E-bulletin Number 5
Number 5 - July 2009
- Ombudsman’s message
- Case studies
- Diary notes
A special theme in this e-bulletin is the importance of recordkeeping. A perennial issue in Ombudsman complaints is the failure of agencies to keep accurate and accessible records of their decisions and dealings with members of the public. The small extra time that is needed to ensure good recordkeeping can lead to better decision making and more harmonious relations with the public.
The Ombudsman’s office is pleased to be holding its second national conference on complaint handing and public integrity. The conference will be held in Canberra on 23-24 September. A link to further information about the conference is provided in this e-bulletin.
A common sense approach
An agency presumed that Ms Y, described on a form as an Army Captain, was a male, and amended its records accordingly. She repeatedly asked the agency to correct its records, but it did not do so. At one stage she was asked whether she had had a sex change operation, and was asked to provide her birth certificate to show she was female.
Agencies should be ready to correct obvious mistakes without requiring that standard agency procedures be followed. There is a need for common sense in applying agency procedures.
Hesitate before jumping in
An agency requested the applicant to undergo a medical test within 28 days before a decision would be made on his application. A week later, before the medical information was provided, the agency decided to refuse his application. Following our investigation, the agency set aside the decision and reassessed the application, taking the medical information into account.
It is important to check the file before a decision is made, especially an adverse decision to refuse an application. A simple check can alert the decision maker to other relevant information to be considered, or to action that is required before a decision is made.
A proportionate response in taking coercive action
Mr B, an elderly client aged 81, had over a course of six years been repaying a debt of $19,000 to an agency. After he suffered a stroke and was hospitalised, the agency was asked if his payments could be temporarily reduced. The agency agreed but, after finding Mr B had money in a bank account, decided to garnishee the remaining $6,000 debt. After our intervention, the agency agreed to reinstate the repayment arrangement.
We made a similar successful intervention in another case in which an agency garnisheed $20,000 from a person’s bank account to settle a debt to the agency. This was the total account balance - a point that the agency had not checked. The person had only become aware of the debt two weeks earlier, as it arose from a partnership in which she was not fully involved.
An action that is lawfully open to an agency can be inappropriate because it is harsh and unreasonable in the circumstances. In exercising coercive powers that can disadvantage a person, an agency should consider whether doing so will be a disproportionate response to the problem facing the agency. A proper enquiry should be conducted by the agency before coercive action is taken.
Care in communication
An agency, in reviewing a debt owed to it by Mr D, incorrectly recorded that he had a credit rather than a debt of $10,000 and paid that amount to him. Four weeks later when the error was identified, he was sent an amended assessment requiring repayment of the debt. Mr D was quite distressed.
As a result of our investigation the agency agreed in future to adopt a two stage process - to first notify the person of the error, and then issue the amended assessment.
An agency should be mindful of how a letter will be read and the impact of unwelcome news. A small amount of additional work - in this case, two letters rather than a single letter - can avoid extra time in dealing with a dissatisfied customer and reduce the criticism of insensitive bureaucracy.
Reviewing agency requirements
Clients approaching an agency seeking early release of superannuation were advised that this could not occur until a statutory notice was issued by a third party. Some clients encountered difficulty (and delay) in getting the third party to issue the notice. There was also misunderstanding about exactly what information should be included in the notice.
In response to our investigation, the agency reconsidered and decided that a statutory notice was not necessary.
Agencies should be ready to reconsider if an established procedure needs to be followed. A procedure that has worked well for many years may be unsuitable when circumstances change.
Resolving multi-agency problems
Ms A used Billpay at an agency outlet. Her account was debited three times, because of a problem with the clearing bank that provided the service. She approached her local parliamentarian for help, who then sought our intervention to ensure a quick resolution of the problem.
Once contacted, the agency acted promptly to clarify the problem and cease processing EFTPOS transactions. There was constant contact with the bank until the problem was resolved. A hotline was established to assist other customers who were affected.
The agency advised that it had identified the issue as a learning opportunity and was working with the bank to avoid a recurrence of the problem.
When a complaint is made about a service in which other organisations are involved, agencies should adopt a problem-solving approach and not be rigid about lines of responsibility. The agency is usually far better placed than the customer to scope the problem and resolve it. In this case, the agency showed a willingness to tackle a problem that was not of its making.
Inadequate complaint handling
Ms O complained to the complaint handling unit of an agency about the agency’s delay in making a decision. She was advised that the matter could not be finalised because the agency needed a document it had requested from another agency. She then contacted the other agency, which advised that the document had been provided well before she had complained.
