Independent research: Improving Ombudsman services to Indigenous communities
The Ombudsman’s office commissioned independent research to better inform our approach to providing accessible complaint services to Indigenous communities. This research was conducted by Indigenous communications and research company Winangali and was completed in November 2010. The full report is available here.
Although the research focused on improving Ombudsman services, the findings provide valuable insights useful to any agency providing services to, or engaging with, Indigenous people and communities. We consider it important to share this research.
Lessons learnt through Ombudsman work in Indigenous communities
The Ombudsman’s office received funding to provide an independent oversight and complaints mechanism for the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) and Closing the Gap programs in the Northern Territory (NT). The Ombudsman has a dedicated Indigenous Unit, funded until June 2012, which:
- provides an outreach service to remote Indigenous communities in the NT to provide information about the role of the office; take, investigate, and resolve complaints; and obtain feedback about the impact of programs on communities
- engages closely with key stakeholders and community representatives to identify broader issues requiring government action
- draws on complaints and feedback to identify systemic issues
- works collaboratively with agencies to resolve systemic issues and improve service delivery to Indigenous people in the NT.
Complaints and feedback received by the Indigenous Unit since its inception have one common theme—communication and engagement. Our observations, investigations into these complaints and feedback suggest that there is significant scope for improvement in the way government agencies communicate and engage with Indigenous people. Our office is not immune to these challenges. Accordingly, we have used the research to adapt our own outreach and communication practices.
The findings of the research, coupled with our experiences and observations, provide practical lessons that agencies may find useful in their efforts to improve communication and engagement with Indigenous communities. Many of these lessons are straightforward or already widely recognised. We think there is more to do to improve in these areas.
Use of trained Indigenous interpreters:
- improving the use of Indigenous interpreters is critical to achieving a better relationship with Indigenous people and ensuring that communication and engagement is effective
- increasing awareness about the importance of using trained interpreters and ensuring staff are adequately trained in working with Indigenous interpreters is important
- for more information, see the Ombudsman’s report into this issue, which is available at http://www.ombudsman.gov.au/files/Talking_in_Language-Indigenous_Interpreters_REPORT-05-2011.pdf.
Ensure staff are adequately trained and supported to communicate in a culturally respectful and appropriate manner and have access to the necessary tools and information:
- cultural awareness training and knowledge is essential for government officials working in Indigenous communities
- government officials responsible for engaging with Indigenous communities must be fully informed about and/or able to get answers to questions quickly regarding their agency’s Indigenous programs in order to be able to deliver messages accurately, explain decisions, resolve queries from people and ensure information is understood in a timely way
- local staff need avenues to provide feedback, report concerns and relay community input back to their agency to be acted upon, as appropriate.
Consider the environment where Indigenous people connect with government:
- shop fronts, offices or service points should be accessible, inviting and friendly
- it is important that there are appropriate facilities for private and personal conversations, including discussions involving people’s personal details. This can be challenging in the remote context, but staff must be sensitive to this issue when talking to people in public areas or where others are present.
- government officials should test whether messages, decisions and information have been properly understood by Indigenous people. They also need to confirm that they have properly understood feedback or information provided to them by Indigenous people. The Winangali research reinforces that word of mouth is an important channel for sharing information among Indigenous communities. Often, government agencies engage with community representatives, committees or reference groups who then relay information to community residents. This approach requires that agencies ensure representatives properly understand information and are able to explain it to others
- factors such as ‘gratuitous concurrence’, whereby Indigenous people may indicate agreement during a conversation in English in order to avoid embarrassment for either party, can mask a failure to achieve true understanding and engagement.
Evaluate communication and engagement strategies and material:
- significant work is being done across government to improve communication and engagement with Indigenous communities. An essential component of any strategy is quality evaluation of communication and engagement
- many agencies have developed extensive materials to better explain and inform people about services, programs and reforms. These include fact sheets, talking posters, story boards, radio advertisements, brochures and booklets. Despite this investment, the complaints we receive frequently highlight problems with community awareness, communication and access to information. This suggests more needs to be done to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of material and strategies.
Consider phone/computer access and proficiency:
- agencies should be cautious about relying solely on phone or internet channels for Indigenous people to contact them
- our own office undertakes outreach to remote communities to facilitate face-to-face contact, as we do not generally receive complaints from Indigenous people via traditional channels such as phone, fax, email or internet
- there may be several barriers preventing people from contacting an agency via phone or internet, including language, cost and access to phones or internet (particularly in remote areas). Further, people may not be comfortable or familiar with using those channels or other automated services.
Support communication with visual material:
- the research reinforces the benefits of using visual material or illustrations to convey a story or message, particularly when communicating with people who have a low level of literacy
- we have seen many good examples of this, including story boards and DVDs .
Simple and clear messages:
- a careful balance needs to be struck to ensure that complex information is not oversimplified. Agencies should consider and review how they deliver information and whether messages are clear, free from jargon or terms not widely known and accurate. Details of avenues for further information should also be provided.
Letters to confirm important information or decisions:
- the research and our experience reinforce the need for agencies to provide written confirmation of important information and decisions
- letters should clearly explain decisions or any action that a person is required to take, and include the details of an agency officer for the recipient to contact should they wish to discuss the issue or ask questions about a letter’s contents
- letters should also be clear, include all relevant information and be free from errors
- if letters explain a decision, clear and adequate reasons for the decision should be provided, including details of the evidence relied upon and detailed information about review rights.
Importance of effective and genuine consultation and engagement:
- consultation is particularly important before key decisions are made; or where programs or actions will have a lasting or significant impact on communities or individuals; or where a government reform requires a change to the way Indigenous people interact with agencies; or where activity may have an impact on cultural practices or community traditions or sensitivities
- in these scenarios, it is important that consultation is built into programs and timeframes at the outset
- to support meaningful consultation, agencies should ensure that information is provided in a timely manner and at appropriate junctures in a process
- consultation must be genuine, inclusive and tailored to take into consideration individual and community needs.
Adequate complaint mechanisms to identify problems and resolve individual concerns:
- agencies should have complaint mechanisms that are effective, appropriate and accessible to Indigenous people
- agencies should consider the findings of this research and review their approach to complaint handling in relation to Indigenous people and communities
- information about best practices in complaint handling can be found in the Ombudsman publication at http://www.ombudsman.gov.au/docs/better-practice-guides/onlineBetterPracticeGuide.pdf.
Date of release: 13 June 2012