13 April 2010

HSA delay - Volume Six: Where do we stand?

With a Senate Inquiry looming, this is as good a time as any to take stock of the Green Loans Program. The scheme has been riddled at all levels with a broad spectrum of problems, many of which have already been discussed at length, even on this blog. However, we need to understand where we are at this point in time and, most importantly, what to do from here.

What follows is a summary of the GLP so far, laced with a few anecdotes I have received personally from assessors, both working and waiting, and customers who have had their own homes assessed.


The workforce

Last year, the Home Sustainability Assessment Scheme attracted numbers far beyond the one or two thousand assessors projected. According to an ABSA email bulletin on 11 February 2010, at least 9522 people had applied for membership in relation to the Green Loans Program. From a session of the Senate Committee on the Environment Communication and the Arts on 9 February 2010, we know that at least 3648 of them were already contracted to DEWHA to perform assessments; by the time Mr Garrett announced changes to the program ten days later, this figure may have been closer to 3800.

Those HSAs who have actually been working have suffered extensive delays. DEWHA’s centralised booking system proved dreadfully inadequate, providing little work for HSAs and forcing HSAs to wait what was often hours or even days to book new assessments. The on-line booking system that was initially promised never materialised, although the much-maligned company Fieldforce were granted a means of running their own on-line booking system, bypassing the congestion on the phone system and grabbing the lion’s share of the work as a result – at a measly cost of $1,000,000, or just a couple of weeks’ revenue.

While it appears that the phone congestion has eased somewhat, work as an HSA is hardly plain sailing. Due to changes announced by Mr Garrett on 19 February 2010, each HSA is limited to just five assessments per week and does fewer than four on average, reducing most HSAs to part-time employment status. This is problematic for HSAs who have no other source of income, and particularly for those subcontracted to larger operations that entitle themselves to more than half of the $200 assessment fee. In addition, HSAs are now having greater difficulty convincing householders of the value of an assessment, since the main incentive having one done – the Green Loan itself – has been discontinued.

Most troubling, though, is the delay with which DEWHA are paying invoices for the assessments being conducted. Many on the ABSA Forum have complained of invoices taking well over the prescribed 30 days to discharge; some have complained that DEWHA has typically taken 5-6 weeks to make payments, others of payments taking several months to arrive. Consequently, assessors already restricted to part-time work are finding it increasingly difficult to justify the thousands of dollars they have invested, let alone to repay the debts that many have incurred, to join the Green Loans Program. A friend of mine, who wished to remain anonymous, has gone one step further and withdrawn from the process indefinitely, on the grounds that the GLP is “a bit too controversial and dishonourable for me to work within”. Those who have persisted are having some luck speeding up the payment process by lodging official complaints with the Commonwealth Ombudsman – although it is telling, of course, that such a measure was thought necessary, and more telling that it appears to be yielding results.

The waiting list

The 3800 practising HSAs come from a pool that still includes some 5300 trained applicants without DEWHA contracts. About 3500 of these (including myself) are ABSA members, while the remaining 1800 applications were never processed, following the announcement of a nationwide cap of 5000 assessors by Mr Garrett in February.

The fate of these assessors-to-be has not yet been decided. In private correspondence, I sense that there are at least two schools of thought among those on the waiting list. Some would prefer to be compensated for their wasted money and time, to cut their losses, and to leave the industry entirely. Others, thinking of the bigger picture, would prefer to be compensated via further employment opportunities, in the GLP or a similar program, to see the green-collar job market flourish.

Rachel Hehir, a fellow training colleague and uncontracted ABSA, suggested to me that without an official plan to award further contracts, without an official plan for compensation, and with a long time before any such programs would be launched, this is a prohibitively difficult question:

“I can’t answer that as I had invested in this program on the basis that it would formulate the backbone of a small business where I was able to work for myself. [...] If the terms of future employment were the same as what was laid out for the greens loans program at $200 per assessment and flexible booking, then yes, I would be interested. [...]