She sought our assistance because she felt that her complaint to the agency had not been handled properly. The agency finalised the decision and apologised to Ms O for the delay.
If a complaint is not handled properly it can cause further work and escalate into a bigger problem. In this case, the failure of the agency complaint unit to take the simple step of following up on the outstanding document led to a complaint to the Ombudsman. The failure could also have caused indefinite delay in a decision being made on Ms O’s case.
Good administration depends on proper recordkeeping. Conversely, poor recordkeeping can lead to sloppy administration, unlawful decision making and client dissatisfaction. The following cases are recent examples of complaints to this office where poor recordkeeping created difficulties for customers or created uncertainty about what had occurred.
- An agency incorrectly linked details of another customer’s children to Ms W’s record. She contacted the agency three times in more than two years to have the incorrect details removed from her file. The agency did not do so until we intervened.
- Mr X complained by email to an agency and provided a contact email address. He telephoned a month later to follow up on his complaint, but no record was kept of the call or his telephone number. As a result he did not receive any further contact from the agency. Only after he complained to us and we contacted the agency was he told the outcome to his complaint.
- A complainant approached us about an agency’s decision to refuse an entitlement. Our investigation found the agency did not have a clear and comprehensive record of the reasons for the decision, the information considered by the decision maker, or the identity of the decision maker. Those deficiencies would very likely undermine the legal validity of the decision.
- A former staff member of an agency became aware that a colleague was using personnel data in his postgraduate research. He had been given permission by the agency to use the data for a more limited purpose. The terms and scope of that permission were not properly recorded by the agency, nor did the agency seek staff consent to their personal information being used for another purpose.
- A complainant alleged that documents he had obtained from an agency through a freedom of information request indicated that the agency had misled the Ombudsman in an earlier response. On one issue we expressed our dissatisfaction to the agency. The agency response had referred to ‘a thorough assessment’ of certain reports, including discussions with one report author. There were no records on the agency file to support that statement. The agency said it had relied on the recollections of its staff as to what happened four years earlier.
- Mr E sent two letters to an agency over three months, providing details of changes in his financial circumstances. His second letter stated that he expected his payment rate to be increased on the basis of the information he had provided. He did not receive a response. When we enquired, the agency advised that it had updated Mr E’s record on the basis of the information he had provided and that his payment had not been affected. The agency acknowledged that it should have communicated this outcome to Mr E.
- Ms F complained to us that an agency had been unable to locate documents she lodged on two occasions as part of her claim. The agency had rejected her claim on the basis that she had failed to provide a particular form. After Ms F lodged the form again, she was granted the payment. Our investigation showed that Ms F had in fact earlier lodged the form as stated in her complaint.
- Ms G contacted an agency to claim a payment. The agency sent her some but not all relevant forms. She completed and submitted those she was sent. The agency picked up this oversight a month later and sent the extra form to Ms G. She submitted it, but missed out on a bonus payment because the claim was not lodged within 14 days of her initial contact with the agency. Following a review, the agency decided to backdate the payment, allowing the bonus to be paid.
Reports published by the Ombudsman usually relate to a specific agency or program, but can contain lessons that are relevant across government. Following is a summary of reports published since e-bulletin No 4.
- Department of Immigration and Citizenship: Invalid Visa Applications - July 2009
(Report No 10|2009)
This report examined the Department’s management of invalid visa applications. An invalid application (for example, correct fee or information not provided) cannot be processed and must be returned to the applicant. The report made recommendations, accepted by DIAC, to reduce delay in assessing and notifying invalidity, and to provide clearer information to applicants as to why an application was invalid and the implications for the person’s immigration status. The report underlined the importance of ensuring, even in areas of high volume decision making, that decisions are carefully and properly notified to members of the public.
- Delays in Preparation of Heritage Strategies by Australian Government Agencies - June 2009
(Report No 09|2009)
This report examined the delay by many Australian government agencies in preparing heritage strategies for buildings they own or control. The main cause of the delay was agency misunderstanding about the scope of their legal obligation to prepare a heritage strategy, caused in part by inadequate advice provided to agencies by the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA).The report made six recommendations to help DEWHA improve its administration of the statutory requirements.
- Child Support Agency: Administration of Departure Prohibition Order Powers - June 2009
(Report No 08|2009)
The Ombudsman investigated the Child Support Agency’s use of its power to issue an order preventing a child support debtor from leaving Australia without first paying, or making arrangements to pay, their child support debt. The report highlighted a lack of quality in decision-making policies and processes. The report emphasised that decisions to curtail freedom of movement should be properly made and based on reasonable grounds. The CSA acknowledged the Ombudsman’s findings and advised that immediate steps had been undertaken to improve its policies and procedures.
