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This audit assessed the effectiveness of the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations' role in the delivery of the Children and Family Centre component of the National Partnership Agreement on Indigenous Early Childhood Development.

Overall conclusion:

The establishment of Children and Family Centres (CFCs) was intended by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to be an important service delivery reform which was to provide a platform for ongoing integrated service delivery for both Australian Government and state funded programs aimed at providing early childhood and family services to Indigenous families. Progress against the key outputs of establishing CFCs and using them to deliver integrated services has been made but not to the level expected. The funding of $292.62 million provided in the IECD NP was based on the expectation that all CFCs would be constructed and operational by June 2012. As at May 2013, services were being provided from 33 locations. Of these, however, only 13 centre, were operating from completed premises with 20 centres operating from interim facilities. There are five locations where no services are being provided. Due to the longer than expected construction times, and other performance information issues (discussed in paragraph 20), DEEWR is not well positioned to determine the impact that funding provided to date has had in relation to the IECD NP’s objectives.

The IECD NP was a partnership between governments, requiring a collaborative approach to managing its overall implementation. To this end, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) chairs the IECD Steering Committee and, increasingly, has regular bilateral communication and meetings with each jurisdiction. The IECD Steering Committee meets at least twice per year and has acted as a forum for monitoring progress of centre construction, agreeing to reporting templates and discussing a number of cross-jurisdictional challenges such as data collection. However, the committee has given more limited attention to monitoring progress toward the stated objectives of the IECD NP. Further, it has not considered the effectiveness of the various approaches in achieving more integrated service delivery. In 2013, DEEWR has taken steps to increase the strategic focus of the steering committee and strengthen reporting arrangements from the committee to the COAG Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood.

The Australian Government, as the sole provider of funding, had a clear expectation of the results to be achieved through its funding. In this respect DEEWR had an important role to play in ensuring the Australian Government’s interests were being adequately progressed through the partnership. Under the agreed structure of the IECD NP, the development and regular review of Implementation Plans represented an important opportunity to ensure that the priorities and approaches proposed by each jurisdiction were appropriate in terms of the overall policy outcomes being sought.

DEEWR provided guidance for the development of Implementation Plans to assist the states and territories to identify how they intended to effectively integrate services for children and families, as well as outlining their respective implementation priorities and performance milestones. Despite this guidance, the resulting Implementation Plans varied in the extent to which key implementation issues were being addressed and ultimately did not provide DEEWR with a robust process to monitor implementation.

The IECD NP provided the states and territories with flexibility in their approaches to implementation. The bilateral nature of Implementation Plans, while providing state and territory governments with flexibility, meant that DEEWR was only able to assess Implementation Plans according to the priorities proposed by each jurisdiction. While it is not necessarily the case that there should be a uniform approach across all jurisdictions, national level outcomes are being sought through the IECD NP and there would be value in DEEWR undertaking a more in depth assessment of Implementation Plans to be assured that, overall, the priorities and proposed pace of service delivery reforms is appropriately meeting the Australian Government’s expectations.

State and territory government departments report twice a year to DEEWR on implementation progress. To date there has been very limited coverage in these reports against the outcomes expected or against the performance indicators established in the IECD NP. Due to the slow development of an agreed data collection mechanism for CFCs overall, there is limited performance data available to support an assessment of whether the CFCs have contributed to an improvement in Indigenous early childhood development outcomes and whether adequate progress has been made to improve access to integrated early childhood and family services. Further, while the Intergovernmental Agreement on Federal Financial Relations (IGAFFR) emphasises the accountability of the states and territories to their respective constituents, public reporting on progress of the CFC component of the IECD NP has been minimal, unlike some other National Partnerships.

Sustaining the ongoing contribution of the CFCs to addressing Indigenous disadvantage following the expiry of the IECD NP in June 2014 is an important consideration for the operation of each centre. As a partial solution, DEEWR has proposed that the financial viability of CFCs will be assisted through CFC operators accessing existing child care program funding. However, not all CFCs are providing child care services and are therefore not all eligible for child care funding. Further consideration of different approaches is required if CFCs are to be able to serve as the platform for integrated service delivery in future reforms as anticipated in the IECD NP.

The ANAO has made two recommendations aimed at strengthening the delivery of DEEWR’s central role in the IECD NP. The first relates to conducting analysis and developing advice regarding the effectiveness of CFC service delivery and operating models to assist in informing any future initiatives in relation to improving Indigenous early childhood outcomes. The second is aimed at increasing the public reporting on progress and the achievement of the objectives of the IECD NP, including the service delivery reforms anticipated to improve outcomes for Indigenous children.

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