise fraud in response to identified external fraud risks, and to investigate suspected fraudulent applications.

Fraud security checks and investigations are ongoing, and the agencies will not know the full extent of fraud across the grants until these processes have been completed.

The agencies regularly monitored and reported on the timeliness of payments to small business applicants but have not yet measured all benefits of the grants programs.

The $10,000 Support Grant and the $3,000 Recovery Grant have provided around $630 million in one off grant payments to eligible small businesses.

What we recommended

NSW Treasury should finalise and implement an evaluation of both grants programs, including obtaining feedback from businesses.

Service NSW should develop a framework that documents expected controls for how it administers grants, including business processes, fraud control and governance and probity requirements.

Service NSW should publish information on all grants programs, including grants distribution and uptake.

The Department of Customer Service should ensure its processes for managing conflicts of interest meets its policy requirements.

Upcoming performance audit

The Audit Office is conducting a further performance audit into grants administration for disaster relief focussing on bushfire grants. This is planned to complete in 2021-22.

Fast facts

Small Business Support Fund
  • $630m Grant payments made to small businesses under two grants administered
  • Over 52,500 Applications received a $10,000 Grant payment
  • Over 23,000 Businesses paid both $10,000 Support Grant and $3,000 Recovery Grant
  • 36,700 Applications received a $3,000 grant payment
Grant program administration
  • 11 Days taken to deliver the $10,000 Small Business Support Grant application website
  • 26 Days taken to deliver the $3,000 Small Business Recovery Grant application website

Further information

Please contact Ian Goodwin, Deputy Auditor-General on 9275 7347 or by email.

The NSW Government responded to the partial shutdown of the NSW economy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 by, among other measures, announcing on 3 April 2020 that it would place $750 million into the Small Business Support Fund (the Fund).

Under the Fund, the NSW Government would pay one-off grants of up to $10,000 to small business impacted by the shutdown. The objectives of the $10,000 Small Business Support Grant ($10,000 Support Grant) were to:

  • ease the pressure on small businesses that have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic
  • support the ongoing operations of small businesses highly impacted by the COVID-19 restrictions
  • deliver cash-flow into small businesses as soon as possible so that small businesses could meet pressing financial needs.

Grant applications were assessed against eligibility criteria that were determined by the NSW Government. The eligibility criteria for the $10,000 Support Grant required an employing small business to demonstrate it was significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic by self-declaring or demonstrating a significant decline of 75 per cent or more in turnover compared to 2019. Documentation requirements were relaxed for small businesses within highly impacted industries.

In June 2020, the NSW Government announced a second round of one-off grants of up to $3,000 to small businesses that were highly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic ($3,000 Recovery Grant). The objective of the $3,000 Recovery Grant was to help small businesses in 'highly impacted industries' — those directly impacted by the restrictions and closures put in place under the Public Health Orders — to meet the costs of safely reopening or scaling up operations.

The eligibility criteria for the $3,000 Recovery Grant required that a small business be in a highly impacted industry, demonstrate that it was significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic by declaring a significant decline in turnover, and had costs associated with reopening under the 'COVID-Safe' requirements.

NSW Treasury and Service NSW implemented both grants on behalf of the NSW Government. The process of applying for a grant was intended to be quick and easy, with Service NSW using automated assessments and simple online application forms to process applications. Applicants applied for the $10,000 Support Grant through the Service NSW website between 14 April 2020 to 30 June 2020 and applied for the $3,000 Small Business Recovery Grant between 1 July 2020 and 31 August 2020.

At May 2021, around $520 million has been paid to over 52,500 grant applicants under the $10,000 Support Grant and around $109 million had been paid to around 36,700 grant applicants under the $3,000 Recovery Grant.

The Audit Office plans to undertake a performance audit into grants administration for disaster relief focussing on bushfire grants in 2021–22.

This audit assessed whether the grants funded under the $750 million Small Business Support Fund were effectively administered and implemented to provide disaster relief. It addressed the following questions:

  • Were funded grants programs planned, designed and targeted effectively?
  • Were funded grants programs implemented in line with the objectives and criteria and delivery requirements?
  • Have agencies established measures to monitor intended benefits and outcomes?

This audit did not seek to assess the effectiveness of any other grant programs or stimulus measures. It also did not seek to assess the impact of the funding on applicants, or the future prospects of small businesses that received support.

Conclusion

NSW Treasury and Service NSW effectively implemented two grants within required timeframes reflecting the NSW Government's decision to deliver urgent financial support to small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The $10,000 Support Grant and the $3,000 Recovery Grant have provided around $630 million in one-off grant payments to eligible small businesses.
NSW Treasury met urgent timeframes to design the grants and Service NSW made timely payments in line with the grants' objectives and eligibility criteria.

NSW Treasury met urgent timeframes to provide advice to the NSW Government on the grant design, proposed delivery partner, expected numbers of eligible businesses and the suitability of the proposed grant payment amount within the required timeframes. This was achieved within one day for the $10,000 Support Grant and within four days for the $3,000 Support Grant. In the context of the complex and changing pandemic and economic conditions between March and July 2020, NSW Treasury's advice to government outlined the risk, feasibility, expected demand estimates and assumptions for the grants.

NSW Treasury's demand projections were limited by uncertainty as to the pandemic's economic impact. Estimated demand for the grants was not met, resulting in around $120 million from the Small Business Support Fund remaining unspent.

