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Australian PM Turnbull's AU$1.1bn 'Ideas boom' revealed as a bust

Policy hastily cobbled together using woolly advice, lacked clear objectives, measurements

Australia's National Audit Office has published a rather unflattering assessment of prime minister Malcolm Turnbull's signature policy, the “National Innovation and Science Agenda”.

Branded as an “Ideas Boom”, the Agenda was delivered just weeks after Turnbull's ascent to the top job in 2015.

But the Audit Office (ANAO) says the policy was hastily cobbled together and didn't have clear objectives.

“The design process for the NISA was timely in supporting a government decision-making process,” the report says, and used plenty of evidence. But the report also says “it was not evident how this material was applied to the work of the Taskforce or to the input provided by entities.”

The ANAO also “observed variability in the quality of the advice provided.” The report finds that “The better developed proposals included a clear articulation of the evidence base and likely impacts of the proposals and also indicated when the proposal would be reviewed or evaluated.”

“However, much of the advice was general in nature and did not present quantitative or in-depth analysis of problems, expected impacts or how outcomes would be measured.”

On the issue of planning and governance, the report offers these observations:

Some elements of the evaluation framework were delayed, including confirmation that entities had identified baseline data and robust evidence collection systems. Current indications are that impact assessment will be affected by variability in the quality of entities’ performance measures and data collection systems. Assessing the impact of the package as a whole is also likely to be challenging.

The report also considers how the policy team reports its progress and found “Monitoring and reporting arrangements for the Agenda have, in most respects, been effective.” The ANAO is impressed by the regularity of progress reports and their wide distribution among stakeholders.

But it also found that “in a number of cases, the accompanying ‘traffic light’ ratings provided a more optimistic view of progress than was supported by the evidence. This included seven measures that did not meet the publicly announced timeframe but were not rated appropriately.”

The report also points out that the implementation committee overseeing the policy has likely met for the last time, but that its “post-commencement review found that it is generally too early to assess whether measures are having an impact on their desired outcomes.”

Let's leave it there, shall we: almost two years downstream from a policy launch that we know cost Australia $1.1bn, but may never be able to assess for return on that investment. ®

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