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Government ad decisions were ‘muddled and unaccountable’

Government advertising under the Howard government was chaotic and unaccountable, according to a report from the government watchdog.  

The results of an investigation by the Australian National Audit Office was released last week, but went virtually unnoticed until being picked by the Sydney Morning Herald today. The report from the Auditor General looked at a sample of campaigns, but found little evidence of proper ministerial oversight. Instead, it said that decisions on strategy, execution and choice of agency were often taken by the Ministerial Committee on Government Communications, although its members now disagree on what level of authority the body actually had.

In virtually all cases, work began long before any contract had been drawn up. A picture is drawn within the report of agencies being able to simply present a bill.

The report says: “The overall decision making framework for advertising campaigns, which was largely settled in the 1980s, was not well aligned with the requirements of the current financial framework. In particular it has become apparent that the responsibility for key decisions relating to advertising campaigns was fragmented between the MCGC and departments, creating uncertainty in clearly identifying the responsibilities and the limits of authority of participants in the decision making processes.”

It suggests that the committee was seen as so powerful that officials who should have challenged decisions did not. “Departmental officials regarded the MCGC decisions and directions to be binding on them, in some instances effectively removing their discretion to independently decide on spending proposals put before them.”

It adds: “There was a failure on the part of departments to ensure that procurement decisions were taken in a timely manner and were properly documented, resulting in an inability on their part to demonstrate that all of the requirements of the financial framework had been observed.

In one of the most damning findings, the report states:

“The audit found that, of the twelve primary contracts executed in relation to the campaigns within the scope of this audit, none were executed prior to the consultant commencing work. The average delay in executing a contract was 81 days (nearly three months), with a minimum delay of 5 days and a maximum of 185 days (over six months); the value of work conducted prior to contract execution approached $11 million.”

It points to “the lack of clear accountability and transparency inherent in the arrangements for administering government advertising prior to November 2007.”

 And there was a poor understandign of measurement and ROI, says the report. “While departments made extensive use of developmental research and concept testing in campaign development and tracking research in day to day campaign management, evaluation was generally not extended to broader matters such as whether the campaign’s strategy effectively supported related policy goals or whether the targeted levels of community awareness were appropriate.”

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