Service NSW met urgent timeframes to stand-up both grants: 11 days for the $10,000 Support Grant and 26 days for the $3,000 Recovery Grant. It met agreed delivery requirements and made timely payments to small businesses in line with the grants' objectives and eligibility criteria. Over 65,000 businesses have received a payment under either grant, and over 23,000 businesses received both grants.

Gaps in project and risk management processes were expected given the tight timeframe to implement the grants.

The tight timeframe in which the agencies had to implement the grants contributed to gaps in project and risk management. The agencies advised that compromises were understood by both parties and were a necessary trade-off to ensure payments were made quickly.

Service NSW and the Department of Customer Service have acted to strengthen their processes to detect and minimise fraud in response to identified external fraud risks and to investigate suspected fraudulent applications since the grants commenced. Service NSW intends to further enhance fraud controls for grants applications and payments for future grants by implementing a fraud control framework by December 2021.

The agencies regularly monitored and reported on the timeliness of payments to small business applicants but have not yet measured all benefits of the grants programs.

Service NSW and NSW Treasury established processes to monitor and report on the timeliness of payments to grant applicants.

NSW Treasury has not yet measured all intended impacts of the grants, nor undertaken processes to obtain detailed feedback from grant recipients. Without these measures, there is limited insight into the extent to which the grants helped to support small businesses or ability to capture lessons which could be applied in future grants programs. NSW Treasury advises that an evaluation will commence from mid-2021.

1. Key findings

Around $630 million in timely one-off grant payments have been made to small businesses

Service NSW and NSW Treasury have paid around $630 million in one-off grant payments to small businesses via two grants administered under the $750 million Small Business Support Fund. At May 2021:

  • around $520 million has been paid to over 52,500 grant applications received for the $10,000 Small Business Support Grant ($10,000 Support Grant)
  • around $109 million has been paid to 36,700 grant applications received for the $3,000 Small Business Recovery Grant ($3,000 Recovery Grant).

Across both grants, over 65,000 small businesses received a payment across either grant, and over 23,000 businesses received payments under both grants.

NSW Treasury advise that, while no data was collected on the time to pay applicants for the $10,000 Support Grant, from its monitoring of the grants' outputs it was satisfied that payment timeframes met its expectations. Service NSW met its targeted time to pay applicants with payments made within ten days for the $3,000 Recovery Grant.

Funds for both grants were not fully spent due to limitations in data and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic's impact. At May 2021, the final demand for the $10,000 Support Grant was around 30 per cent less than initially anticipated and the final demand for the $3,000 Recovery Grant was around 40 per cent less than initially anticipated.

NSW Treasury developed proposals establishing high level design and delivery expectations within rapid timeframes

NSW Treasury put forward proposals to the NSW Government for the two grants administered under the $750 million Small Business Support Fund. It met rapid timeframes for producing this advice: within one day for the $10,000 Support Grant and within four days for the $3,000 Recovery Grant. NSW Treasury's advice to the NSW Government on how to best target the total funding, eligibility criteria and the feasibility of delivering the grants through Service NSW was based on comparable grants programs – including the $10,000 Small Business Bushfire Support Grant – which at that time were ongoing.

The proposals established, at a high-level, the rationale for the grants, expected financial costs, risks and analysis on budget impacts, and confirmation that Service NSW could deliver the grants applications platform. NSW Treasury's demand projections were uncertain due to limited data in the early stages of the pandemic regarding potential economic impact.

Given the tight timeframes, the proposals did not fully consider all planning and design aspects for both grants. For example, there was minimal identification of the costs and benefits of the programs, and a lack of detailed design and delivery requirements. The proposals outlined that arrangements to finalise the risk management, controls, and auditing plan would be agreed by Service NSW and NSW Treasury before implementation.

In future circumstances where urgent advice on program design is required, NSW Treasury could set clearer expectations for the delivery agency, including fully considering costs, benefits and delivery requirements that could be carried through to project governance and implementation.

Service NSW implemented both grants in line with delivery expectations

Service NSW met urgent timeframes to stand-up both grants: 11 days for the $10,000 Support Grant and 26 days for the $3,000 Recovery Grant. Delivery expectations for each grant were established under a grant project agreement (grant agreement). Service NSW delivered the online application platform, assessment of applications, payments and reporting of the grants' uptake as per the grant agreements.

The urgent timeframes to deliver the grants contributed to gaps in Service NSW's project and risk management processes throughout the lifecycle of both grants. For example, the requirement to meet pressing timeframes for the $10,000 Support Grant launch meant agencies had reduced time to achieve sign-off on key documentation. As a result, important documents and processes – including the grant agreement, risk documentation and key business process and quality assurance processes – were not finalised ahead of launch.

Quality assurance and compliance processes for detecting fraud were not settled until after the conclusion of the applications for the $10,000 Support Grant, and were not completed until late 2020. Some project documents, including risk registers, communication plans and project briefs are still not finalised.

The longer timeframe to develop the $3,000 Recovery Grant meant that agencies were able to build on their understanding of the implementation requirements from the $10,000 Support Grant, and better document these expectations and understanding while ensuring that key documents and sign-offs were in place prior to launch.

Service NSW tightened its risk management and controls in response to evidence of fraudulent applications

In May 2020, Service NSW and the Department of Customer Service (DCS) were alerted to suspected fraudulent activity within grants administered by Service NSW. Initially, Service NSW anticipated that up to $8.8 million of the $10,000 Support Grant was at risk of exposure to fraudulent applications. However, Service NSW reported that, at April 2021, $1.9 million for the $10,000 Support Grant and $254,000 for the $3,000 Recovery Grant from paid applications were at risk of fraud exposure.

