Floriade celebrated three decades last year with an edition that needed, like every year, to reaffirm its place as one of Canberra's premier calendar festivals.
Visitor numbers were up, but they didn't make up all the ground lost on the 2014 peak. In fact, attendance was down 47,895 on that year. Apart from 2016, the crowd walking through Commonwealth Park's gates last spring was the lowest in six years.
A wet start to the month-long festival didn't help it, despite a number of other changes last year as it ran with the theme "rejuvenation". Events should reinvent themselves each year, but Floriade has been thought in recent times to be particularly tired-looking. Lower crowd figures aside, the ACT government still marks Floriade a "signature" event for the "short-to-medium" term in its new events strategy, so its status seems assured for some time at least.
A budget bungle pouring an extra $1.2 million into the event last year appears to vindicate the government decision to alter Floriade's course and find contractors to run it in 2018. The overspend may be another symptom of the malaise afflicting one of Canberra's major - and most renowned - national events. It also shows the government, somehow, lost its capacity to run the festival with financial discipline.
The blow-out was an error made possible by multiple other mistakes, an audit reveals. Most attention-grabbing, and perhaps relatable for the less computer literate, is a spreadsheet error that may have misrepresented the true budget for the festival. If $1.2 million in overspending can be explained even in part by a calculation error from an Excel user, that's indeed troubling. The spreadsheet mistake itself is less disturbing than the fact the error could be carried through the organisation running Floriade without anyone asking questions, or discovering the fault and correcting it.
Audit firm Protiviti put the bungle down to other problems, too. The event lacked a contracts register and appropriate procurement activities and controls. There was inadequate contract management and few contracts in place for significant expenditure. Payments were made outside of contracted amounts. There were unsigned contracts or memorandums of understanding, no event-specific financial reporting, and a lack of reconciliation and review of revenue sources.
Easy to see, then, why Floriade in 2017 not only surpassed its budget, but did so by more than $1 million. Discipline was obviously lax and the safeguards weren't in place to stop cost overruns. The victim in this is not only those paying for the event, but Floriade itself, and the territory it's meant to draw visitors to.
The lessons from the episode appear to have been learnt as the government moves to prevent a repeat. Whether Floriade will be helped by a new senior executive position to oversee events, and more rigorous staff training in procurement and contract management, will be evident in the balance sheet following the next edition in October.
As embarrassing as the blow-out is, Canberra may also take this as a chance to speed up the festival's renewal. A new team will deliver Floriade 2018, including an external event executive director and events firm Visabel, which has signed a $150,000 contract to run the festival and plan for the 2019 event.
This could be the bungle that helped turned around Floriade and its wilting crowd figures. If not, it may not find itself on the government's list of "signature" events far into its fourth decade.