20 February 2010

HSA delay - Volume Two

Update: This article was republished in On Line Opinion on 24 February 2010. Many thanks to Susan Prior for her consideration.

Given the pressure mounting against the Minister for the Environment, Peter Garrett, you would think that he would be trying to stem the tide of scandals unfolding from his portfolio. If a problem persists, try to solve it, or at least try not to make it worse. Sadly, politics is not that kind of operation.

Endemic problems

The Green Loans Programme - as it is now misleadingly being called - is undergoing a few major changes. This is surely due in no small part to the many complaints made by both existing and pending Home Sustainability Assessors (HSAs). In the spirit of full disclosure, I am still one of the latter.

There are a few glaring problems with the scheme, as least in the manner in which it has been implemented. Firstly, instead of 2000-odd small business owners roaming the suburbs and doing good deeds on the government's dime, there are over 7000 accredited HSAs out of 9500 applications, and many of these HSAs work for established energy companies. ABSA, the non-profit accrediting body, warned DEWHA in August 2009 of high numbers of assessors and asked for a cap from 30 September; DEWHA ignored this advice and did not suspend training until 24 December. On 22 January 2010, ABSA sent an email inviting applicants to withdraw from the accreditation process, which would waive the ABSA membership fee but not refund any training or insurance costs. As I predicted, very few applicants took them up on this (less than 2% in the first week).

This has led to a positive feedback loop of other problems. The glut of HSAs has also meant that the programme is burning through money at an alarming rate. Initially, the programme had a budget for 360,000 assessments. As of 14 February 2010, 267,000 of these assessments had already been booked, with many thousands being conducted every week. Furthermore, all assessments are booked through a centralised call centre, which has proven dreadfully inadequate to handle the number of requests. I have heard firsthand of HSAs having literally spent days on the phone, trying to book new work and repeatedly being disconnected. Some assessors have been advised to work without making official bookings; there's nothing stopping you, but without a booking, you can't invoice DEWHA, so you can't get paid.

The second problem has proven even more scandalous. It turns out that a company called Fieldforce has had an "IT interface" to the booking system all along. Field Force has a substantial army of HSAs and a direct line to the booking system - essentially allowing them to charge the government for assessments as fast at they can walk their contractors out the door. Strangely, this was promised to individual assessors as well, but nobody has access to it, except via Fieldforce. Other HSAs must make do with a call centre simply overwhelmed by demand, to book at most five assessments at a time, on the occasion that someone answers the phone. The system was designed and built to be unfair.

Finally, the government has purported that the actual green loans themselves have not proven as popular as hoped. DEWHA had budgeted for 75,000 loans of up to $10,000 each; from a pool of 360,000 households obtaining assessments, that's a modest hit rate of 21%. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 6 February 2010 that around 1000 loans had been granted but more than 200,000 assessments had taken place - a follow-through rate of less than half a percent.

However, GLP Assessor on BlogSpot has released evidence of clients waiting on outstanding reports since as far back as October. Reports are supposed to follow the assessments by a few weeks, not a few months - and of course, you need the assessment report to finalise the loan. If DEWHA has in fact collated data of their own on the demand for the loans, they have yet to release it; but you can't help but wonder how widespread these delays are.

To the rescue

Fortunately, our fearless leaders in Canberra have a plan. The plan isn't very thorough or very useful, and little to no good will come of it. As I have often said of the public service, especially during my seven-plus years in the defence industry: if you don't want to be seen doing nothing useful, just do something useless. Anyway, here it is.

On 19 February 2010, DEWHA issued a press release entitled Significant changes to Commonwealth environmental programs, addressing both the Green Loans scheme and the Home Insulation Program (another dilemma for Mr Garrett). I don't know who writes this rubbish, but I couldn't help but laugh at the announcement to "put householders back in charge of the environmental products installed in their home" - a tacit admission that the department tried to make things better and has so far failed miserably. So, it's defeatist right from the start.

Skipping ahead, we come to the "redesigned and extended" Green Loans program. DEWHA has announced funding for an additional 600,000 assessments, as well as rule changes that would "[allow] only individual assessors to make bookings". I wonder how this would affect the companies set up to make bookings en masse and to subcontract to pay HSAs less than half of the normal $200 fee. Still, back to the press release: so far, so good.

To extend the programme ever further, DEWHA is implementing a cap of 15,000 assessments per week, with individual HSAs capped at three assessments in any one day and five in any given week. Given that there are 600,000 bookings to go around, that means the program will run for at least another 40 weeks - or until the end of November 2010. Since there are already 7000 accredited HSAs (as of 12 February 2010) - the 2000 applications in the pipeline notwithstanding - each one will conduct an average of about two assessments per week, for $400 of take-home pay.