Following an internal review of the potential exposure to fraudulent or ineligible applications, Service NSW implemented additional automated security checks on applications, increased manual assessments of grant applications, established a dedicated taskforce for grants administration and engaged a unit within DCS to manage high-risk investigations.

Service NSW and DCS's increased governance and oversight has resulted in an established case management function, increased referrals to law enforcement, prioritised investigations of suspicious applications and the development of a 'Fraud Control Framework' aimed at addressing external fraud risks. Given Service NSW had limited experience in these processes in context of administering grant payments, such actions were an appropriate response.

Security checks and investigations of suspicious applications are ongoing. Service NSW will not know the full extent of fraud across the grants until these processes have been fully completed.

Service NSW and Department of Customer Service can improve how conflicts of interest are managed for future programs

Compliance with agency policies and processes to manage conflicts of interest and financial subdelegations demonstrates that investment decisions are being made by appropriately skilled and experienced staff, allowing agencies to operate efficiently, and reducing the risk of internal fraud.

DCS was unable to produce employee conflicts of interest declarations for the $10,000 Support Grant. Therefore, it is not known how many employees had completed conflicts of interest declarations for this round.

DCS provided information on conflicts of interest declarations for the $3,000 Recovery Grant. Twenty-nine per cent of declarations provided for employees undertaking grant assessments for the $3,000 Recovery Grant were incomplete at March 2021, and a further nine per cent were not finalised even though they indicated a real, potential or perceived conflict.

For future grants programs, ensuring compliance with conflicts of interest policies would help DCS and Service NSW to have greater confidence that conflicts of interest are appropriately identified and managed.

NSW Treasury has not yet measured all benefits or outcomes of the grants

In April 2021, NSW Treasury updated its evaluation plan for the $10,000 Support Grant and $3,000 Recovery Grant in support of an economic evaluation to commence from mid-2021. The updated evaluation plan outlines inputs, activities, and outputs as well as immediate, short term and medium term outcomes for both grants.

The evaluation will consider the extent to which both grants achieved their intended outcomes, and whether the economic benefits exceeded the costs to help inform decisions about the nature and design of any future small business support programs. This will complement, and feed into a broader review of all NSW Government COVID-19 stimulus measures.

Service NSW rapidly developed an approach to administer the grants

Over recent disasters, such as the 2019–20 bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic, Service NSW has been responsible for administering grant programs on behalf of other government agencies.

Service NSW implemented both grants under its Project Management Framework and under each grant agreement with NSW Treasury as it does not have its own grants administration framework. To address the risks that emerged during delivery, Service NSW developed an approach to standardise and monitor the administration of the grants while they were being implemented.

Service NSW now has an opportunity to establish a grants administration framework, based on the processes, lessons and outcomes captured under the grants administration taskforce and in developing its fraud control framework. Embedding these processes into business as usual for grants administration will enable Service NSW to have a consistent set of expectations for controls, business processes and governance and probity requirements for future grants it implements.

2. Recommendations

By December 2021, NSW Treasury should:

1. finalise and implement an evaluation of the $10,000 Support Grant and $3,000 Recovery Grant, including obtaining direct feedback from businesses on how grant funds achieved the grant objectives.

By December 2021, Service NSW should:

2. develop a grants administration framework, which documents expected controls – including fraud controls – business processes and governance and probity requirements

3. publish information on all grants programs, including grants distribution and uptake.

By December 2021, the Department of Customer Service should:

4. ensure its process for managing conflicts of interest meets policy requirements by:

  • ensuring employees promptly declare any real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest
  • annually producing a list of conflicts of interest for records retention purposes
  • requiring a separate register of conflicts of interest declarations where a grant program is deemed as high risk.

3. Lessons for grants administered within urgent timeframes

The two grants this audit examined were administered within a context of urgent timeframes, and increased complexity and uncertainty about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The following lessons are shared to assist sponsor and delivery agencies in administering future grants where rapid implementation is required.

Sponsor agencies should consider the following lessons:

1. develop an approach to define and measure benefits for rapidly developed programs and projects where a full business case and cost-benefit analysis is not feasible

2. establish common processes and expectations for co-administered grants:

  • periodically assure agencies' capability to deliver grants programs
  • agree and establish risk appetite statements with administering agencies
  • clearly establish expected performance levels and targets under any agreement

3. review the processes and outcomes of rapidly developed programs, capture lessons learned, and apply these in planning and delivering future programs.

Delivery agencies should consider the following lessons:

1. risk management and risk appetite:

  • perform robust assessment procedures to ensure risks associated with delivery of the project are identified
  • ensure the controls implemented adequately address identified risks
  • agree and document the acceptable risk appetite at the outset
  • review risk management processes after the grants are issued when unable to finalise risk management processes ahead of launch

2. grant agreements between NSW public sector agencies:

  • ensure agreements are finalised in a timely manner
  • ensure agreements clearly outline:
    • roles and responsibilities of both parties,
    • changes in scope of services provided
    • fees and charges applicable

3. frameworks for grants administration:

  • ensure that there is a common set of expectations in place to guide grants administration including standard controls and processes for managing risk, capturing lessons learned and reporting on outcomes.

Appendix one – Response from agencies

Appendix two – Summary of other COVID‑19 Stimulus and Support for small businesses in NSW in April 2020

Appendix three – Public Health Orders

Appendix four – Highly impacted industries

Appendix five – About the audit

Appendix six – 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 #352 - released (24 June 2021).