I feel that this is up to individuals. [...] I have options in life but held this program in great esteem as a way to integrate my technical training with a green career. So, it would be hard to say whether opting out now is the best option for the long term. As well, with regard to compensation, the Government would have to include lost earnings etc. on top of the simple cost of the course - an option I do not feel they have even started to consider.”

Another responder, remaining anonymous, offered a far more blunt opinion in support of compensation:

“Let’s not forget just how bad this department have just proven themselves as a business partner. In my opinion, they have revealed a conniving disinterest in the program’s outcome, and have genuinely and knowingly hurt people with deliberate business sabotage in an attempt to obtain false political kudos. [...]

The compensation [...] will solve several issues immediately by getting [ABSA’s] desired reduction in assessor numbers straight away so they can get on with it straight away. Fairly reducing assessor numbers is definitely ‘issue number one’ in a project-management approach to sorting the GLP issue out, and solving this issue should be expediently got out of the way.”

However, there are implications that HSAs could undertake training for broader work in the future. The Federal Government plans to introduce mandatory disclosure of energy efficiency of all houses for sale or for rent, similar to what is already required in Queensland and the A.C.T.. However, this is not expected to be introduced nationwide before May 2011. At the current rate of assessments being performed, the current Green Loans Program funding will be exhausted this year, many months before this becomes a reality. ABSA is preparing its own program of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and hope to announce more details in the coming months.

GLP Assessor, a practising assessor who also maintains a GLP-related blog, questions the motives of those suggesting additional training to those who were never offered jobs the first time around:

“The fatcats offering the additional training had better offer it for free – at least as some form of compensation for the debacle they to have created.”

With the prospects of additional training but not actual employment, uncontracted HSAs find themselves in an interesting limbo. They could surely be forgiven for lacking enthusiasm for CPD or any hopes of broader training. Still laden with the sunk investments of many thousands of dollars and many months of waiting, their future remains uncertain.

The customers

Predominantly, assessors have been securing business through personal contacts, approaching householders by knocking on doors or delivering pamphlets. Very few bookings, it would seem, are initiated by potential clients calling the booking centre directly. Most of the stories I have heard from householders who have received assessments have implied that there would otherwise be little awareness of the Green Loans Program among the general public. Last year, DEWHA had promised a national marketing strategy to be rolled out in March 2010, although this campaign never eventuated.

There is no doubt that the discontinuation of the Green Loans themselves has had a serious negative impact on the program. Many potential clients have had assessments performed in order to obtain a Green Loan; according to GLP Assessor, this figure could be as high as 75-85%. Others have cancelled appointments upon learning that the Green Loan would be discontinued, and one contact of mine has been recommending against booking an assessment as a result. It is certainly more difficult to convince householders of the benefits of an assessment without the financial incentives to assist them in implementing any recommendations that the assessment report would make.

Mr Garrett’s media release on 19 February 2010 asserted that the Green Loans was a “less popular” aspect of the assessment scheme, and that discontinuing the loans component would “provide for the significant boost to assessment availability” of an additional 600,000 assessments. Shortly after Senator Wong assumed the mantle of the Minister responsible for the program, she revealed to the Senate that only 2864 people had applied for Green Loans, and that only 1705 of these applications had been approved.

However, at the time of Mr Garrett’s statement in February, I already knew that householders were enduring delays of several months in receiving their assessment reports from DEWHA. Without these reports, customers were unable to apply for a Green Loan. I personally know someone whose home was assessed in August 2009, specifically to apply for a Green Loan. By the time of this submission, over seven months later, she still did not have her report, despite numerous phone calls to DEWHA. I believe that this is a far more significant reason for the low uptake of Green Loans, and that suggestions of concerns resulting from the Global Financial Crisis or of a general lack of popularity of the Green Loans had a relatively minor effect.

Householders were also promised a $50 gift card, called a Green Rewards Card, as another incentive to having their homes assessed. This could have been used to make minor purchases, such as low-wattage light bulbs, as a precursor to applying for a Green Loan. Again, Senator Wong revealed on the Senate floor that the Green Rewards Card never got off the ground, and not a word has been spoken of it since.

