PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE
Report: Fifth Report on the Examination of the Auditor-General's Performance Audits: Signal Failures on the Metropolitan Rail Network, Recycling and Reuse of Waste by the NSW Public Sector, Improving Literacy and Numeracy in NSW Public Schools
Question—That the House take note of the report—proposed.Question—That the House take note of the report—proposed.
Mr PAUL GIBSON
(Blacktown) [11.36 a.m.]: I am pleased to speak on the Public Account Committee's fifth report under its comprehensive performance audit follow-up review program. Since implementing the program, the committee has seen tangible evidence of its effectiveness, with agencies providing comprehensive information on the action they have taken in the year since the performance audit was tabled, and agreeing to adopt recommendations they had previously rejected in the face of evidence of the recommendations' efficacy. In our fourth follow-up report, we quoted the Director General of the Department of Education and Training, who had said:
Since our March correspondence, which informed the Committee of our response to the recommendations of the audit, we as a departmental executive met and modified to some extent the bald rejection of a couple of those proposals.
The director general went on to say that the committee's review process:
is a good mechanism for keeping the pressure on us and, frankly, it was part of the reason that we as an executive revisited the March response.
This report followed up the performance of agencies with respect to signal failures on the metropolitan rail network, the recycling of waste by the New South Wales public sector, and literacy and numeracy in New South Wales public schools. While we found the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water and the Department of Education and Training to be very responsive to our inquiries, the same cannot be said of RailCorp. In the committee's opinion, RailCorp's repeated delays in responding to the committee's requests for information and its inconsistent and confusing answers mean that it has failed to discharge its obligations to Parliament in a timely and transparent manner. The Public Accounts Committee was set up to examine the efficiency and effectiveness of government activity on behalf of the people of New South Wales, and it is not for RailCorp to decide that it will undermine the committee's capacity to fulfil its role.
While the committee held a hearing on signal failures and recycling, it did not hold a hearing on literacy and numeracy. The committee decided to cancel its proposed hearing on this last matter after receiving an updated submission with detailed information about the progress of the Department of Education and Training's activities. The department's comprehensive second submission enabled the committee to assess its response to the performance audit without taking further action. I should stress that while the committee may choose to call a hearing for a number of reasons, including because it is impressed with an agency's activities and wants to learn more, the likelihood that the committee will need to conduct a hearing obviously decreases if agencies provide full and frank information from the outset.
In relation to our inquiry into signal failures, RailCorp informed the committee that it had joined the CoMET-Nova international benchmarking community. This allows jurisdictions from around the world to share their performance information and to discuss common problems. While confidentiality is important to ensure free and frank disclosure, the committee is of the opinion that reporting on best practices and average performance targets will increase transparency and the robust nature of the system.
Accordingly, the committee has recommended that RailCorp negotiate with the CoMET-Nova international benchmarking group to publish industry averages for the purpose of publicly reporting on RailCorp's performance. With respect to waste, the committee has recommended that the department continue to identify high waste-generating, reporting-exempt agencies in order to encourage them to provide data on their waste reduction and purchasing police [WRAPP] performance. The reason for this is that agencies with 200 staff or less are exempt from public sector reporting requirements including, unfortunately, high waste- generating agencies.
The committee commends the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water for working with these agencies to ensure that they uphold sustainable waste practices. However, the committee would like to see them further their efforts with the next group of high waste-generating, reporting-exempt agencies. In relation to literacy and numeracy, the committee was very pleased with the commitment of the Department of Education and Training to improving literacy and numeracy outcomes across New South Wales schools. An important part of achieving results is identifying targets and strategies for achieving those targets.
Unfortunately, it does not appear that all New South Wales schools have set such targets and strategies. Therefore, the committee has recommended that the department rectify this situation as soon as possible. I thank the Auditor-General, Audit Office and departmental staff who assisted us with our inquiries. I thank also the members of the Public Accounts Committee for doing a wonderful job. They never miss meetings and had tremendous input to ensure transparency and that New South Wales receives the best bang for its buck. I thank also the hardworking staff of the Public Accounts Committee, especially Stephanie Hesford.