 

Published

Actions for Report on Local Government 2020

Report on Local Government 2020

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

What the report is about

Results of the local government sector council financial statement audits for the year ended 30 June 2020.

What we found

Unqualified audit opinions were issued for 127 councils, 9 county councils and 13 joint organisation audits in 2019–20. A qualified audit opinion was issued for Central Coast Council.

Councils were impacted by recent emergency events, including bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic. The financial implications from these events varied across councils. Councils adapted systems, processes and controls to enable staff to work flexibly.

What the key issues were

There were 1,435 findings reported to councils in audit management letters.

One extreme risk finding was identified related to Central Coast Council’s use of restricted funds for general purposes.

Fifty-three high risk matters were identified across the sector:

  • 21 high risk matters relating to asset management
  • 14 high risk matters relating to information technology
  • 7 high risk matters relating to financial reporting
  • 4 high risk matters to council governance procedures
  • 3 high risk matters relating to financial accounting
  • 3 high risk matters relating to purchasing and payables
  • 1 high risk matter relating to cash and banking.

More can be done to reduce the number of errors identified in financial reports. 61 councils required material adjustments to correct errors in previous audited financial statements.

Fast facts

  • 150 councils and joint organisations in the sector
  • 99% unqualified audit opinions issued for the 30 June 2020 financial statements
  • 490 monetary misstatements were reported in 2019-20
  • 61 prior period errors reported
  • 53 high risk management letters findings identified
  • 49% of reported issues were repeat issues

Rural fire fighting equipment

Sixty-eight councils did not record rural fire fighting equipment worth $119 million in their financial statements.

The NSW Government has confirmed these assets are not controlled by the NSW Rural Fire Service and are not recognised in the financial records of the NSW Government.

What we recommended

The Office of Local Government should communicate the State's view that rural firefighting equipment is controlled by councils in the local government sector, and therefore this equipment should be properly recorded in their financial statements.

Central Coast Council

A qualified opinion was issued for Central Coast Council (the Council) relating to two matters.

Council did not conduct the required revaluation to support the valuation of roads.

Council also disclosed a prior period error relating to restrictions of monies collected for their water, sewer, and drainage operations, which, based on the NSW Crown Solicitor’s advice, should be considered a change in accounting policy.

What we recommended

The Office of Local Government should clarify the legal framework relating to restrictions of water, sewerage and drainage funds (restricted reserves) by either seeking an amendment to the relevant legislation or by issuing a policy instrument to remove ambiguity from the current framework.

Key financial information

In 2019-20, councils:

  • collected $7.3 billion rates and annual charges
  • received $4.7 billion grants and contributions 
  • incurred $4.8 billion of employee benefits and on-costs
  • held $14.2 billion of cash and investments
  • managed $160.0 billion of infrastructure, property, plant and equipment
  • entered into $3.3 billion of borrowings.

Further information

Please contact Ian Goodwin, Deputy Auditor-General on 9275 7347 or by email.

 

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

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

Highlights

  • The Office of Local Government within the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (OLG) extended the statutory deadline for councils and joint organisations to lodge their audited financial statements by an additional month to 30 November 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • One hundred and thirty-three councils and joint organisations (2019: 117) lodged audited financial statements with the OLG by the revised statutory deadline of 30 November (2019: 30 October). Sixteen (2019: 30) councils received extensions to submit audited financial statements to OLG. Canberra Region Joint Organisation did not submit their audited financial statements by the statutory deadline and did not formally apply for extension before the deadline lapsed.
  • Unqualified audit opinions were issued for 127 councils, nine county councils and 13 joint organisation audits in 2019–20. A qualified audit opinion was issued for Central Coast Council.
  • Unqualified audit opinions were issued for the 2018–19 financial audits of Hilltops, MidCoast and Murrumbidgee Councils, which were not completed at the time of tabling the 'Local Government 2019' report in Parliament.
  • The total number and dollar value of corrected and uncorrected financial statement errors increased compared with the prior year.
  • Sixty-eight councils did not record rural fire fighting equipment in their financial statements worth $119 million. The NSW Government has confirmed these assets are not controlled by the NSW Rural Fire Service and are not recognised in the financial records of the NSW Government.
  • The total number of prior period financial statement errors increased from 59 in the prior year to 61, but the total dollar value of the errors decreased from $1,272 million to $813 million.
  • Councils implemented three new accounting standards in 2019–20 relating to revenue and leases.

 

Recent emergency events, including drought, bushfires, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted councils.

This chapter will provide insights into how these events have impacted councils, including:

  • financial implications of the emergency events
  • changes to councils' operating models, processes and controls
  • accessibility to technology and the maturity of councils' systems and controls to prevent unauthorised and fraudulent access to data
  • receipt and delivery of stimulus packages or programs at short notice.

Highlights

  • All councils were impacted by the recent emergency events.
  • Councils changed governance, policies, systems and processes to respond to the recent emergency events.
  • Challenges were experienced adapting Information Technology (IT) infrastructure and controls to enable staff to work from home.
  • Sixty-five per cent of councils updated business continuity plans and 42 per cent updated disaster recovery plans as a response to recent emergency events.
  • Councils received various forms of assistance from government relating to the recent emergencies, which was used to provide support to local communities.

Recent emergency events significantly impacted councils

Recent emergencies, including drought, bushfires, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic have brought particular challenges for councils and their communities.

 

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

This chapter outlines the overall trends in governance and internal control findings across councils, county councils and joint organisations in 2019–20. It also includes the findings reported in the 2018–19 audits of Hilltops, MidCoast and Murrumbidgee councils as these audits were finalised after the Report on Local Government 2019 was published.

