Labor’S BER Reforms ‘A Case Study Of Failure’

by STEFANIE BALOGH From: The Australian April 01, 2014

 Labor’s BER reforms ‘a case study of failure’

THE $16.2 billion Building the Education Revolution scheme, one of the signature policies of the Rudd and Gillard years, has been condemned as an international case study of legislative and ­bureaucratic failure.

A paper by three Australian academics published in the International Journal of Public Administration says the Labor-era stimulus program of building multi-purpose school halls, science labs and libraries highlights the pitfalls governments need to avoid when rolling out large-scale public expenditure programs.

It finds the BER did not “adequately capture” value for money and produced “fiscal lag’’ because its objectives to pump prime the economy with expansionary stimulus happened too late and was at odds with the ­Reserve Bank’s restrictive monetary policy.

More than five years after the height of the global financial crisis, The Australian can reveal there are still eight public and private school projects to be completed in NSW and one non-government project in Victoria.

“It is argued that the BER program represents a ‘case study’ of how governments should not pursue large-scale public expenditure programs,’’ the paper, “Building the Education Revolution: Another Case of Australian Government Failure?’’ states.

Lead author Chris Lewis told The Australian that a better ­designed program would have ­reduced waste and produced ­better value for money.

“The faults within the system were illustrated by the government rushing the program. As we conclude, there is no longer the expertise in the public service any more. It’s bureaucrats rather than people with technical expertise and that’s a big problem,’’ Mr Lewis, who now contributes to On Line Opinion, said.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne said “taxpayers have every right to be angry with the former Labor government over the way it let their money be ­wasted on over-priced school buildings, and their failure to quickly act to prevent waste from occurring’’.

In 2011, the third and final taskforce report into the BER highlighted concerns about value for money and found 1.1bn was wasted in delivering public school buildings to NSW and Victoria, when compared with Catholic counterparts. Victorian and NSW government schools had 72 per cent of complaints despite delivering 37 per cent of the program.

Craig Mayne, a BER whistleblower, said yesterday the findings of the research paper were “no great surprise’’ and “blind Freddy could have seen at the time that it was always going to be a monumental cock up.”

Mr Mayne said he found it frustrating that he and others had “spent a lot of time pro bono trying to save the government from this stupidity but to no avail.”

The paper, which was published last week by the Philadelphia-based journal, states that its analysis “indicates that the BER program can be classified as an example of government failure particularly in terms of ‘legislative’ and ‘bureaucratic’ failure”.

“With regard to ‘bureaucratic failure’, it was found that DEEWR’s (the then Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations) reporting and monitoring requirements did not adequately capture ‘value for money’ factors,” it says. “Moreover, the ‘value for money’ criterion was not defined in the revised 2009 BER program guidelines nor was it a requirement for education authorities to report on ‘value for money’ or the ‘quality’ of the built outcomes.”

Labor education spokeswoman Kate Ellis said there was there were challenges in rolling out “the biggest school infrastructure investment the nation has ever seen, quickly in an effort to support jobs’’ during the GFC. “This paper unfortunately does not adequately reflect the positive impact the BER has had on schools and communities across the country, which should be a key measurement applied here,” she said. “If you ask school communities … whether the BER was a success, you’ll find the answer is a resounding yes.”

But Mr Pyne said the paper highlighted the failure of the program to require value for taxpayers’ money. “It does also highlight the relative success of the non-government sector to achieve greater value for the funds they were allocated, as they had greater autonomy to decide how money was spent. This is a further endorsement of increasing school autonomy as principals and schools are better placed than distant bureaucrats to make sure school budgets achieve value for money.’’

He said billions were wasted. “Labor blew a massive opportunity. It’s nice to have a new school building but it’s nicer to know your children are getting good results.’’

The paper draws upon the findings of the BER Implementation Taskforce.

“In line with ‘legislative failure’ … it can be argued that the BER program’s economic stimulus purpose was limited, given that the rollout actually occurred after the worst of the impact of the GFC had already hit the Australian economy,’’ it says.

Mr Lewis, who worked for Canberra University as a visiting fellow, completed the paper with Brian Dollery of the University of New England and Michael A. Kortt of Southern Cross University.

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