The Phantom CPO on the Barrier Reef “Scandal”

It’s not just UK public sector procurement that can sometimes raise eyebrows. We received another article from the Phantom CPO recently, addressing a highly controversial issue in Australia, where the government is being criticised for apparently planning to give a grant of  $444 million to a tiny charity to carry out conservation work on the Great Barrier Reef. Here, the Phantom argues both sides of the story based on how the reports suggest the procurement process is being handled - which side do you think wins out?

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No tender process for $444m Great Barrier Reef grant, Senate hearing told. Department says it approached the non-profit group just weeks before the budget and had still not signed an agreement.

‘The Supporter’ of the Government  process would hope this would have been a factual response:  The discussion with the non-profit group was exploratory. We researched their work and their technical accreditations are evidence of their experience in this field.

We will be seeking similar exploratory discussions with other non-profits in this technical space and also with The Reef trust and the Marine park authority. All these bodies are relevant stakeholders in this process. We will seek the best value for money and any eventual decision with be taken with all their advice and input considered. We will conduct a full technical and competence review and we will make that public. It will be transparent, as you would reasonably expect.

“The Cynic” would conclude the following from the reporting of the events:  Someone senior in Government is overly cosy with the non-profit organisation,  ‘the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’. This person wants the foundation to have the upper hand and has deliberately spoken only to them first. Knowing also, that if this news got out into the public we can always say it’s very early and we will consult with others (which we will, but not with any intention to give the grant to anyone but our early single favourite). We can then always say they were best qualified and the most suitable from all our choices. If someone wants to see the evaluation selection sheet we can always knock up a quick one that matches the outcome we really wanted.

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"And the government’s announcement of $444m for the Great Barrier Reef Foundation remains an “intention” – there is still no agreement between the foundation and the Department of Environment and Energy, a Senate estimates hearing has heard. Labour, the Greens and crossbench senators spent hours grilling the government on Monday on what due diligence was done before the environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, announced the grant to the foundation on 29 April.

Stephen Oxley, the first assistant secretary in the department’s heritage, reef and marine division, told a hearing on Monday afternoon the government had announced “its intention to enter into this partnership” and was now determining whether it could be established. He said the government had first approached the foundation in early April".

Supporter: He announced the intention to have a grant available. Not to whom it will be awarded. The April discussion was exploratory and was helpful to Govt to arrive at an estimate of the grant to ensure its eventual effectiveness. Others had been met with and similar advice sought.

Cynic: This is so typical of politicians. They have their favourites and they don’t care about real due diligence or objective decision-making. They know what outcome they want and they give instructions to public sector staff to make that result happen. Their preferred outcome is driven by an assortment of political gain, meeting a promise that never should have been made, as a pay back to someone for a past favour or to create an obligation they can call-in on at some time in the future, and even (sadly) as we’ve seen before, for their own personal gain or profit.

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“We are in a process at the moment where both the government and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation have expressed their intention to enter into a partnership agreement,” Oxley said. “We are now going through quite a comprehensive due diligence process where we conclude whether it can be consummated, for want of a better word.”

Supporter: They will not be the only organisation that will be considered. Our due diligence is not just with one organisation.

Cynic: So Mr Oxley admits they are only talking to one organisation and ‘hope to consummate’ the deal. All this without an equal amount of due diligence with others who may be more qualified to do  the work.

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Department secretary Finn Pratt told the hearing there had been no tender or grant application process for the funding, which the foundation has described as being “like winning lotto”.  He and the minister, Simon Birmingham, did not elaborate when asked repeatedly how the government had reached a decision that the foundation was the appropriate vehicle to administer the funds.

Labour (opposition) senator Kristina Keneally said “I’ve got to say with the greatest of respect and as someone who has overseen a number of these processes at state government level, I cannot imagine, ever, a government without a competitive or open process or some type of public service comparator just blithely awarding nearly half a billion dollars to an organisation that has six full-time employees,” she said.

Cynic: Oh great, they have 6 employees … that's $74 M each!

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Birmingham said the government had not blithely awarded the funding to the foundation. “The government is in negotiations with the foundation and discussions with the foundation about precisely how the funding will be used,” he said. “There will be clear conditions around that as has been made obvious in evidence to the committee already.”

Supporter: As mentioned above, there is no decision made that they will receive this grant. This is an error in reporting by the newspaper. We will conduct a full technical and competence review and we will make that public. It will be transparent, as you would reasonably expect.

Cynic: Really???

(Thanks to the Phantom CPO – and we’ll watch what’s going on around this case with interest!)

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