Financial audits focus on key governance matters and internal controls supporting the preparation of councils' financial statements. Audit findings are reported to management and those charged with governance through audit management letters.

Highlights

  • Total number of findings reported in audit management letters decreased from 1,985 in 2018–19 to 1,435 in 2019–20.
  • One extreme risk finding was identified in 2019–20 (2018–19: nil).
  • Total number of high-risk findings decreased from 82 in 2018–19 to 53 in 2019–20. Thirty per cent of the high-risk findings identified in 2018–19 were reported as high-risk findings in 2019–20.
  • Forty-nine per cent of findings reported in audit management letters were repeat or partial repeat findings.
  • Governance, asset management and information technology (IT) comprise over 61 per cent of findings and continue to be key areas requiring improvement.
  • Fifty-six councils could strengthen their policies, processes and controls around fraud prevention and legislative compliance.
  • Sixty-eight councils had deficiencies in their processes to revalue infrastructure assets.
  • Fifty-eight councils have yet to implement basic governance and internal controls to manage cybersecurity.
  • Sixty-four councils should formalise and periodically review their IT policies and procedures.

Total number of findings reported in audit management letters decreased

In 2019–20, 1,435 findings were reported in audit management letters (2018–19: 1,985 findings). An extreme risk finding was also identified this year related to Central Coast Council's use of restricted funds. The total number of high-risk findings decreased to 53 (2018–19: 82 high-risk findings).

Findings are classified as new, repeat or ongoing findings, based on:

  • new findings were first reported in 2019–20 audits
  • repeat findings were first reported in prior year audits, but remain unresolved in 2019–20
  • ongoing findings were first reported in prior year audits, but the action due dates to address the findings are after 2019–20.

Findings are categorised as governance, financial reporting, financial accounting, asset management, purchases and payables, payroll, cash and banking, revenue and receivables, or information technology. The high-risk and common findings across these areas are explored further in this chapter.

Audit Office’s work plan for 2020–21 onwards

Focus on local council's response and recovery from recent emergencies

Local councils and their communities will continue to experience the effects of recent emergency events, including the bushfires, floods and the COVID 19 pandemic for some time. The full extent of some of these events remain unclear and will continue to have an impact into the future. The recovery is likely to take many years.

The Office of Local Government (OLG) within the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment is working with other state agencies to assist local councils and their communities to recover from these unprecedented events.

These events have created additional risks and challenges, and changed the way that councils deliver their services.

We will take a phased approach to ensure our financial and performance audits address the following elements of the emergencies and the Local Government's responses:

  • local councils' preparedness for emergencies
  • its initial responses to support people and communities impacted by the 2019–20 bushfires and floods, and COVID-19
  • the governance and oversight risks that arise from the need for quick decision making and responsiveness to emergencies
  • the effectiveness and robustness of processes to direct resources toward recovery efforts and ensure good governance and transparency in doing so
  • the mid to long-term impact of government responses to the natural disasters and COVID-19
  • whether government investment has achieved desired outcomes.

Planned financial audit focus areas in Local Government

During 2020–21, the financial audits will focus on the following key areas:

  • cybersecurity, including:
    • cybersecurity framework, policies and procedures
    • assessing the controls management has to address the risk of cybersecurity incidents
    • whether cybersecurity risks represent a risk of material misstatement to council's financial statements
  • budget management
  • financial sustainability
  • quality and timeliness of financial reporting
  • infrastructure, property, plant and equipment
  • information technology general controls.

Audit, risk and improvement committees

All councils are required to have an audit, risk and improvement committee by March 2022

The requirement for all councils to establish an audit, risk and improvement committee was deferred by 12 months to March 2022 due to the COVID 19 pandemic.

Audit, risk and improvement committees are an important contributor to good governance. They help councils to understand strategic risks and how they can mitigate them. An effective committee helps councils to build community confidence, meet legislative and other requirements and meet standards of probity, accountability and transparency.

Local Government elections

Local Government elections were postponed for one year due to the COVID 19 pandemic

The Local Government elections were deferred for one year due to the COVID 19 pandemic and will now be held on 4 September 2021. As the statutory deadline for the 2020–21 financial statements is 30 October 2021, some of the newly elected councillors will be required to endorse them.

Implementation of AASB 1059

Accounting standards implementation continue next year

AASB 1059 is effective for councils for the 2020–21 financial year.

A service concession arrangement typically involves a private sector operator that is involved with designing, constructing or upgrading assets used to provide public services. They then operate and maintain those assets for a specified period of time and is compensated by the public sector entity in return. Examples of potential service concession arrangements impacting councils include roads, community housing, childcare services and nursing homes.

AASB 1059 may result in councils recognising more service concession assets and liabilities in their financial statements.

 

Appendix one – Response from the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment

Appendix two – NSW Crown Solicitor’s advice

Appendix three – Status of 2019 recommendations

Appendix four – Status of audits

 

© 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 Acquisition of 4–6 Grand Avenue, Camellia

Acquisition of 4–6 Grand Avenue, Camellia

Transport
Asset valuation
Compliance
Fraud
Infrastructure
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Procurement
Risk

The Auditor-General for New South Wales, Margaret Crawford, has today released a report on Transport for NSW’s (TfNSW) acquisition of 4–6 Grand Avenue in Camellia.