With all of that said, I do get the impression that customers are generally happy with the assessments. There have been many tales told of HSAs turning up without appointments and completing assessments in less than half an hour without even entering the house. Perhaps these are not as widespread as we feared. I have spoken to a couple of friends who have had assessments done: they all spoke highly of their assessors, and they were all interested in the information that the assessor could provide. Some customers and HSAs have arranged follow-up meetings to discuss preliminary reports and how suggestions could be implemented.

Paradoxically, though, some of the more enthusiastic clients are already seeking that information independently, are already well informed before they even speak to an assessor, and therefore regard the assessment as preaching to the choir. Furthermore, some HSAs have raised concerns about the correctness of the assessments reports. One assessor told me that the reporting software does not always provide an assessment that specifically reflects the house being inspected. The ABSA delegation that met with Senator Wong in March spoke of the software’s insensitivity to geographical features and microclimates.

The professional body

Much of the ire from assessors has been directed at the two governing bodies responsible for the Green Loans Program, DEWHA and ABSA.

As a professional body, ABSA has the chief responsibility of accrediting trained assessors, in order for them to work within the Green Loans Program. Among assessors, ABSA is steadily building a reputation as an ineffective middleman, capable of conveniently stepping aside whenever real action or leadership is required. Many members continue to lament the lack of information contained in ABSA’s email bulletins, as well as the length of time that problems with the Green Loans Program have persisted. (To be fair, it really is up to DEWHA to make most of the major decisions with regards to the program.)

Their reputation was poorly served by a web-based seminar, held on 22 March 2010 and featuring CEO Allison Carmichael and Chairman Wayne Floyd, among others. Assessors like myself logged in to get a better idea of who ABSA were, what they were thinking and what they hoped for the Green Loans Program. After some 90 minutes, we had gleaned precious little new or useful information, and we certainly had no impression of immediate action on our behalf. ABSA assured us to be patient with both them and Senator Wong, but were not the least bit apologetic towards complaints about brief and infrequent communication. Brushing such criticisms aside by saying that “we’re communicating whenever we’ve got something to say”, as Ms Carmichael did, and blaming members for not checking their email, as Mr Floyd did twice, is hardly becoming for a professional body, least of all one in such turmoil and from which action is so urgently required.

During the on-line seminar in March, ABSA even questioned their own role in governing training numbers. A question was posed about the excessive number of people trained, the warnings that ABSA lodged with DEWHA as early as August 2009, and the tardiness of the training moratorium on 24 December 2009. ABSA replied that they were not responsible for deciding when training would stop. Weren’t they? Who else should take that responsibility?

Another piece missing from the puzzle is the attitude that ABSA shows towards non-practising assessors such as myself. ABSA recently conducted a survey of its members, touted as being “to better serve its members” but excluding some 3500 members who were not currently conducting assessments. When some uncontracted HSAs complained on the ABSA Forum about being left out of the survey, HSAS Manager Simon Gallagher famously responded that “the survey is for the business of members, and what members do is assessments”. I see no reason why non-practising but still paid-up members should feel like second-class members.

For all the complaints about ABSA, one ray of hope shone on 24 March 2010, when Mr Gallagher sent out some notes from an ABSA presentation made to Senator Wong, after the Senate session on 10 March. In a single email, ABSA suggested a number of measures aimed at developing the skills of assessors, joined the call for compensation to those members who have given up work or who will inevitably miss out on a contract, and conveyed its hopes for an industry that can sustain itself with decreasing dependence on taxpayers’ money. Never mind that ABSA took two weeks to send this information to us, nor that very little of this information was mentioned in the webinar two weeks later, nor that a month has passed since that meeting with no results at all. We finally have some idea what ABSA believes in and what they hope for.

Finding that out after so long was a big step for me, but not everyone is convinced. A number of organisations have formed around Australia – some nationally, some in regional centres – as support networks for those affected by the GLP. While there is no view to replacing ABSA as a professional body, the concept was spawned from widespread disillusion and the belief that ABSA has not been representing us strongly enough. One such group, set up by Sustainability Assessors Australia, has even been seeking interest is a class action lawsuit against the government for misrepresenting the GLP – although this is seen by all, including by SAA, as a last resort. (Full disclosure: I have volunteered as an editor for SAA’s assessor action site.)

