The Canberra Institute of Technology has been asked to explain what a nearly $5 million contract awarded to a “complexity and systems thinker” was for.
It was revealed yesterday (7 June) that CIT had, over time, paid out contracts worth more than $8 million to consultant Patrick Hollingworth’s companies Think Garden and Redrouge Nominees Limited since 2018.
Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee demanded answers from the Minister for Skills, Chris Steel, about why so much public money was being funnelled towards Mr Hollingworth – whose website described him as a “complexity and systems thinker” who “looks for patterns and weak signals”.
Tender documents say the latest contract – which came in just $10 shy of the $5 million threshold at which contracts go before the government’s procurement board – was intended to “establish and self-sustain practices that allow for iterative learning cycles across a range of temporal (weeks, months, years and decades) and spatial (individuals, teams, departments, colleges/divisions) scales”.
Mr Steel has now written to CIT and has given them one week to provide a jargon-free explanation of what the contracts were for.
The Minister also noted he’d already raised questions about these contracts, although they had previously been for much smaller sums of money.
In a letter to the chair of the CIT board, Mr Steel said the government had “flagged concerns that [the previous] contracts may not represent an efficient use of public funds in line with community expectations”.
“I am therefore concerned that CIT has entered into another, significantly larger contract with this provider, following those discussions and advice,” his letter read.
“I have reviewed the tender documentation and contract for this procurement and am unable to determine the specific work to be delivered through it, based on the use of jargon and an ill-defined statement of requirements.”
Mr Steel’s letter questioned whether lower-cost alternatives had been examined.
When asked for a simple explanation, a spokesperson for CIT said: “This language is appropriate for the market for the specific technical services for which CIT required as part of operationalising the aspiration and intent of the strategy set by the CIT Board.
“It means that CIT wish to progress the strategy it has been using, which is based on systems complexity, to build the adaptive capacity of CIT to constantly change and produce better outcomes for industry and students. The work will include expanding the ability to experiment and test ideas and codesign context-specific solutions.”
Ms Lee argued the contracts’ vague language immediately sounded alarm bells and they were “wilfully opaque”.
“What is it? How do we know we get value for delivering whatever that is?” she questioned.
“The key information missing from these contracts is what you would expect to see and certainly what you see in other government contracts, which is to outline the personnel, their qualifications and their charge out rate whether it’s daily or hourly, and milestones.”
Ms Lee said it was yet another example of the culture of secrecy fostered by the ACT Government.
The Canberra Liberals moved a motion calling for the government to commission an independent audit of all the contracts awarded to Mr Hollingworth.
Mr Steel also urged the Auditor-General to look into them.
A spokesperson for Mr Steel’s office said the release and negotiation of external contracts are matters for the CIT board and executive as it operates with an executive independent of government.
Nevertheless, “as the public provider for skills and training in the ACT, the government expects the CIT to use public funds appropriately and efficiently in pursuit of its mission to deliver high-quality education for Canberrans”.
The Minister said he only became aware of the latest contract on Monday (6 June) afternoon.
CIT has until 14 June to respond to Mr Steel.