This audit, which was requested on 17 November 2020 by the Hon. Andrew Constance MP, the Minister for Transport and Roads, examined:

  • whether TfNSW conducted an effective process to purchase 4–6 Grand Avenue, Camellia
  • whether TfNSW has effective processes and procedures to identify and acquire property required to deliver the NSW Government’s major infrastructure projects.

The audit found that TfNSW conducted an ineffective process when it purchased 4–6 Grand Avenue, Camellia. The audit also found that TfNSW’s internal policies and procedures to guide the transaction were, and continue to be, insufficient.

The Auditor-General has made seven recommendations to address the issues identified in the report.

On 17 November 2020, the Hon. Andrew Constance MP, the Minister for Transport and Roads, requested this audit under section 27B(3)(c) of the Public Finance and Audit Act 1983.

On 15 June 2016, Transport for New South Wales (TfNSW) acquired 6.3 hectares of land at 4–6 Grand Avenue, Camellia, by agreement from Grand 4 Investments Pty Ltd. Grand 4 Investments was a business entity established by the owners of Billbergia Pty Ltd, a property development and investment company.

TfNSW paid Grand 4 Investments $53.5 million and assumed liability for addressing environmental issues and contamination associated with the site. This took place seven months after the vendor acquired the land as part of a competitive Expression of Interest process, in which TfNSW also participated, for $38.15 million.

TfNSW is the NSW Government agency responsible for most major transport infrastructure projects in New South Wales. TfNSW acquired the Camellia site for use as a stabling and maintenance depot to support the Parramatta Light Rail (PLR) project.

Consistent with the minister’s request, this audit assessed:

  • whether TfNSW conducted an effective process to purchase 4–6 Grand Avenue, Camellia
  • whether TfNSW has effective processes and procedures to identify and acquire property required to deliver the NSW Government’s major infrastructure projects.

In considering the effectiveness of the processes for this purchase, the audit considered:

  • the requirements of the Land Acquisition (Just Terms Compensation) Act 1991 (the Act)
  • the application of sound processes to manage risk to the NSW Government and to achieve value for money
  • the application of disciplines associated with complex procurement, such as probity, in a NSW Government context.
The acquisition of the 4–6 Grand Avenue site in Camellia was consistent with a 2014 feasibility study for the PLR, but occurred before the completion of detailed project planning or an acquisition strategy.

TfNSW made two attempts to acquire the 4–6 Grand Avenue site in Camellia, and was successful on the second attempt. TfNSW recognised the risks associated with early acquisition and had high-level strategies in place should the site not be required.

The specific site had been identified in a feasibility study for the PLR commissioned by TfNSW in 2014 as one of several options in Camellia for a stabling and maintenance depot. However, TfNSW had not done any substantive analysis of the various options to identify a preferred location before the two opportunities to acquire 4–6 Grand Avenue were brought to TfNSW’s attention by the landowners (or their agents). On both occasions, TfNSW chose to actively pursue acquisition in advance of any such analysis.

The acquisition was also not informed by a Property Acquisition Strategy, which TfNSW policy recommends in order to guide the process and manage acquisition specific risks.

In 2015, TfNSW identified that it would require a stabling and maintenance depot in the Camellia area for the Parramatta Light Rail

In 2014, TfNSW commissioned an external engineering consultancy to undertake a feasibility design study for the Parramatta Light Rail - the Parramatta Transport Corridor Strategy Feasibility Design study (herein referred to as ‘the feasibility study’). In early 2015, TfNSW received the feasibility study, which was one of several key sources that informed the development of business cases for the PLR.

The feasibility study recommended that TfNSW should consolidate the maintenance and cleaning operations with overnight stabling facilities on one site. The study noted that the optimal location for any such site would be in close proximity to the proposed network, and noted that the site must have access to road connections to accommodate access for cars and trucks.

The study found that a centrally located stabling and maintenance facility would be required for all routes serving the Parramatta CBD, and that the Camellia industrial area was a preferred location for such a facility. The study noted that the Camellia area was contaminated.

The feasibility study notes that its conclusions were based on assumptions about the light rail system adopted and decisions made by the future operator of the system, who had not yet been selected or appointed.

TfNSW's decision to progress a potential acquisition in 2015 considered the risk that the site may not be required

TfNSW's FIC was responsible for making decisions on funding allocations at a whole of program level within TfNSW. FIC was also responsible for approving ‘high-risk/high-value’ variations to program budgets. Members of the FIC included:

  • Secretary of Transport for NSW
  • Deputy Secretary, Infrastructure and Services
  • Deputy Secretary, Freight, Strategy and Planning
  • Deputy Secretary, Customer Services
  • Deputy Secretary Finance and Investment
  • Deputy Secretary People and Corporate Services.

An April 2015 submission, from the then Deputy Director-General to the agency’s FIC, sought authorisation and funding approval to participate in an Expression of Interest sale process. It noted the risk that the project may not go ahead. The submission advised that:

By acquiring a strategic site now, it reduces the risk of having to pay an improved value or a value that may be subject to rapidly improving land values due to changes in land use and rezoning.

The property can be acquired for the project, held strategically and income generated by leasing the site as hardstand 1 space until the project requires the land for the Parramatta Light Rail project.

If the project does not proceed in the medium to longer term, the property can be sold at a premium to what has been paid today as property fundamentals improve.

This submission acknowledged the risks associated with environmental contamination and proposed that these risks would be managed by negotiating a contract where the remediation and associated expenses would be at the landowner’s cost. 