Mr JOHN TURNER
(Myall Lakes) [11.41 a.m.]: I will comment on the Public Account Committee's inquiry into signal failures on the metropolitan rail network. Signals prevent trains from crossing paths by informing drivers when their path is clear and when it is safe for them to proceed. The signal system impacts on the capacity of RailCorp to meet its on-time running targets because, if a signal fails, trains must stop or slow down until the staff respond to the failure. The Auditor-General examined whether the number and duration of signal failures compromised RailCorp's capacity to meet its on-time running target, which is that 92 per cent of peak-hour trains should run on time.
The Auditor-General found that RailCorp had significantly improved its management of signal failures and identified six RailCorp initiatives as examples of good practice. However, definition, timetable and target changes made it difficult to determine whether the fact that the number and duration of signal failures had decreased reflected a genuine improvement in performance. Twelve recommendations were put forward on RailCorp's public transport patronage targets, staff numbers and skill levels, RailCorp's response framework, and the need for more robust monitoring and reporting practices.
The committee was generally pleased with a number of the initiatives that RailCorp indicated it had undertaken to comply with the Auditor-General's recommendations. However, the committee held a hearing and requested supplementary information on several key issues, including RailCorp's long-term signal strategy, RailCorp's benchmarking activities, the impact of staff shortages on ongoing maintenance, and mean enhanced internal and public reporting. In relation to the long-term signal strategy, the committee was concerned that RailCorp had not demonstrated that it had a long-term signalling strategy to ensure that it would meet its State Plan public transport targets. The State Plan stipulates that by 2016, 80 per cent of peak-hour trips to the city should be made by public transport and 28 per cent of trips to work in the Sydney metropolitan region should be made by public transport.
In response to the committee's written inquiries about the plan, the committee was given a copy of the executive summary of a draft document entitled "Signalling and Control Systems Strategy". This document did not refer to the 2016 patronage targets or any other performance indicators or targets. It did not include dates by which stages in the strategy were to be achieved or link progress in the strategy to desired service levels. For the next nine months, the committee made numerous requests to see RailCorp's long-term signal strategy and was told each time that the plan existed in a different document that the committee could see. Finally, in February 2010 RailCorp sent the committee its Signalling System Future Capacity Plan, which does in fact contain capacity targets and the dates by which RailCorp hopes to achieve those targets, as well as a time line for signal and control system upgrades.
While the committee is satisfied that RailCorp now has a long-term signal strategy that identifies actions to meet its 2016 State Plan patronage targets, the committee is of the opinion that RailCorp's delayed, confusing and inconsistent responses mean that it has failed to discharge its parliamentary accountability obligations in a transparent and timely manner. In relation to benchmarking, RailCorp informed the committee that it had joined the CoMET-Nova international benchmarking community. At the hearing, the chief executive officer informed the committee that confidentiality was important so that members could ask sensitive questions about problems and performance. However, the Auditor-General also noted that releasing some data, such as industry averages, would promote transparency without compromising the community's members. The committee supports the Auditor-General in this regard and has asked RailCorp to negotiate with the benchmarking group to improve transparency.
In relation to the impact of staff shortages on ongoing maintenance, the committee is satisfied with the steps RailCorp has taken to implement the Auditor-General's recommendations to ensure that it has sufficient signalling staff to undertake ongoing maintenance work in addition to new projects. Among those steps are bringing in skilled resources from the private sector and taking on an increasing number of graduates, interns and apprentices. In relation to enhancing internal and public reporting, the committee is pleased with the action RailCorp has taken to address the Auditor-General's reporting concerns, including reporting internally on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis; publishing 24-hour on-time running information online; and·publishing online information on incidents that are investigated for causing 10 or more train delays. I thank the department and the Audit Office for their assistance with our inquiry.
