Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

COMMITTEES: Community Affairs References Committee - Interim Report - Impact on service quality, efficiency and sustainability of recent Commonwealth community service tendering processes by the Department of Social Services

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (17:15): There were two reasons for this committee to consider this particular tendering process. One was to reflect-as indeed Senator Siewert has put on record-the intense frustration across the community sector with the way that this particular tendering process operated. The second-leading on from frustration and the desire to do things better-was a need that this should not happen in this way again.

It is important to acknowledge that we, on the committee, have seen and talked with the government representatives on a number of occasions: through some extremely long and quite difficult-I would even use the term 'robust'-discussions through Senate estimates; as well as through a number of exchanges of information through the committee hearing; and through documentation that continues to be exchanged about exactly what happened in this tender process. Throughout that, there has never been a sense that we have underestimated the amount of effort and commitment that the people in the department have expended in this exercise. There is no question that there is commitment within the Department of Social Services to ensure that community receives effective services, and we do not want to be seen as in any way making unjust criticism. But when we see the evidence in the over 90 submissions that were provided to this particular exercise, expressing concern, frustration and anger about the way that the process operated, it is important that we, as a parliament, respond to that and look at exactly what happened and look at suggestions into the future.

There is no such thing as a perfect competitive grants process. There will always be difficulty; there will always be different views; there will always be disappointment about the results. But, in my opinion, the particular process that happened from June last year was a textbook example of how something should not occur. There was an overenthusiastic and overoptimistic expectation of how the process operated. In terms of the environment, we had very significant machinery of government changes to the way that the departments operated and the number of grants. Indeed, as we have heard many times, under the machinery of government changes there was an amalgamation of 18 discretionary grant programs from five former departments. So that was an enormous change, and just the mechanisms of working together and making sure that it would operate were a significant challenge to all included. On top of that, there was a significant government decision-a funding decision-to cut over $250 million from the pool of grants available.

That situation was building up to what was almost a perfect storm: you had a major government change, you had different processes operating, you had previous departments being pulled together, you had a significant financial restriction, and you also had a very tight time frame under which this should operate. All of that was going to cause problems. My major issue throughout this whole exercise is: it was clear that there were going to problems, it was clear that it was going to be a major exercise, but until the end of the process it was very difficult to get anyone to acknowledge that there were problems.

When we asked questions, we were given polite answers saying, 'It's okay. Trust us. It's going fine'. Not only were those answers given to members of the Senate, they were given to the people who were applying for grants in the process. There was limited time for information, before every applicant had to have extraordinarily detailed applications in to the department. However, from that point onwards, there did not seem to be any particular time frames. In fact, there were two extensions of the time to make a decision sought and provided to the department and to the minister. There was, inevitably, some tension from the very people who were trying to ensure that their clients were going to receive effective, appropriate, well-resourced services. The time frame and the pressure under which they were operating seemed to have been contrasted with the way that the department was not able to respond on time, effectively and personally to the people who were involved in this grants round.

There are a range of documents which set out how grants should be done. We had a Productivity Commission inquiry several years ago which talked about the need for a respectful relationship between the people in the community providing services and those that fund the services. A key aspect was to have effective, transparent communication with a genuine respect for those people who were providing information when they were seeking a grant.

Of the whole process, the thing that frustrates me most-and that is a very big call, as I know Senator Siewert agrees-is that there did not seem, on the evidence that we have seen, to be that genuine respect between the funding body and those organisations in the community with extensive experience who were actually applying for grants. We acknowledge that there had to be decision made. It was a competitive process, but throughout that, there should have been an acknowledgement and a respect for the experience of those organisations and the actual business needs of those organisations in terms of making decisions that would fit their staff-if a negative decision came out, how they would effectively terminate the process and how they would work with the community who were receiving the services to ensure that they continued to receive whatever the program was. This was particularly important when we were looking at support services, counselling services and services around emergency funding, which were of immediate need to community members. This did not seem able to be effectively translated between the funding body and the organisations.

I am not saying that the department did not care. I am saying that they were not able to effectively communicate that care. We have had a number of statements from organisations that have been working within the system for a very long time talking about their anger, never having seen a worse performance, never having felt so disrespected, not feeling confident that their wishes were understood and, most importantly, not feeling capable of having effective communication between the funding body and the organisations.

This report is important. I think it is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it gave the organisations who felt abused by the process the opportunity to express their feelings and talk about what happened to them in the process and, most importantly, talk about how across the board the process could be done better in the future. That is why we had this committee inquiry-to look at how we can do this better in the future. We have a majority report which recommends that we have a good look at this through the audit process. Through the audit process we will be able to look very closely at the processes that were put in place, what was done, what could have been done better and the impact of effective grants processing.

I really commend this report to the department. I commend it to the organisations that were generous enough to provide us with their experiences. I think it is absolutely critically important for the effectiveness of future funding grants rounds and the effectiveness of government services in the wider community to learn from this experience, to acknowledge what happened very openly and to work clearly in the future to rebuild a positive relationship with organisations and the community because, without that, none of our services will work. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.