Sian LeathemJustice Thomas has outlined key issues facing the AAT as we seek to deal with the significant increase in our workload in recent years, as well as acknowledging what our members and staff were able to achieve in 2018–19 in providing high-quality merits review to many thousands of individuals and organisations in Australia. As an agency, we also remained focused during the reporting year on efforts to improve our operations by pursuing the strategic objectives identified in our Strategic Plan 2015–20 and reflected in our Corporate Plan. Those objectives are:
- integration: creating an integrated and national tribunal;
- transformation: improving how we work and maximising our use of technology;
- engagement: engaging with stakeholders and building public trust and confidence in the AAT; and
- optimisation: building capacity and making best use of our resources.
Integration and transformation
We made important progress during the reporting year on our program to transform our registries to improve the service we provide to our users, manage cases more efficiently and provide better support to members. Significant work was undertaken to design, consult on and prepare for the introduction of a revised model for registry services in the Migration and Refugee Division, which will provide a greater focus on early case assessment and resolution and more tailored administrative support to members. The model will be implemented in Melbourne and Sydney early in the next reporting period and will then be adapted and extended to other locations. This will build on efforts in 2018–19 and earlier years to extend to each registry the full range of services previously provided primarily from Melbourne and Sydney. For staff who support the work of the AAT in our other divisions, we trialled a move to a single administrative structure in Sydney to increase flexibility and knowledge sharing across these areas.
A key aspect of supporting these changes to our registries took place during the reporting year with the creation of a centralised team to manage the development and maintenance of registry procedural information and the design and delivery of associated training. One of their early achievements was the introduction of a national registry induction program, which comprises over 20 online training modules. The work of this team will play a critical role in enhancing the quality and consistency of our registry services.
In February 2019, we launched a revised website following a comprehensive process involving user research, design and the plain English rewriting of the content. We implemented a range of changes to make it easier for users to find what they are looking for, particularly for self-represented parties. Information is now organised according to the types of decisions we review, rather than on the AAT’s divisional structure; wizards help guide first-time users to the content they need; and information on all of the steps in the review process for a particular type of decision is easily accessible from all pages for that decision type. Feedback obtained from our most recent user survey indicates that the website has been well received.
During the reporting year, we also successfully developed and piloted a service that enables users in any division to send us case-related documents via our website at any stage during a review. The service, to be released in full in 2019–20, provides greater convenience for our users and improved efficiency for the AAT. It is also one of the foundation elements of a comprehensive online case portal we are currently developing. Other significant digital initiatives during 2018–19 included the introduction of an internal portal application for managing corporate service requests and the roll out of Skype for Business across the AAT. While this is currently confined to internal use to enhance communication and collaboration between our offices, it will soon be used as the platform to trial the conduct of conciliations through webconferencing in the new Small Business Taxation Division.
We are committed to engaging with the broad range of stakeholders who use our services or otherwise have an interest in our work, including seeking feedback on the quality of our services. Our annual survey of parties and representatives was conducted by an independent company on our behalf in May and June 2019 and the results were very encouraging. Notwithstanding our challenging operating environment, our overall user experience rating increased to 73 per cent, exceeding our target by three percentage points. Our services continued to be rated positively, overall, by both parties and representatives, and generally at higher levels than in the 2018 survey.
A variety of other stakeholder engagement activities were undertaken during the reporting year, including ongoing liaison with peak bodies such as the Law Council of Australia, the departments and other organisations whose decisions we review as well as representatives in a number of jurisdictions. The Division Heads of the Migration and Refugee Division, and the Small Business Taxation and Taxation and Commercial Divisions conducted forums around Australia to discuss developments and issues arising in those areas of practice.
We publish a significant number of our written decisions in accordance with the revised policy introduced in 2017–18 to enhance transparency and build public trust and confidence in our decisions. In 2018–19, we published the highest number of decisions in any year to date, comfortably exceeding our target of 5,000.
An enduring area of focus in the reporting year was building the capabilities and capacity of both our members and staff. We finalised the development of a Leadership Capability Framework that supports leadership development and articulates a shared understanding of critical leadership capabilities across our organisation. We launched our new Learning Management System, educAAte, which provides members and staff with access to a wide range of online courses. Our Workplace Diversity Plan 2018–20 was also published, setting the foundation for building an organisation reflective of the diversity in the Australian community.
The 2019 APS Employee Census saw the highest participation rate from our APS staff since the amalgamated AAT was established. I am pleased with the overall results, which recorded improvements in relation to employee engagement, wellbeing and general satisfaction with work at the AAT. The results provide us with insights into the needs and priorities of our staff and enable us to continuously support a flexible, supportive, and high‑performing workplace.
During the reporting year, we made further improvements to our planning processes by coordinating and sequencing the planning streams to ensure a fully integrated and cohesive planning process. Through improved planning, we are better able to allocate resources in accordance with our priorities and respond to changes in our environment. We commenced a project to review our hearing and alternative dispute resolution rooms to identify any issues and options to improve layout and technology, and the overall experience of tribunal users. The AAT was also recognised at the Comcover Awards for Excellence in Risk Management in October 2018 for significant achievements in raising security awareness and constructing a risk management framework encompassing dynamic physical security measures, asset management initiatives, and strong fraud control.
In relation to our financial performance, we ended the year again with an operating surplus attributable to lower than anticipated expenditure on members and staff.
The AAT will continue to face a high level of change complexity in 2019–20 as we pursue further integration and transformation of our operations, and seek to deal with our increased workload. To address the challenges effectively, it is essential that we have sound governance arrangements, an organisational structure that best supports our operations and well-developed planning and project delivery capabilities. With the release of the report of the statutory review, we are in a position to consider its recommendations and move to settle and implement the changes to our organisational arrangements that will set the foundation for the next phase of building a truly amalgamated AAT.
Improving the effectiveness and efficiency of our operations through the better use of technology is another critical aspect of our strategy to manage our increased workload into the future. We are working towards enabling our users to engage with us easily through integrated digital services on any device and at a time of their choosing and improving internal systems to help our members and staff work more effectively and efficiently. In the coming year, we will commence work on the implementation of a single case management solution for the AAT and upgrade our internal operating environment as well as release the first version of a unified case portal. Digital transformation is a large piece of work that will take many years but the benefits to our users and to the Tribunal will be significant.
As Justice Thomas has identified, even with the introduction of greater efficiencies in dealing with our caseload, the size of our backlog requires the appointment of more members that will also require additional staff and funding. Our Average Staffing Level cap, which was set by reference to our historical rather than current caseload, prevents us from recruiting more APS staff in response to the increased demand for our services. Our funding arrangements are largely based on those that were in place in the three amalgamating tribunals prior to 1 July 2015 and are no longer in step with our current environment. We engaged with Government in relation to these matters in 2018–19 and will continue to do so in the next reporting period as we settle our strategies for delivering merits review in accordance with our statutory objective.
I would like to extend my thanks to our members and staff for their dedicated efforts throughout 2018–19 in carrying out the important work of the Tribunal.