Mr NINOS KHOSHABA
(Smithfield) [11.46 a.m.]: I speak on the Public Account Committee's inquiry into the recycling and reuse of waste in the New South Wales public sector. The waste reduction and purchasing policy [WRAPP] states that agencies must minimise, reuse and recycle waste, and give priority to buying materials with recycled content. When reviewing the effectiveness of WRAPP, the Auditor-General asked whether the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water had successfully implemented it and whether the public sector had reduced its waste and increased recycling.
A number of statistics showed that the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water had done a great job promoting WRAPP, with 95 per cent of agencies reporting to the department in 2007 in accordance with their WRAPP reporting obligations, with the amount of waste recycled increasing from 73 per cent to 92 per cent between 2001 and 2007, and the proportion of recycled content paper purchased increasing from 27 per cent to 35 per cent over that same period. However, disaggregated data highlighted some inconsistencies. For example, the reuse of toner cartridges declined from 79 per cent to 47 per cent.
The Auditor-General recommended that the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water develop additional targets, regularly review agency WRAPP plans, review State contracts, encourage and assist reporting, and update the WRAPP program. While the department accepted all of the Auditor-General's recommendations, it identified delays in asking agencies to submit their WRAPP plans and writing to non-complying agencies to remind them of their WRAPP reporting obligations. The committee decided to hold a hearing to find out more about these delays and other key issues.
In relation to encouraging compliance with WRAPP reporting obligations, the committee was informed that the department had delayed writing to agencies to remind them of their WRAPP reporting obligations until 2010, as Treasury had indicated that it would be changing its annual reporting requirements. When the Auditor-General expressed concern about the delay, the Executive Director of Departmental Performance informed the committee that it had held workshops with agencies about their annual reporting requirements in May 2009. This information would have been useful for participants who then prepared reports for the 2008-09 period.
Another concern of the committee was the department's process for conducting sustainability reviews of State Government contracts. In a previous inquiry on Environmentally Sustainable Procurement, local government and non-government organisation representatives told the committee that the contracts did not contain enough information about the environmental credentials of products for purchasing officers to make sustainable choices. The department told the committee about its recent review of the workplace supplies contract and said it reviews all relevant contracts as they come up for renewal.
The department will soon review the travel management, print management, electricity, and data facility contracts. In relation to the impact of the recycling industry downturn, the committee had previously been advised by the Department of Education and Training during its inquiry into environmentally sustainable procurement that the recycling industry downturn that occurred as a result of the global financial crisis had resulted in an unforseen strain on school budgets. As recycling companies were no longer taking away recycling for free, schools had to pay to have the waste taken away.
When asked how other agencies had been impacted by the crisis, the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water informed the committee that it had impacted the market in complex ways, with prices dropping in different areas and dropping differentially as well. Although glass stayed relatively constant, good-quality paper dropped a little bit, and mixed-quality paper dropped a lot. The department assured the committee that it had tried to stay on top of the changes, and to take action to address problems as they arose. One of the changes the department had made, for example, was to create a new integrated waste contract, under which each of the suppliers is responsible for the secure destruction of waste, recycling, and the collection of paper. Previously, a separate contract had been awarded for the different types of waste disposal and there had been no incentive for the person who got the recycling contract to collect recyclable material from the person with the waste contract, and so on.
In relation to addressing reporting exemptions, the committee was informed that agencies with fewer than 200 staff no longer have to meet public service reporting requirements. What this meant for WRAPP was that small agencies no longer had to report to the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water even though they generated large amounts of waste. Nonetheless, the department has been working with these agencies to help them dispose of their waste sustainably and encourage them to report on their performance. The agencies with which the department has been working are Landcom, the Electoral Commission, the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust, NSW Lotteries, the Sydney Olympic Park Authority and the Newcastle Port Corporation.
The committee is of the opinion that the department's work with high waste generating agencies is vital to its success in achieving high rates of recycling in the public sector, and it has recommended that the department expand its work to include the next group of high waste generating agencies. I thank the Auditor-General and his staff, as well as the dedicated staff of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water, for their assistance. Also, I congratulate the Chair of the committee, Paul Gibson, on his leadership and commitment to the committee.