TfNSW assessed the 4–6 Grand Avenue site as one of several sites in Camellia that was a feasible location for a stabling and maintenance facility

The Departmental feasibility study assessed six potential sites for a stabling and maintenance facility, including 4–6 Grand Avenue, noting strengths and weaknesses of each site. A different site on Grand Avenue was assessed as the ‘base case’ option (1 Grand Avenue). The study’s comments on the 4–6 Grand Avenue site included the following:

With an area of approximately 63,000m2, this site has sufficient space for a depot with the required stabling yard and maintenance facilities. The location allows for good road access and LRT [light rail transit] access would be from Grand Avenue, which may require a road crossing or signalised intersection. The site has been used for general industrial uses; however the land has been cleared and is currently undergoing remediation 2. The site is not affected by flooding based on one in 100-year flood data.

In early 2015, once the opportunity to acquire 4–6 Grand Avenue emerged, TfNSW commissioned a specific feasibility study of the 4–6 Grand Avenue site. The feasibility studies clearly documented the existence of environmental contamination. In April 2015, the report concluded:

Given the limitations of this report and within the parameters that have been set it is concluded that from a spatial and geographic perspective the site at 6 Grand Avenue would be suitable as a stabling and maintenance depot for the Parramatta light rail project. There are few engineering and environmental constraints that would affect the feasibility level analysis of this site and all issues identified, within this desk study, are considered to be resolvable. However this being said there is a significant amount of work necessary to reach the final layout and definition of the stabling and maintenance depot. There are numerous items which require further consideration and conformation; planning approvals could impose restrictions on building heights, noise mitigation measures, light and visual impact requirements all of which can have significant impacts on the spatial requirements of any stabling and maintenance depot. 

The acquisition of 4–6 Grand Avenue was not informed by a Property Acquisition Strategy

For major projects, TfNSW typically requires the project team to complete a Property Acquisition Strategy, which is intended to guide both process as well as specific acquisition issues expected to be faced during the project. The Property Acquisition Strategy is not a mandated document but is a recommended tool to support property acquisition as part of major projects.

TfNSW did not have a Property Acquisition Strategy in place to guide the 2015 Expression of Interest process. On 6 November 2015, the then Project Director for the PLR project emailed the property team, noting a need to develop a Property Acquisition Strategy to close off the scoping design and preliminary business case.

In January 2016, TfNSW developed a draft Property Acquisition Strategy for the Parramatta Light Rail Project, although it was silent on the potential sites for the stabling and maintenance facility.

TfNSW focussed on 4–6 Grand Avenue because it was available and aligned to TfNSW's strategic interests

In early 2015, officials commenced monitoring the market for industrial real estate in the Camellia area and surrounds for possible sites for a stabling and maintenance facility.

In March 2015, then owner of the site, Akzo Nobel Pty Limited released the 4–6 Grand Avenue site through an Expression of Interest process managed by CBRE.

TfNSW’s then Deputy Director-General, Planning, sought approval from FIC to lodge an Expression of Interest up to $30.0 million. Approval was sought on the basis that it would ‘provide certainty for the Parramatta Light Rail project by allowing for a depot site in a suitable location and potentially avoid higher costs or longer timeframes associated with compulsory acquisition following completion of the project’s business case’. FIC approved the request at its meeting on 9 April 2015.

At this time, TfNSW had not conducted any analysis of financial or operational benefits and costs of the potential sites identified in earlier feasibility studies. TfNSW staff advised us that the decision to participate in the Expression of Interest process for 4–6 Grand Avenue was because it was available. There is no documentation substantiating this statement, which TfNSW staff provided verbally as part of this audit.

In November 2015, TfNSW was advised that it was unsuccessful in the Expression of Interest process and that Grand 4 Investments (a related entity of Billbergia) had purchased 4–6 Grand Avenue. TfNSW did not conduct any further analysis of alternative potential sites in Camellia between this date and commencing discussions with Grand 4 Investments in April 2016. In that time there had been some movement on other properties that were included in the feasibility study, including 37–39a Grand Avenue being under offer in September 2015.

In March 2016, TfNSW approached CBRE to organise a meeting with Grand 4 Investments. On 1 April 2016, TfNSW met with Grand 4 Investments.

TfNSW advises that a perceived benefit of the 4–6 Grand Avenue site was that it was not subject to other uses or leaseholds that would increase the cost of compulsory acquisition. Officers involved in the acquisition advised that other nominated sites in the feasibility study were subject to other uses or leaseholds. 


1  A hardstand space is a large, paved area to store cars, heavy vehicles and machinery.
2  Officers familiar with the acquisition could not confirm the nature of remediation being undertaken, but noted that the previous landowner had cleared buildings from the site, which may have been considered part of remediation.
TfNSW's independent valuation, which it commissioned and received after the acquisition, specifically excluded consideration of environmental contamination risk. As a result, TfNSW is exposed to the risk that the acquisition was not fully compliant with the Land Acquisition (Just Terms Compensation) Act 1991 (the Act) because it did not use an accurate estimate of market value during negotiations. That said, the acquisition of 4–6 Grand Avenue by agreement was consistent with preferred processes described in the Act.

TfNSW acquired the site from the landowner by agreement, and this is consistent with provisions in the Act. Obtaining approval for compulsory acquisition should negotiations for agreement break down is also consistent with the Act. That said, TfNSW did not at any time assess whether a compulsory acquisition could have resulted in acquisition at a lower cost than what was negotiated by agreement.

Despite the high risks associated with the acquisition, TfNSW did not commission a formal valuation in time to inform the negotiation and purchase. Instead, TfNSW relied on internal advice to estimate market value, but did not obtain a formal valuation from those advisors. For high-risk transactions, the greater expertise and arm's-length independence of an external specialist valuer should be preferred over an agency's own staff.

