The Queensland Audit Office has generated a taste of the future with its recent audit Improving grants management.
The audit has focused a microscope over the state’s grants programs in a bid to improve processes, guidelines, risk assessments and knowledge-sharing.
There are three key themes behind the report:
- clearer information about grants is needed
- the quality of grants management processes varies, and
- departments need to measure grant programs better.
Motivated by its report to parliament that “the government could do more to make grant information more user-friendly and accessible”, one of the most impressive aspects of the study was the creation of an interactive grants dashboard.
It is the first such grants data dashboard in the nation that allows users to visually map billions of dollars in grants by location, funding area, agency and demographic data.
Drawing 2020-2021 data from the Queensland Government Investment Portal – Expenditure Data, the dashboard reveals there was:
- $2.8 billion distributed
- 30,406 grant payments made
- 17,028 recipients
- 20 funding agencies
- 446 grant programs
- $542 paid on average per person
SmartyGrants staff were impressed by functions that allow users to get a quick visual snapshot of activity by local government areas and funding agency.
The dashboard shows the biggest areas of spending were:
- $845 million for transport (30%)
- $709 million for employment (25%)
- $638 million for communities (23%)
- $414 million for education (15%)
The biggest agency spenders were:
- $535 million by the Department of Employment, Small Business and Training
- $485 million by the Queensland Reconstruction Authority
- $396 million by the Department of State Development, Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning
- $378 million by the Department of Transport and Main Roads
A spokesperson for the audit office said that it had worked with a data visualisation developer using publicly available information, after realising that the data’s “accessibility and usefulness could be improved”.
“Our readers typically have different levels of experience or comfort with understanding financial information, so we aim to bring these important numbers alive and de-mystify our audit findings. It is crucial that we find ways to share our insights and make our messages clear.”
The dashboard was expected to be updated in early 2023. The office produces similar dashboards for Queensland local government and alongside financial audits of other entities.
Lessons in grantmaking ‘maturity’ in Queensland report
The dashboard is just the most visually compelling aspect of a rigorous review of the state’s grants system, which involved a deep dive into selected programs.
That report is surprisingly brief and accessible, using the office’s plain English ethos. While filled with hard facts, the online report is also designed with the user experience in mind.
The audit office said the rationale was simple.
“We’re committed to communicating clearly and using plain language in our reports to parliament and other resources. We want users to easily understand what we are saying and enable them to quickly digest our information when they may be time poor. The most important person for our deliverables is the reader.”
The audit contains many insights into grants management in Queensland, looking closely at eight programs across five departments.
The study examined grant programs involving a variety of activities, such as tourism, kindergarten funding, back-to-work, infrastructure and recycling.
The study analysed internal controls - comprising people, systems and process – using the government’s “grants management maturity model”, and also examined assessments, approvals and acquittals.
According to the study 50% of programs performed at a level of “basic competency”, but even with those in the upper thresholds, the study found “there is still room to improve”.
The four levels of maturity outlined in the study ranks grantmakers as:
- developing: “is not operating effectively”
- established: shows basic competency
- integrated: regularly demonstrates effectiveness, but “could still be improved”
- optimised: leader in best practice
Grantmakers can do better with approvals, acquittals, measurement
The study found grant approval and acquittal processes were “the least mature” aspect of grants management.
During approvals and payments, the study highlighted the benefits of automated workflows and approval processes as being a top area for improvement.
During acquittals, the use of online submissions would ease the load both on recipients and grants compliance teams, while more automation of monitoring here would also assist.
During applications, the study suggested grantmakers could most improve complaints and appeals, better manage conflicts of interest and automate eligibility checks.
In the growing area of grants monitoring and evaluation, the study suggested the introduction of efficiency and effectiveness metrics; and, the expansion of reporting “beyond financial impacts”.
When establishing grant programs, the study found risk management was the area that could be most improved, followed by better performance measures and monitoring, and better cross-department collaboration.
The study also highlighted inconsistent use of software across government, finding four IT systems and a spreadsheet used for grants management across the five departments it studied.
The office made several recommendations including:
- departments should all self-assess their grants management “maturity”
- more widespread use of interactive grants data tools should be made
- all departments should improve collection and checking of grants data
- a leadership group should oversee improvements to the state’s grants management systems, including standardised systems and frameworks, shared IT and grants management systems and skilled grants management officers should be developed
- better risk management and acquittal processes
- better key performance measures, including better outcomes measurement
Readers can download a copy of the grant management maturity model self-assessment benchmarking tool here.
The audit office said it aimed to encourage grantmakers to adopt changes rather try to foist them upon entities.
“We can’t force entities to implement our recommendations – action and change comes from entities themselves through a culture of learning and self-improvement.”
The audit office said that it hoped to convince the Queensland Treasury to develop the interactive tool to “replace our dashboard (and) build community trust in the grants process”.
The office also expected the tool would allow the government to see where grants were being funded by other areas of government, “to reduce any duplication or overlap and potentially improve the efficiency of processes”.
SmartyGrants executive director Kathy Richardson said the “maturity model” complemented the work already developed in the SmartyGrants Grantmaking Toolkit, which is free for SmartyGrants users.
“We’re pleased to see this excellent report on Queensland grants continues the theme of auditors shifting from “Was the money properly accounted for?” to “Did anything change as a result?" with strong recommendations to more robust performance measurement and reporting”.
“We’ll be looking at this report closely to see what further lessons we can learn.”