The government

This only leaves one party we haven’t heard from, and it’s the party that ultimately makes the big decisions.

The Green Loans Program was originally to be managed by DEWHA, but as of 8 March 2010, it now falls under Senator Wong and DCCEE. The handover is surely incomplete, as all information related to the GLP remains on the DEWHA web site, and apart from a transcript of Senator Wong’s Senate speech on 10 March 2010, the DCCEE web site makes no mention of the GLP whatsoever. Most troublingly, I have attempted to use the contact form on the government’s official Green Loans page, only to find that the email address behind it is no longer in service – and DCCEE has no service to replace it.

I have spoken already, particularly in HSA delay – Volume Two, about the knee-jerk reaction from Mr Garrett in February. By contrast, Senator Wong appears to be taking a more measured approach. It was noted during a meeting with a delegation of HSAs on 19 March 2010 that it might be preferable to revamp the program by “[implementing] a series of changes in one hit”, rather than rushing through changes only thought out in the short term. This isn’t solving anything for now, but given the breadth of the catastrophe so far, it is perhaps a wise move in the bigger picture.

What is unwise, though, is that Senator Wong is keeping the scope for rectifying the problems very narrow. Delegates at the meeting on 19 March noted, rather bluntly, a number of options that had seemingly been entirely removed from the debate. Firstly, it was noted that the Green Loan decision was made by the Cabinet and that Senator Wong would not be revisiting it. Is she not part of the Cabinet that made the decision, and a decision specifically related to her own and Mr Garrett’s portfolios? Can she not elaborate on how and why that decision was made under pretences known to be false? Secondly, there would be no additional or ongoing funding for the scheme, and no extensions to its lifespan. This ignores the initial projections of keeping the GLP running for four years and my more recent estimates that its funds would be exhausted after less than two, in late 2010.

Most disturbingly, though, has been the bevy of excuses for not entertaining the possibility of compensating those HSAs who never received contracts or who are no longer able to take part in the GLP for financial reasons. One excuse has been the expectation of a fixed time span and budget for the program. However, it is largely the government’s poor planning and inability to respond to ABSA’s warnings about assessor numbers – dating back at least from August 2009 – that will see the program’s funds exhausted well short of the initial projection of four years. Another excuse has been the subtle differences between the GLP and DEWHA’s Home Insulation Program, another scheme to promote home energy efficiency. While the government has made compensation available to participants in the HIP, the same policy does not apply to the GLP, since the HIP was an employment program and the GLP was merely an environmental initiative. This is nothing more than splitting hairs, and ABSA were certain to note, following the meeting on 10 March, that they do not share this view:

“Despite a belief that the two schemes were quite different in their nature … the Green Loans program was promoted by Government as a potential business/ employment opportunity.

For example job seekers were encouraged to undertake training for accreditation; contracts make reference to small business and marketing etc.”

The bottom line is thus. Senator Wong has no plans to provide compensation to those disaffected in the GLP. Any such plan to be implemented in the future will have to do so with no support whatsoever, in the form of either money or time. By that stage, though, there will likely be at least one more lame excuse why it can’t be done anyway.

What now?

Without hearing anything constructive from Senator Wong, it is impossible to know the way forward from here. All we can say is what we are hoping might happen.

Ultimately, I think that most people would want this industry, at least in its principles, to survive and to grow. In the longer term, ABSA would like the energy and water efficiency of buildings to be sustainable (pardon the term) and to stand for itself without the need for government handouts. We are a long way from this point, sadly; we need a stronger base of professionals with more finely-honed skills, and customers must be educated in the value of such an industry, even if we have to do the teaching ourselves.