To fix the problem created by the previous solution, DEWHA proposes to restrict the number of HSAs under contract to 5000, give or take 1200. HSA numbers already far exceed this, and it is not clear what will happen to those who don't make the cut (and a press release wouldn't hazard such a guess about such a thorny issue, naturally). These numbers would still only mean three assessments a week, on average, for a gross income of about $30,000 per annum.

The ultimate lunacy, though - so far - is that to make way for the funds to perform these addition assessments, the actual green loans are being scrapped. Yes, the Green Loans programme - conceived to help people adjust to more environmentally-friendly lifestyles by lending them easy money - is breaking free from its eponymous but somehow "less popular" burden. What reason remains for a householder to get an assessment? Even if you can put up with someone like me spending two hours in your house pointing out everything that's wrong with it, the up-front funding to fix those shortcomings isn't there any more.

Besides, one can't really be sure that the lack of popularity of the loans is even real. If there are assessment reports outstanding since October all over the country, the supposed unpopularity of the loans might well be nothing more than an inefficiency of the mechanism that finalises the reports. If GLP Assessor's figures are to be believed, 85% of those householders waiting for assessment reports are considering the loan; and if those figures aren't to be believed, they're certainly high enough to warrant a second look elsewhere.

ABSA has also issued a press release welcoming the changes to the Green Loans programme, but not without its own signs of frustration. ABSA Chairman Wayne Floyd confirmed in the press release the warning from August 2009 about the impending flood of trained assessors, and confirmed the glaring lack of a decision about what would happen to the trained and accredited HSAs who would be denied DEWHA contracts. Interestingly, the press release welcomed the funding for the extra 600,000 assessments, but made no mention whatsoever of the suspension of the green loans themselves. With five times as many assessors as predicted, and with no need to keep a kitty aside for the actual loans, where do they think the money for the extra assessments has come from?

Assessors in limbo

So where does that leave the poor sole assessor? Or, indeed, the poor sole yet-to-be-contracted-to-DEWHA assessor?

The short answer is still, sadly, exactly wherever they were. The booking call centre was taken off-line entirely on Friday and may remain closed for a few days. Even if I receive news of my contract application to DEWHA, I won't be able to get started on any assessments. (Still, at least I won't be waiting on the phone all day to figure that out for myself.) DEWHA is supposed to be getting back to me about the contract in the next week, but they may just have been holding off while they finalised all of these "significant changes".

As usual, the voice with the greatest degree of sanity is coming from the Australian Greens. Senator Christine Milne has been issuing press releases of her own, criticising "maladministration" by the leadership of the Green Loans programme and wondering, as I am, what will happen to the little guys who have been swept up in this mess. You can see a video of her addressing the Senate about the programme here.

Most interestingly, Sustainability Assessors Australia is considering a class-action lawsuit against DEWHA. SAA claims that the government has misled the general public about the programme, consequently leaving a lot of people thousands of dollars out of pocket. GLP Assessor is watching this development with a great deal of scrutiny. If there are other HSAs struggling with this, there's plenty of material to read while they sit at their desks pressing Redial.

The political attitude

In my previous post on the trials and tribulations of becoming a HSA, I already touched on the bigger picture. People are deeply concerned about environmental issues, and we all want to do our part to help. Suddenly, an entire new industry appears, with exciting job prospects and the promise of environmentally-friendly milk and honey. (Well, maybe just honey.)

However, the government, especially at a federal level, is comprised of followers, not leaders. The Green Loans programme is merely a toe, dipped in by a government long ago convinced by the bigger boys that the water's too cold for a swim. Its worldview is one of abundance, where nothing matters other than the road onward and upward, lined with a lifestyle that gets more affluent and therefore easier and more pleasant. Ordinary people would be fortunate not to be so greedy, or so complacent.

As I said before, it would be an even greater shame if the green-collar industry became something of a taboo before it even got off the ground. Here lie any number of untapped opportunities to teach us how to do more with less - in preparation for having to do less with even less in the longer term. For now, though, it seems that Mr Garrett only wants more. I don't know why: he can't like what he's got. Perhaps he thinks he can handle a bit more; personally, I wouldn't be so confident.

Even so, would it be so bad if he did step down as Minister? We saw with Andrew McNamara - the former Queensland Minister for Sustainability, Innovation and Climate Change - that even the purest idealism and the best intentions are drowned out by the noise of the clunky old government machine, but now that he's not in politics, he can speak and act as he chooses instead of toeing the party line. I can't imagine that Mr Garrett doesn't understand this and didn't see it coming. If he does resign, though, maybe he'll get the band back together - and go back to doing something respectable, instead of politics.

No comments: