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.
The Green Loans program - 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. First, instead of 2,000-odd small business owners roaming the suburbs and doing good deeds on the government's dime, there are over 7,000 accredited HSAs out of 9,500 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 September 30. DEWHA ignored this advice and did not suspend training until December 24. On January 22, 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 per cent in the first week).
This has led to a positive feedback loop of other problems. The glut of HSAs has also meant that the program is burning through money at an alarming rate. Initially, the program had a budget for 360,000 assessments. As of February 14, 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 per cent. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on February 6, 2010 that around 1,000 loans had been granted but more than 200,000 assessments had taken place - a follow-through rate of less than 0.5 per cent.
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 February 19, 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.