Expressing concerns about its “unacceptable” conduct, ACT Skills Minister Chris Steel has accused the board of the Canberra Institute of Technology of causing “significant reputational damage” to the institution.
Mr Steel has written to board chair Craig Sloan instructing the board to “act with urgency” to restore confidence in CIT for staff, students and the community after it was revealed more than $8.5 million worth of contracts were awarded to a “systems and complexity thinker” apparently without board oversight.
He has also told the board it must prioritise teaching and learning.
In a letter sent to the Opposition and the Minister, a CIT staff member said they had “lost confidence” in the institute’s executive and was seriously concerned about its priorities.
“We have seen a huge disconnect between teaching staff and administrative staff at CIT. Teaching staff have constantly raised issues of failing infrastructure, inadequate online learning platforms and IT support services for both teachers and students,” the teacher wrote.
“It is difficult to see the value created within the organisation [by these contracts].”
The Minister admonished the CIT board who earlier this week said they couldn’t confirm if an almost $5 million contract with a company owned by consultant Patrick Hollingworth for items such as “establish[ing] and self-sustain[ing] practices that allow for iterative learning cycles” represented value for money.
Instead, the board said responsibility for those contracts sat with the executive.
But an “underwhelmed” Minister did not accept this and has now demanded the board review the governance arrangements which allowed that to happen.
“It’s concerning that it appears the board did not have significant visibility of these contracts, particularly for this latest, large contract that has been signed for $4.99 million,” Mr Steel said.
The Minister said he would now be issuing broad directions to the board to ensure that the board would have financial controls and oversight in place in the future.
The board, which already committed to an audit of the recent contract, has until the end of next month to complete this.
Since news of the contracts broke last week, it has emerged Mr Steel’s office had previously raised concerns with other contracts also issued to Mr Hollingworth’s companies – as had Procurement ACT on issues such as lack of deliverables and an unusually short time frame.
Mr Steel said it was unclear whether Procurement ACT’s advice had been followed and he believed the audit would pick up on that if it had, in fact, been the case.
“It is unacceptable that after I gave the message that [previous contracts] weren’t in line with community expectations, ultimately CIT didn’t do anything and went ahead with the latest contract anyway,” he said.
It’s understood current deputy-chair and former ACT Senator Kate Lundy will be appointed as chair at the end of this month as the current chair’s term is set to expire. A new deputy chair will also be appointed, and Mr Steel said he expected a “reset” would take place going forward.
Mr Steel said he would issue a new statement of expectations to the incoming board chair and he was confident in a change of leadership.
Due to CIT’s governance structure, Mr Steel does not have oversight of the CEO’s appointment and when asked if he had confidence in CIT CEO Leanne Cover, the Skills Minister would not be drawn, instead describing that as a matter for the board.
“It is clear through my letter that they should be reviewing what has occurred and that includes what the executive has done in relation to these contracts,” he said.
“I’ve encouraged them to review that matter and I’ve made it clear that senior executives are expected to appropriately manage the financial, human and reputational resources of an organisation.”
Mr Steel has repeatedly pointed out he does not have day-to-day oversight of CIT and that he cannot ask the institute to do “specific things”. But he said the government had moved quickly and he would continue to do what he could.
Governance structure notwithstanding, Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee has argued the buck stops with the Minister.
She argued the board is answerable to the Minister who is then answerable to the Assembly and, through it, to the public.
“The Chief Minister and the Minister for Skills still have not come clean with the public about what it is they knew, when they knew and why – under their watch – millions and millions of dollars have gone into these contracts,” she said.
“This government is in desperate damage control when they know this absolutely stinks – it’s too late.”
She has called for the Minister to resign and for the CEO to “answer questions”.
CIT and Mr Hollingworth have been contacted for comment.