Improving Mobile Coverage Round cleared by Audit Office

By Lauren Davis
Friday, 24 May, 2024

Improving Mobile Coverage Round cleared by Audit Office

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) has released its report into the effectiveness of the federal government’s Mobile Black Spot Program (MBSP), finding that round six of the program (the Improving Mobile Coverage Round, or IMCR) was consistent with Commonwealth grant rules and guidelines.

During the 2022 federal election campaign, the Australian Labor Party announced commitments to improve mobile coverage and quality of service across 54 target locations. Round six of the MBSP was designed to deliver these election commitments and allocated $40 million in the 2022–23 October Budget. Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland eventually awarded 41 grants servicing 42 of the target locations, totalling $37.2 million in funding.

In March 2023, Shadow Minister for Communications David Coleman accused Rowland of pork barrelling, noting that 40 out of the original 54 target locations went to ALP seats, despite the ALP only holding 33% of regional electorates. The ANAO later confirmed that the government’s handling of the program would be included in its list of performance audits for 2023–24.

The ANAO has now concluded that the IMCR’s design and awarding of funding by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts was “largely effective”, as was the assessment of eligible projects against the program guidelines. The department had also established arrangements to ensure officials declared and managed conflicts of interest, although it did not regularly review its risk and conflict-of-interest registers.

“The department assessed all applications against the lodgement, eligibility and minimum technical requirements as outlined in the grant opportunity guidelines, with eligible solutions proceeding to assessment and ineligible solutions set aside,” the report said. “Its assessment of applications against the assessment criteria was largely effective in identifying solutions that demonstrated value for money.”

The ANAO acknowledged that while the department appropriately advised the government on potential mobile coverage and quality-of-service issues at the target locations — with several locations rejected as they were found to either not satisfy the guidelines or deliver value for money — it did fail to advise on the relative merits of selecting the target locations over other mobile black spots. Apparently, the department does not maintain data that enables it to undertake strategic analysis of priority areas across Australia to direct government investment in delivering new and improved mobile coverage. Nevertheless, the award of funding was deemed consistent with the Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines 2017.

“The department complied with relevant frameworks during the funding approval process and provided clear and accurate advice to the decision-maker,” the report said. “The minister, as the decision-maker, complied with relevant frameworks when awarding grant funding and in recording their decisions. Funding outcomes were proportionate to the target locations’ electoral and geographic distribution.”

The ANAO has made three recommendations to the department, aimed at strengthening data collection to undertake strategic analysis of mobile black spot locations, advising the government on the relative merits of prioritising target locations and evaluating the MBSP to ensure it meets its intended objectives. The ANAO also suggests that the department regularly review and update key program documentation and ensure records are approved in a timely manner. The department has accepted all of these recommendations either fully or in part.

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