Another grants program comes under scrutiny of national audit office

An audit report has found shortcomings in a federal grants program targeting regional mobile black spots, saying it wasn’t always clear why some locations were chosen above others.

Rona Mellor

The auditor general investigated at the awarding of $40m in funding under the Mobile Black Spot program which is administered by The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts.

The program aims to extend and improve phone coverage in regional and remote Australia by co-funding telecommunications infrastructure.

The report looked at the Improving Mobile Coverage Round of the project, which saw the awarding of 41 grants servicing 42 target locations worth a total $37.2 million in October 2023.

Acting Auditor General Rona Mellor noted that audit came after previous grants programs raised alarm bells, including the controversial Community Development Grants Program, the Community Car Parks Project and the Building Better Regions fund.

“Previous grant administration audits in the department have identified risks where assessment criteria have not been applied in line with program guidelines and funding recommendations to the decision-maker have not been consistent with assessment outcomes,” the report said.

Lack of data

The audit found the department was largely effective in designing the mobile coverage grants round and that the awarding of funding was consistent with Commonwealth grants rules.

However it also says while the department advised the government on potential mobile coverage issues at 54 target locations, it fell short in advising the government on why those locations were selected above other mobile black spots.

“The department was largely effective in designing the IMCR. The department advised the government on potential mobile coverage and quality of service issues at 54 target locations but did not advise the government on the relative merits of prioritising these target locations over other mobile black spots,” it concludes.

It also found the department didn’t have data that would have enabled it properly analyse priority blackspots on which it was directing government investment.

Recommendations accepted

The government has welcomed the ANAO’s findings and agreed to three recommendations aimed at strengthening data collection and analysis of mobile black spot locations by the department.

Ms Mellor says report contains lessons on good practice for all government entities, including the need to collect data relevant to decision making and to provide advice to the government on the relative merits of locations when designing grants opportunities

“Entities should keep records of advice to their minister and interactions through their office. Senior executives and officials in the department demonstrated good practice in recording their advice to, and interactions with, the minister through their office,” she says.

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