On 15 June 2016, the settlement date for the acquisition, TfNSW commissioned a formal independent valuation of the site. On 23 November 2016, TfNSW received the final formal valuation report. By not obtaining a formal independent valuation of the property in advance of acquisition to inform the acquisition value, TfNSW exposed itself to non-compliance with the Act by not establishing the market value as the basis for the acquisition price. TfNSW also breached its own internal policies.

TfNSW instructed the valuer to conduct its valuation within the following parameters:

  • Market valuation on an ‘as is’ basis – market value based on the methodology described in the Act. This approach valued the site at $25.0 million.
  • Market valuation on a speculative development basis – market value based on the financial value of the vendor's intended use of the site which, in this case, involved leasing the site for industrial use. This approach valued the site at $52.0 million, and TfNSW advised us this valuation supported the purchase price.
  • Disregard the impact of environmental contamination – TfNSW specifically instructed the independent valuer to disregard any known (or unknown) site contamination. As TfNSW knew of the significant environmental contamination affecting the site, this parameter resulted in a valuation that overstated the value of the site as it did not consider the cost of environmental remediation. The valuer applied this assumption for both market valuation approaches.

Additionally, as the independent valuer completed the valuation after the purchase was finalised, there is a risk that the valuation may have been influenced by the known purchase price.

TfNSW's failure to acquire a formal valuation and an assessment of the financial impact of environmental remediation before it purchased 4–6 Grand Avenue represents ineffective administration and governance.
TfNSW acquired the site at a time when there was demand and increasing prices for industrial property in the area. However, TfNSW did not effectively assess and manage the risks associated with the acquisition, and gaps in process led to increased risk. Briefings to decision-makers did not contain important information, and we found no evidence that gaps in advice were queried or explored by decision-makers.

TfNSW did not have plans or advice in place to assist in managing risk, such as:

  • a property acquisition plan
  • a comprehensive and up-to-date risk management plan
  • a negotiation strategy, or any authorisation limit or minimal acceptable position
  • an independent professional evaluation
  • external expert advice (with the exception of legal advice relating to the contract of sale).

TfNSW was aware of contamination issues affecting the land and had access to considerable information about the environmental conditions, such as site environmental audit reports and information on the NSW Environment Protection Authority's contaminated land register. However, TfNSW had not analysed specific technical information about the contamination and therefore was not aware of the risk implications and cost for remediation. Despite this, TfNSW changed its position from not accepting the risks and costs of contamination, to acquiring the site unconditionally. The basis for this decision is unclear and undocumented.

Briefing to senior leaders on the acquisition was silent on a number of important matters that would have been important for approvers to consider, including:

  • an explanation of the 40 per cent increase in purchase price between November 2015 and May 2016, and a 165 per cent increase from TfNSW’s offer in April 2015
  • the contamination risks associated with the site and an evidence-based estimate of potential costs to remediate the site
  • advice that an independent valuation had not been obtained, inconsistent with TfNSW policy.

Consideration of the acquisition by FIC was based on a summary business paper and was managed out-of-session, thereby removing the ability for comprehensive consideration of the acquisition proposal and its risks.

The probity management controls and assurances in place for the acquisition of the 4–6 Grand Avenue site were insufficient. These insufficiencies were exacerbated by the probity risk profile of the transaction.

The 4–6 Grand Avenue acquisition was a high-risk/high-value transaction, undertaken in a volatile property market in a short timeframe under pressure from Grand 4 Investments. TfNSW was engaging in a direct negotiation in advance of detailed planning for the acquisition, or the PLR as a whole. These circumstances contribute to heightened probity risk.

TfNSW did not establish a probity plan and sought no probity support throughout the acquisition. Also, with one exception, the staff involved in the acquisition did not complete conflict of interest declarations.

TfNSW was aware of the potential for probity or integrity issues with the transaction when it commissioned an internal audit in connection with the transaction in 2019. Internal discussions considered whether a misconduct investigation may be more appropriate, however no such investigation was undertaken.

TfNSW's insufficient probity practices, in addition to its failure to keep complete or comprehensive records of negotiations or decisions, reduce transparency of the process and its outcome and expose TfNSW to a greater risk of misconduct, corruption and maladministration.

At the time of the transaction, the TfNSW policy framework was not sufficiently risk-focussed and did not provide clarity on when officers ought to apply specific guidance or procedures. TfNSW's policies and procedures are more focussed on acquiring land to meet project needs and timeframes, and less on assuring value for money and managing risks.

At the time of its acquisition of 4–6 Grand Avenue, TfNSW had property acquisitions policies and procedures in place. Each of these were broadly sound in their content and intent. However, they lacked specificity on how or when to apply guidance, and when risk levels should elevate the importance of recommended guidance.

TfNSW's key guidance was principles based and relied on agency staff using their experience and expertise to apply guidance according to the circumstances of an individual transaction. This guidance was not duly applied in the acquisition of 4–6 Grand Avenue, Camellia. In addition, TfNSW does not have quality or control assurance to identify when TfNSW officers did not apply important policies or processes.

The primary focus of the TfNSW’s property acquisition guidance is to achieve vacant possession of land in a timeframe that meets the need of the relevant transport project. There is less specific focus on the need to meet the requirements of the NSW Government financial management framework.

Appendix one – Response from agency 

Appendix two – About the audit 

Appendix three – Performance auditing

 

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Parliamentary reference - Report number #349 - released (18 May 2021).