- Australia Post: Administration of the Mail Redirection Service - June 2009
(Report No 07|2009)
After a consistent level of complaints, the Ombudsman investigated Australia Post’s mail redirection service. Eight recommendations for improvement were made, including to introduce an online application system, reconsider the manual redirection sticker process and give staff specific training on resolving mail redirection complaints.
- Department of Immigration and Citizenship: Detention Arrangements: the case of Mr W
April 2009 (Report No 06|2009)
This was an abridged report on the immigration detention arrangements for an individual, Mr W. The report made recommendations for improved handling torture and trauma claims by a person in detention.
- Australia Post: Complaint about service delivery and complaint handling regarding a registered post article - March 2009
(Report No 05|2009)
The report concerned Australia Post’s failure to follow correct delivery procedures for a registered post article and its handling of the ensuing complaint. Australia Post's response showed that several of the issues identified are being addressed through its development of national complaint handling guidelines.
- Australian Tax Office: Re-raising written-off tax debts - March 2009
(Report No 04|2009)
Complaints to this office raised concern about the operation of Australian Taxation Office (ATO) policies to re-raise tax debts that were written off many years earlier. In many cases taxpayers were unaware that they still had a collectable debt. The ATO accepted that improvements could be made to its policies and procedures. In particular, the report highlighted the need for manual review or intervention in relation to debt recovery action that can be triggered by an automated system.
- Use of Interpreters: AFP, Centrelink, DEEWR, DIAC - March 2009
(Report No 03|2009)
Complaints to the Ombudsman indicate that interpreter services supplied by Australian Government agencies are not always provided in an accessible, responsive and fair manner. The Ombudsman’s own motion investigation considered the use of interpreters in four agencies, and identified eight best practice principles for consideration by all government agencies.
The Better Practice Guide on Complaint Handling was released in April. The guide builds on the Good Practice Guide to Effective Complaint Handling published in 1997, when most government agencies had yet to establish effective internal complaint handling mechanisms. Substantial change has occurred since then. The Better Practice Guide defines the essential principles for effective complaint handling, and can be used by agencies when developing or evaluating their complaint handling systems.
Four new fact sheets have been issued. Two of the fact sheets supplement the Better Practice Guide on Complaint Handling by providing more detail on specific aspects of complaint handling: outsourcing of government functions to private and community sector organisations, and programs that involve multiple government agencies.
A third fact sheet sets out eight best practice principles for Australian government agencies in the use of interpreters. The fourth fact sheet sets out ten principles for good administration for government agencies, drawing on this office’s investigation of 247 cases of immigration detention in 2007.
If you would like more information ...
We can arrange information sessions on the work of this office and can provide speakers from our national or state offices to address seminars and other functions. For further information or to make a request, please visit our website at http://www.ombudsman.gov.au/pages/about-us/working-with-others/.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman’s 2009 conference, Good > Better > Best, Changes in public integrity, will bring together policy makers, legal practitioners, community representatives and other expert guest speakers representing public integrity and human rights agencies, and state and industry ombudsman schemes.
The unifying themes of the conference will be the challenges and changes to complaint handling in our changing world, and future agendas for public integrity agencies to safeguard best practice in government and public administration. The keynote address will be given by the Hon. John Clarke QC. Mr Clarke’s critical examination of administrative accountability, transparency and government agency interoperability through the prism of the inquiry into the case of Dr Mohamed Haneef, will highlight core conference themes to be explored in plenary and concurrent workshop sessions.
For more information and to register for the conference, visit http://www.ombudsman.gov.au/pages/about-us/events/good-better-best/.
Legislation introduced on immigration detention debts
In 2008 the Ombudsman reported on an own motion investigation into the immigration detention debt regime, under which a non-citizen who is detained is liable to pay the Australian Government the costs of his or her detention (Department of Immigration and Citizenship: Administration of Detention Debt Waiver and Write-Off, Report No 2/2008). Complaints to this office indicated that the size of some detention debts cause stress, anxiety and financial hardship to many individuals who are now living lawfully in the Australian community as well as those who have left Australia. Our investigation found that there was scope for improvement in the scheme’s administration.
Following that report and examination of the regime by two parliamentary committees, the Government introduced the Migration Legislation (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009 in the Senate on 18 March. The bill will abolish the detention debt regime and waive all existing debts for current and former detainees.