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1. The National Stronger Regions Fund was a competitive grants program administered by the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development (DIRD). The program’s objective was to ‘fund investment ready projects which support economic growth and sustainability of regions across Australia, particularly disadvantaged regions, by supporting investment in priority infrastructure’.
2. Local government authorities and not-for-profit organisations were eligible to apply for grants from $20 000 through to $10 million. Grants were available for capital projects that involved the construction of new infrastructure, or the upgrade or extension of existing infrastructure, and that delivered an economic benefit to the region. Projects could be located in any Australian region or city.
3. The program’s establishment was a 2013 federal election commitment of the then Opposition, with $1 billion to be made available over five years from 2015–16. Mid-way through the third funding round, the program’s early abolition was announced as a 2016 federal election commitment of the Government. In total, 229 applications were approved for $632.2 million via the three funding rounds. Audit objective and criteria
4. The objective of the audit was to assess the effectiveness of the design and implementation of round two of the National Stronger Regions Fund. To form a conclusion against the objective, the ANAO adopted the following high-level criteria: • Did the application and assessment process attract, identify and rank the best applications in terms of the published criteria and value for money? • Were the decision makers appropriately advised and given clear funding recommendations? • Were the decisions taken transparent and consistent with the program guidelines? • Was the design and implementation of the program outcomes oriented, and are arrangements in place for program outcomes to be evaluated (including the likely economic benefits to regions)?
5. Program design and implementation was largely effective. In addition, earlier audit recommendations aimed at improving the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development’s assessment of applications, funding advice to decision-makers and evaluation of program outcomes have been implemented.
6. The application process for round two funding was accessible and attracted sufficient applications of merit. The eligibility requirements were appropriate and consistently applied. Applications assessed as ineligible were excluded from further consideration.
7. The merit criteria were consistent with the program’s objective. The criteria would have been more effective at maximising the achievement of the underlying policy intent if explicit consideration had been given to the magnitude of economic benefits claimed and to the socioeconomic circumstances and unemployment rates of regions.
8. Applications were assessed transparently and consistently against the published merit criteria. The department then used the results to rank applications in terms of its assessment of them against the criteria and the requirement to achieve value with relevant money.
9. The Ministerial Panel was appropriately advised and given a clear funding recommendation. There was a clear line of sight from the results of the department’s assessment of eligible applications against the merit criteria, the department’s selection of 104 applications for funding recommendation, the Ministerial Panel’s reassessment of 28 applications, through to the approval of 111 applications in round two. Internal documentation recording funding decisions, and their reasons, has been further improved by the department but its responses to Parliamentary scrutiny when questioned about its input to those funding decisions were not transparent (this issue has arisen previously).
10. Arrangements are in place for program outcomes to be evaluated, including the likely economic benefits to regions. Each approved project had been assessed as likely to deliver an economic benefit.