ABUSE OF PROPER PROCESS IN THE AAS PROJECT

Through several Freedom of Information requests and miscellaneous correspondence, Adventure Victoria has uncovered the following administrative anomalies.

We believe that the modern public service generally has high levels of professionalism and high prudential standards. All of the following anomalies, in our opinion, fall below the standards that a modern public service aspires to.

Aims of the Project
The AAS project proceeds more than twelve months after we have pointed out the absence of agreed aims and is expanding interstate - still without agreed aims.

Depending where you look for explanation, or who you ask, the AAS project is claimed to be or achieve

  • safety
  • insurability
  • reduced court costs
  • legal protection for leaders of groups ('leaders' being typically the person who says "let's go to…" rather than any formal or exalted status)
  • a vehicle for implementing ANTA (Australian National Training Authority training schemes, which have since been disbanded)
  • a method of forcing clubs and associations to compete on a level playing field with commercial operators
  • various other things.

In discussions with the project managers (ORC) and stakeholder groups over many months, whenever the ORC was criticised for failing to achieve an apparent aim, the ORC disowned the aim and claimed a different purpose. It did not seem possible to pin down what it was the project managers and the stakeholders were collectively trying to achieve for the sponsoring government departments (Sport and Recreation, Tourism, Sustainability and Environment, Parks Victoria) .

As Adventure Victoria became convinced that nothing good would come of the project, we wanted to know what limits would be placed on the application of the AAS. This information was not possible to find and different sponsoring departments had different ideas.

So we used Freedom of Information to request all Dept of Sport and Recreation documents that state the aims of the AAS project.

You might imagine that the managing department would have defined the aims of the project before supplying the funding. It didn't.

This is the best it managed...

"Aim: To establish industry agreed minimum activity standards relating to outdoor recreation activities undertaken on public land in Victoria."

Yes, but what were they intended to achieve? What is the purpose of a 'minimum standard'? How will they be applied? Who will they apply to? Just.. write a document.. that's not an aim!

and

"Currently most groups other than private commercial operators have access to public land in Victoria without having to abide by any agreed standards relating to the conducting of activities other than those that are individually set by the groups from time to time."

Well, that's not an aim in itself either, unless we are meant to read an implied aim into it. (Although the funding departments and the project managers now deny this implied aim, subsequent FoI has revealed that it is a 'key' aim of the project. See The Smoking Gun.)

For other people's shot at the aims, see Aims .

This project has cost the government at least $245,000 and has cost stakeholders much more than that in the time, much of it like ours reluctantly given. And yet, incredibly, the funding departments have never defined the aims, except in as much as they did not challenge aims put to it by the ORC and which theyand the ORC now deny.


The pilot study and the decision to proceed

The Victorian Government made a decision to fund the AAS project based on a pitiful pilot study that provided no sustantiated justification for the concept.

The Department of Sport and Recreation (SRV) funded the pilot project (Stage 1 of three initial stages). The pilot study was supposed to include a survey of projects of this type here and overseas. The intention, one would assume, was to form a view as to whether other schemes had achieved their aims, whether they had had unintended or undesirable impacts and whether those models could be improved both in respect to aims and side-effects. That would be a basic management approach. From that, a view could be formed: proceed or not; if proceed, then how best to do it. That's the purpose of running a pilot study.

  • But the grant document didn't require the survey and other parts of the report to be delivered to the department
  • Although the pilot study did find its way to SRV, SRV denied that it had a copy when we enquired. We assume that SRV genuinely couldn't find it, but you might expect an 'open' government to request it at that point on our behalf and their own. But they claimed that they had no right to request it from the project managers.
  • Although the project managers wrote the pilot study with public funds, they refused point blank to release it to this stakeholder.
  • Adventure Victoria FoI'd a part of the pilot study which did have to be delivered. The response took 63 days, well over the statuary limit of 45 days.
  • Surpisingly the survey turned up in the FoI. It turned out that the project managers (ORC) had done nothing more than write a list of reference material. The pilot study provides no objective substantiation of any supposed benefits of the project. And yet it was enough to secure a further $180,000.
Conclusion:

Despite having been publicly funded and being key to any decision to proceed, the survey and the entire Pilot Study makes such a poor case as to undermine that decision. We believe that is the reason that the ORC and the Department of Sport and Recreation have strenuously withheld it from public view.


Hollow Government Endorsements

All AAS documents carry the endorsements of a number of government departments and private bodies that, when pressed, deny any responsibility for them.

By FoI, we requested the written signoffs or letters of endorsement of all the organisations including government departments whose logos appear on two AAS documents. We picked the Rock Climbing AAS, just to pick one at random, and the almost-but-not-quite-published bushwalking document.

Very interesting. The Department of Sport and Recreation admitted in writing that it has no documentation of any of the alleged approvals at any level. Further, it stated that it does not document any internal approval of the finished documents.

Why should they have an approval process? Well, they just spent quarter of a million dollars on these documents, so you might expect someone to form an opinion on whether each document satisfies the terms of the contract before paying up. Well you would... except they can't because there aren't any documented aims to satisfy! And that's always our problem too. We can't argue whether the AAS satisfies its aims because there's so little documented that you can argue with it.

The AAS documents pass automatically into National Park regulations in the form of commercial licensing terms. This apparently happens without anyone in government vouching for them. But no, they do vouch for them. That's what their name on the front page does. They vouch for them and deny responsibilty for them.

In effect the government has outsourced the approvals process by relying on the endorsement of each AAS document by the working group. But we know for a fact that at least two members of the AAS - Bushwalking working group had not endorsed and the project managers had gone ahead without them at the time we did that FoI. So now we know that even what SRV trusted was the outsourced approvals process had not actually been adhered to. And that's just one we know about.

