Canberra consultancy paid $3m to help assess Industry department grants

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

A Canberra consultancy will be paid more than $3 million in the first half of this year to help the federal Industry department assess grants across a range of programs, with unprecedented levels of grants to be dished out.

The Industry department entered into six contracts with consultancy firm Synergy worth a total of $3.7 million from late last year running to the end of June 2022. The work was listed as being for “grants administration service provider”.

A spokesperson for the department has confirmed that this work includes the assessment of grants across six government programs.

“The Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER) administers grants across government, and through an open tender awarded six contracts to Synergy across six government programs from 1 October to 22 February 2022 for work that included assessments and contract management,” an Industry department spokesperson told InnovationAus.

This work is across programs housed within the Industry department and ones led by other departments. The spokesperson declined to reveal the six programs that Synergy will be working on. understands that Synergy is providing staff to the departments to work on the programs at short notice, and this is needed due to urgent timeframes to deploy the grant funding.

Parliament House in Canberra

The $3.652 million Synergy will be paid for work from late last year to mid-2022 is split across six separate contracts with the Industry department.

The largest is worth $1.674 million, running from 8 November 2021 to 30 June this year. Another will see Synergy net $754,000 across six months to early May 2022.

Synergy has also been brought in previously by the department to conduct eligibility assessments of applicants to the Boosting Female Founders program, which has recently been embroiled in controversy over claims that companies are accessing funds set aside for female-owned and run businesses which don’t fit that criteria.

None of the recent contracts relate to the Boosting Female Founders work, with the second round of funding under the program announced in early February.

The Industry department has also recently engaged global consulting giant PwC to offer a “surge capacity” for the assessment of grants. It was revealed recently that PwC was paid $105,000 in a fortnight under this contract – worth nearly $2 million in total – to provide six staff to assist with a number of AusIndustry programs.

This work involves the PwC staff drawing up grant guidelines and assessing applications to the program.

The consultancy was needed due to an “unprecedented” surge in work relating to Industry department grants, officials told a Senate Estimates hearing recently.

“Sometimes we do have an unprecedented surge and that’s what’s happened in this instance in terms of AusIndustry. We’ve got increasing numbers of grants which ended to be worked through and advanced,” an Industry department representative told the Senators.

This outsourcing drew the ire of Labor Senator Anthony Chisholm.

“Taxpayers are forking out millions of dollars to process election promises from the government. It’s outrageous we’re paying tens of thousands of dollars to a consultancy firm to get another pork barrel from this government ready,” Senator Chishold said.

The use of outside consultancies to directly assess government grant applications has been slammed by the public sector union as being “outrageous and indefensible”.

PwC has also been handed a number of contracts to conduct reviews and reports for the department, leading to concerns from the Opposition of “privatisation-by-stealth”.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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