In 2018–19 we received 50,237 contacts1 from the public, compared to 47,557 contacts in
2017–18. This is a 5.6 per cent increase.
Of the total contacts received, 37,388 were complaints within our jurisdiction (compared to 38,026 in 2017–18). Of these complaints, 49.8 per cent fell within our parliamentary complaints jurisdiction (complaints about Commonwealth and ACT Government agencies) and 50.2 per cent related to our industry complaints jurisdiction (such as VET Student Loans, overseas students, and private health insurance matters).
The Office finalised 34,322 in-jurisdiction complaints in 2018–19, a 2.9 per cent decrease compared to 2017–18. 18,748 of these finalized complaints were about government agencies and 15,574 were about industry bodies.
In 2018–19 the Office received 11,673 enquiries, a 37.8 per cent increase compared to 2017–18. Enquiries can include requests for information from our Office (such as a media enquiry, a Freedom of Information application or a request for one of our reports) or can relate to matters not within our jurisdiction (for example, complaints about state or territory government matters, telecommunications companies or financial service providers). In 2018–19, this number includes 3,417 submissions received from the public as part of our own motion investigation into the administration of the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits scheme. See page 62 for more information about this investigation.
The Office also received 1,176 public contacts related to the specific programs we deliver. These include reports of abuse in the Australian Defence Force, public interest disclosures, and applications for review of FOI decisions made by ACT Government agencies. More information about each of these programs is provided later in this section. Information about our activities as the ACT Ombudsman is provided in our separate ACT Ombudsman annual report.2
The Office receives complaints through a variety of methods. Telephone remains the most popular way to make a complaint. In 2018–19, we revamped our website to make it easier for people to find information about our services, including circumstances in which a person might be better placed pursuing their complaint through a different organisation. A priority for 2019–20 is to further improve our website to make it easier to lodge complaints online.
Complaints about government agencies
In 2018–19 we received 18,161 complaints about Commonwealth Government agencies, a decrease of five per cent on the 19,121 received in 2017–18. We also received complaints about private sector organisations through our industry ombudsman roles.
Of the complaints about commonwealth entities, 84 per cent were about three agencies: the Department of Human Services, including Centrelink and Child Support programs (11,652), the Department of Home Affairs, including the Australian Border Force (1,824)3 and the National Disability Insurance Agency (1,711).
More information about the issues raised in relation to these agencies is provided later in this section
In 2018 the Office restructured its parliamentary complaint-handling operations to deliver a more efficient and effective complaint-handling service. One specific change was a focus on early resolution. Early resolution involves assessing which complaints can be considered quickly and an outcome reached without the need for further in-depth investigation. Common early resolution strategies include transferring a complaint back to the agency to consider or asking simple preliminary inquiries of an agency to determine answers without the need for a full investigation.
There are a number of outcomes that can result from contacting us. When a complaint about a government agency is received, the most common action we take is to advise the complainant to contact the agency that the complaint is about. We do this because in most circumstances, the most efficient way to resolve a complaint is for the agency to consider and resolve it. Other common actions are to provide the complainant with other advice to resolve their matter or to assist vulnerable or at-risk people by directly transferring their complaint to the agency concerned to consider it further.
While many complaints can be effectively assessed, and a way forward determined, without the need to contact the agency concerned, others require more in-depth investigation to determine the appropriate outcome. We may also investigate a matter even where it is not likely to lead to a better result for the individual concerned, to ensure we provide effective oversight of agencies and influence systemic improvement in public administration.
Often we will decide that we need to engage with the agency complained about to determine what happened. There are two ways we do this—by making a simple enquiry with the agency (533 complaints in 2018–19) through to commencing a more detailed investigation (1,116 complaints in 2018–19).
A complainant complained to our Office that the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) had deregistered their company because they had not paid the annual review fees. They told us that even though they had advised ASIC of a change to the address for their company, the annual company review fee invoices were sent to the old address and as a result, they had not paid the annual fee. Once they became aware of the error, they paid the annual review fee. They complained it was not fair to have to pay fees for late payment of the annual review fee.