Back to the central point: These government departments have allowed their endorsements to be circulated, giving authority to documents they have never critically assessed.


The integrity of the documents as a reflection of industry or community consensus

The original claim was that each AAS would reflect a consensus of industry opinion about appropriate safety standards. It has subsequently been construed as reflecting a broader community consensus.

But

  • the process of consultation proceeded for three years before anyone (and that was us) asked to see the defined aims of the project, which then could not be identified and still haven't been agreed upon, so the AAS are a consensus about what?
  • the AAS are known to have been circulated on at least some occasions - who knows how many - bearing endorsements that were not approved by the bodies concerned.
 

These have been removed only when requested ie, the onus seems to be on the endorsee to request removal. In more recent cases, the ORC has requested approval for names to be published, but there is no clarification of what this means. When we have asked endorsees why they have published their approval in this form, they have each denied that their endorsement implies approval. We have had one endorsee object vociferously to our use of the term "endorsement", claiming that their name and logo implies no such thing as endorsement because "We have never written a letter of endorsement."

  • some AAS have contained requirements that would seriously impede the business of some endorsees. The obvious implication is that the endorsees either haven't read the document or don't intend to be bound by it (we think the former).
  • until May 2005, every AAS has had at least one glaring error in the fire regulations that would have been obvious to any authoritative reader, providing further evidence that the endorsees have rarely read the documents they are lending their authority to. (That includes Sustainability and Environment who are responsible for fire regulations. All the AAS were eventually corrected only after AV wrote to the Minister of Environment.)
  • every AAS document published at least till the end of 2004 was published with endorsements after a process in which Section 1, was never revealed to endorsees. (This turned out to be combined justification for the AAS and a legal opinion which the project managers told us was their own composition and which neither they nor any endorsees have the legal expertise to endorse.)
  • the project managers have often stated that they would expect to be able to amend the AAS at their discretion, making a mockery of the working group process and the endorsements and the concept of definitive standards. (There have been examples of this including the "April 2005" revisions which occurred in May 2005, and the August 2005 revision of AAS - Bushwalking.)


Implementation

The AAS documents attempt to apply a standard corporate model of risk management to outdoor recreation. What we love is that they haven't applied it to the project itself!

  • Didn't establish aims
  • Didn't get qualifications or experience on board
  • Didn't identify, quantify or document the risks
  • Didn't establish mitigation methods for those risks

Lack of regard for stakeholders

Stakeholders who were not comfortable with the concept were told that stakeholders could not stop the project and therefore had only the option of submitting comments but would have to accept the ORC's product however unsatisfactory they might find it. So, while being touted as community consensus, the AAS are actually being imposed on stakeholders wherever the stakeholder's views don't suit the ORC and the industry groups that drive it.

In fact, Adventure Victoria was excluded from the process in July 2004. Hand on heart, there is no legitimate reason that we are aware of. We were told it was because the project had closed. Palpably it had not because of the two AAS subjects we have most expertise in, AAS - Bushwalking was not published till ten months later and is still changing, and AAS - Snow is still in production. The only real reason is that we want a change - one critical change - that doesn't suit commercial interests.

Shifting sands

In the course of discussing proposed wording in AAS -Bushwalking, ORC has claimed it has the authority to make changes that it considers to be reasonable, at its discretion. This is no way to conduct a proper process of community/industry consultation.

The Chair of ORC has subsequently assured us that this will never happen, and it has been happening ever since.

Secrecy

Consistently we find privacy or workload being used to shield key people from contact with stakeholders and to hide documents.

  • The Department of Sport and Recreation has never been willing to identify the 'delegate', that is, the officer responsible for the project. Strangely, even the ORC seems genuinely not to know.
  • The project managers would not supply basic information about themselves (ie who is the ORC?) or about the project deliverables, until we began using Freedom of Information, claiming that the names of the members of their board and the AAS Steering Committee were private matters.
  • The project managers refused to email the report of Stage 1 of the AAS, claiming workload prioritisation difficulties.
  • The project managers will not release to this key stakeholder the ongoing drafts of incomplete AAS - or presumably to any source of critical examination.


The Decision to Go National

The decision to go national is to be made by each state. We believe it has already been. Each state's decision is based on a recommendation made by a committee of delegates from each state's department of sport. That committee is called Standing Committee of Recreation and Sport (SCORS)

We identified and contacted SCORS by co-incidence just before it met to decide whether to make the recommendation. We described the dissatisfaction in Victoria and brought to their attention the unsupportive QC's opinion in our possession.

SCORS later replied to our letter, advising that the decision had been made in favour of going national but inadvertently revealing that it had been made on at least one faulty understanding of the Victorian situation. Further, you would assume that the very existence of a QC's opinion would be reason to postpone a decision or make it subject to review of the QC's opinion. The opinion was not on our website at the time, the project managers subsequently claimed never to have looked at it, and we ourselves were not asked for it. It is reasonable for us to assume that the existence of the unsupportive QC's opinion gave no pause to the delegates. Our response is at SCORS.

But remember that it is ultimately the decision of the state governments whether to proceed. We wrote to the state ministers. We received only three acknowledgements, only one making any reference to the content of the letters. That was from the relevant Queensland department and claimed that 'evidence' supports the success of the Victorian AAS. We replied, asking them to source that evidence and they have never replied.

Conclusion: The decision to go national was poorly informed. Further, those who made the decision must have known that there has never been a qualified study of the expected safety, legal, insurance or socio/economic impacts of the AAS. It raises again the question, if it doesn't make informed decisions for us, what is a government actually for then?




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