Mr PETER DRAPER
(Tamworth) [11.51 a.m.]: I would like to speak about the Public Accounts Committee's inquiry into Literacy and Numeracy in New South Wales Public Schools. The committee was very concerned to hear that, notwithstanding the dedication of public school teachers to help children with literacy and numeracy difficulties, literacy and numeracy outcomes in New South Wales had not improved significantly over the past 10 years, even though funding had tripled during that time. The committee was alarmed to hear that a disproportionate number of marginalised children continue to be represented in these figures. There is increasing awareness about the impact of early childhood development on future wellbeing, and we must do more to ensure that kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds do not get left behind.
To determine whether the processes of the Department of Education and Training to improve literacy and numeracy were likely to be successful, the Auditor-General asked whether the literacy and numeracy needs of each child were assessed, whether there were adequate programs to help those with literacy and numeracy needs, and how the department knew which programs were successful. The Auditor-General found that there had not been a systematic assessment of what resources were needed; that the recent increase in support was not well targeted; and that the students with the most need were the least likely to have experienced teachers. The Auditor-General subsequently made 19 recommendations focussing on improving the department's capacity to identify "at risk" students, assist students with literacy and numeracy learning needs, and monitor the success of their literacy and numeracy programs.
The department made two submissions, the second of which was very long and comprehensive. Not only did the second submission show that the department had taken on board the advice of the Auditor-General and had made a number of important changes, but also it showed that the department had made a significant effort to ensure the committee was kept up to date with all of its reforms. The committee commends the department for developing a precise definition of "at risk" students and incorporating it into relevant professional learning tools; creating the Working Together
document to "assist teachers, schools, regional and State directorates to both identify and map their current provision of services and develop future plans"; developing a supported online training course for students with additional learning needs; conducting and responding to a survey of the adequacy of literacy and numeracy resources and support; developing professional learning programs to strengthen the skills of teachers working with the lowest performing students; trialling a program to provide "a specialist teacher presence" in every school; and consistently undertaking program evaluation and stakeholder engagement.
In addition, the department informed the committee that it had mandated the development of individual learning plans for all students identified as being "at risk"; that schools are now required to submit a range of performance reports, and a new model for school accountability, including regular school reviews, is under consideration; and that it is trialling two different programs that give individual schools and principals greater control over the allocation of resources, and hopefully greater ownership over outcomes. However, the committee remains concerned about the failure of some schools to set literacy and numeracy targets in line with their obligations under the State Plan. Although the department's submission gives the impression that it is supporting schools to set targets should they decide to set them, it has not sought to determine whether schools have in fact set targets for both literacy and numeracy, identified strategies for achieving those targets, and started reporting against those targets.
The committee therefore has recommended that the department ensure that schools undertake these tasks. I thank the department and the Audit Office for their assistance. I have been impressed with a number of programs supporting literacy and numeracy that I have seen in action in my electorate. Werris Creek Public School is one of about 30 local schools that have instituted the Quick Smart program, a numeracy initiative in which students get one-on-one tutoring. The program is delivering some fantastic results. The program Taking off with Numeracy, a whole class support initiative to develop numeracy skills, complements the Quick Smart program. Almost all of the schools in our region have teachers trained in "counting on", and for children in their first three or four years at school the program Count Me in Too builds confidence in students from an early age.
Support for literacy is also addressed well through the schools in the region. Programs like Accelerated Literacy, Reading to Learn, Reading or Meaning, and Jolly Phonics are all achieving good results. Hillvue Public School is actively delivering such programs. Hillvue caters for a large number of disadvantaged students, and the efforts of the school staff and its community to address these issues are highly admirable. Similarly, I have spoken in this place before about Gunnedah Public School's Early Bird initiative, which aims to provide high-quality early childhood education for children in the year prior to their starting school. The program was established after the school identified a need for quality early intervention, school readiness programs, and targeted support in literacy and numeracy. National Literacy and Numeracy Week 2010 will be held between 29 August and 4 September, because we must never forget the chronic disadvantage that can result from poor literacy and numeracy.
Question—That the House take note of the report—put and resolved in the affirmative.Question—That the House take note of the report—put and resolved in the affirmative.