Government assistance is not always unwanted, of course. Perhaps it is unfair to blame the public sector for all of the indiscretions of private industry. That said, the government created the system that has allowed these indiscretions to occur, and even now that the scale of the damage is well known, it has done little to prevent things from getting worse. The Green Loans Program continues to unfold as a great human tragedy, with lost livelihoods and financial ruin left in its wake.

However, without knowing what the government is prepared to attempt, in order to fix the mess it has made, one can’t help but wonder if our hopes will ever be anything but dashed. It is fair enough for Senator Wong to prefer that we end up with a job out of all this, rather than just waiting for the fistful of cash that would spur us to leave. That said, there’s a lot of work to do before that job even exists, so for most of us, that can’t be the only option on the table. In the meantime, if she does not think that the government should make compensation available at all to those disadvantaged by the government’s own mismanagement of the Green Loans Program, she should just say so. I think we have heard enough about what can’t be done and why it’s not possible. It is time for the government to start talking about what is possible and, more to the point, what is fair. We need to set a goal.

An anonymous commenter alluded to the need for co-operative and constructive approach, not least of all in the relationship between ABSA and DEWHA, in determining a satisfactory outcome:

“I think [ABSA] want us happily off their books, as there are already far too many assessors, yet their ineffectiveness despite hefty fee-funding partly or largely caused us to get in this mess. Therefore they will have trouble getting us unhappily off their books. They would probably reasonably expect DEWHA or the new dept to fund our obliging and happy withdrawal from their books, as their timely but unheeded input to DEWHA about our looming plight is well documented. [...]

They need to solve this issue to the fair satisfaction of their fee-paying members. The department which ignored their timely advice and stonewalled them is now obliged to assist them to repair the damage that this caused. ABSA shouldn’t be financially ruined by this, but I think they should maybe lose some of the fees that should be repaid. After all, not many people are completely happy with ABSA's representation, despite any ‘spin’.”

As I have consistently written since January, my greatest fear from the trials of the Green Loans Program – and from comparable fate being suffered by the Home Insulation Program – is that building an industry focussed on environmental efficiency be perceived as a bad idea. As tragic as the failures of the Green Loans Program have been, it would be a greater tragedy to pass off the whole concept as a failed experiment and not to try again to get it right. The green-collar job market is a topic of much greater public interest than was foreseen, not least of which because of the future ramifications of grand issues such as peak oil and climate change.

It is my view that government inaction on the Green Loans Program sends two pointedly negative messages. Firstly, the government has no intention of solving problems, even if those problems are of its own creation, and even if those problems are ruining the livelihoods of ordinary people. Secondly, the government is not serious about the GLP, and by extension, it is apathetic about the black eye that the green-collar industry has suffered as a result. I do not believe that the government believes in either of these perceptions, and I take Senator Wong at her word that what may outwardly appear to be inaction is moreover preparation to act with certainty and decisiveness. This Inquiry may even be used as an excuse for action not being taken sooner, although we know not what action.

Whichever path is taken, of course, we must all keep sight of those of us in the Green Loans Program who have been left the most vulnerable, and for whom there is much more hardship yet to come.

4 comments:

Smith said...

I read your report on Green Loans. Good work. My report is number 49 on http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/eca_ctte/green_loans/submissions.htm and details just how bad the back end software was...

Darryl

Aaron Nielsen said...

Darryl,

Thanks for your kind words.

I read your submissions to the Inquiry about the assessment you received, and I have to congratulate you on your thoroughness. Since I never received a contract to work in the GLP, I had only ever heard stories like this secondhand, in as much as people could remember. It's also a huge plus that you discuss things from a technical standpoint. Great stuff!

Cheers,
Aaron

Vicky said...

Hi Aaron,
This is great reading your comments, and I look forward to meeting you in Canberra in a few weeks, I was told today that the insulation installers are also protesting on the 24th so it should be interesting, we will be by the end of the week requesting a meeting with KRudd, so we will see how that goes. Keep up the good work and I will see you on the 24th.

Vicki

Aaron Nielsen said...

Vicky,

Thanks for your comments, and for all your work so far. I'll be interested to see if any big names do come out to meet us in Canberra!

Cheers,
Aaron