We conducted preliminary inquiries and asked ASIC for information on how it processed the request to change the company address. After receiving our preliminary inquiry, ASIC realised it had not properly processed the change of address for the company. It reassessed its handling
of the matter and agreed to reinstate the company’s registration and waive the fees relating to the late payment of the annual company review fee.
Investigating complaints remains a core component of the Office’s function of providing oversight and assurance of government administrative action and complaint-handling. As a result of an investigation, we may make comments or suggestions to the agency. Comments or suggestions may include recommendations to change or review decisions, policy or procedural changes encouraging formal apologies to complainants and improving the quality of publicly available information.
In 2018–19 we investigated 1,116 complaints, and provided comments or suggestions to the agency in 84 cases. This does not include those cases where the agency agreed to make changes during the course of our investigation.
Regardless of what action we take, contact with our Office can result in a variety of outcomes including a better explanation of a decision or process, faster resolution of a matter, reconsideration of a decision and sometimes a financial remedy (for example, waiver of a debt or reinstatement of a payment to which the complainant is entitled).
In other cases, our investigation can result in independent assurance that an agency acted appropriately and made the right decision. While this is not always the outcome a person is seeking in coming to our Office, it highlights that our role is to be independent and impartial—we do not advocate for either individuals or agencies.
Figure 4 sets out the different types of outcomes following investigation of cases. Further work is underway this year to enable reporting on the outcomes we achieve without a formal investigation.
Reviewing our decisions
The Office has a formal non-statutory review process for complainants who may be dissatisfied with the decision reached by the Office about a complaint. Generally, the officer who made the decision is expected to contact the complainant to discuss their concerns and if needed, consider new information or explain the decision in more detail. If the complainant is still unhappy after this contact, they can seek an internal review.
A review manager decides whether to grant a review. A review may not be granted if the review manager cannot identify any concerns with the original officer’s decision. If a review is granted, the review manager allocates the review to an experienced officer who was not previously involved in the matter.
In 2018–19 we received 146 requests for review (representing 0.8 per cent of complaints finalised), compared to 155 (0.78 per cent of finalised complaints) received in 2017–18.
The review manager accepted 78 requests for further review. Review officers affirmed the original decision in 62 cases and decided to investigate the matter further in 19 cases. Reviews are an important part of the Office’s commitment to best practice complaint-handling. The Office reports internally to the executive on the issues identified in reviews and uses reviews as an opportunity to continually improve our own practices and procedures.
Accessibility of our services
The Office is committed to ensuring that our services are accessible to all people. It is particularly important that our complaint-handling processes are available in a way that all people can readily access them. In 2018–19 we undertook the following to support that commitment.
Multicultural Access and Equity Plan (MAEP)
In early 2019, the Office launched our 2019–20 Multicultural Access and Equity Plan. The plan outlines our commitment to ensuring that our services meet the needs of all Australians, regardless of their cultural and linguistic background. Through this plan, we outline practical commitments to ensure that multicultural access and equity consideration are embedded in our organisational culture.
The commitments in the plan cover Leadership, Engagement, Responsiveness, Performance, Capability and Openness. These commitments are essential to our vision of creating a service that is equitable so that all Australians are safeguarded in their dealings with Australian Government agencies and prescribed private sector organisations.
During 2018–19, we continued to implement recommendations arising from our Office’s review of its disability accessibility by specialist disability consultants, WestWood Spice and Partners. We launched our new website, featuring improved layouts and content focussed on ease of use for people wanting to contact our Office. We also rolled out Disability confident managing and recruiting training for our staff, which ensures that recruitment and selection teams are disability aware and confident and that managers are better able to supervise staff with disability.
A review of the Office’s accessibility and inclusiveness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities was conducted by the Aboriginal communications company Gilimbaa Pty Ltd in 2017. The review considered all aspects of the Office’s operations and made recommendations to improve our approach to engaging with Indigenous complainants and stakeholders. During 2018–19, we implemented recommendations promoting and supporting the importance of effective communication with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audiences, which involved identifying Indigenous champions in our public contact areas, and working across the Office to ensure that complaint-handling practices are culturally appropriate.
We delivered training to staff in how to use Indigenous Language Interpreters to communicate and engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities. We also refined our intake processes to improve the identification of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander complainants, enhancing our ability to collect information about the locations, volume and type of complaints from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This information directly improves our services and assists us in identifying current and emerging systemic issues.
Outreach and community and stakeholder engagement
The Office conducts outreach and stakeholder engagement activities to raise awareness of the role of the Ombudsman’s Office and to gather information about systemic issues with government service delivery.
Our outreach activities involve holding round table meetings and visiting community organisations to discuss systemic issues with government service delivery. In 2018–19, we conducted outreach in western Sydney, Logan in Brisbane, southern Perth and north-east Alice Springs.
Our stakeholder engagement involves participating in community forums and networks and engaging directly with non-government organisations that represent people accessing government services.
Complaint assurance initiatives
A strong complaint-handling system is an integral part of an agency’s performance management and measurement of customer satisfaction. Well-managed complaints can:
improve trust with people and the perceived integrity of agencies
lead to better services for people
identify systemic issues or areas for improvement within agencies.
We often refer the complainant back to the agency about which they are complaining, in order to have their complaints handled by the agency. Starting in 2018–19 and continuing in 2019–20, we have commenced a number of initiatives to assist us to gain assurance that complainants will have their complaints handled appropriately if they are referred back.
We have established an education program, to enable us to share our complaint-handling
experience with agency staff. We have trialled a Complaint Assurance Project, to examine complaint-handling policies and practices within agencies to identify best practice and opportunities for improvement. We are rolling out feedback 56 loops for some select complaints we transfer back to agencies, to provide us with assurance that the agency has properly addressed the matter. Finally, in 2019–20 we will be undertaking a satisfaction survey, to critically assess both our own complaint-handling performance and to better understand the experience of those complainants we referred back to the agency.
In 2018–19 we initiated an education program targeted at improving complaint-handling by public sector agencies. We developed the program as a way of proactively educating agencies on best practice complaint-handling. Our vision is that with a robust agency-focused education program, we will assist agencies to manage complaints effectively and efficiently while using complaints as a valuable tool to improve their service delivery. This program builds on the Commonwealth Complaint-Handling Forum, which we have successfully held for many years to bring together complaint-handling staff from across Australia.
In May 2019, we introduced a one day interactive complaint-handling workshop based on our Office’s Better Practice Guide to Complaint-Handling. The workshop examines the essential elements of an effective complaint-handling system and invites participants to think critically about their agency’s complaint-handling processes. The workshop is targeted at frontline complaint-handling staff and their supervisors.
Complaint assurance project
The Office is piloting has started a Complaint Assurance Project to review participating agencies’ complaint management services in line with the requirements of the Office’s Better Practice Complaint-Handling Guide5. This involves working collaboratively with participating agencies to engage in a self-assessment and oversight process to:
promote agency-led quality assurance in complaints management
establish a model for agencies to self-identify trends, systemic issues and areas for improvement
assist agencies to identify and improve complaint management
recognise accomplishments and better practice improvements within agency complaint management
share areas of potential business process improvements with other agencies.
The project involves the completion of a self-assessment questionnaire by the agency and a
review of supporting documentation and complaint sampling by our Office.
At the end of the process, our Office will develop a report that identifies best practice and recommendations for improvement. If the pilot is successful, a rolling program involving other agencies will be developed.
On 14 June 2019, the Office hosted the seventh Commonwealth Complaint-Handling Forum at the National Museum of Australia. This year’s theme, ‘Complaint-handling in the modern world’, led to thought provoking presentations and workshops as we explored the current and emerging challenges in complaint-handling. This year’s forum was led by joint keynote presentations by Megan Hunter from the High Conflict Institute and David Locke, CEO and Chief Ombudsman of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority. Workshops by the National Office for Child Safety, the Department of Human Services–Child Support, the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Commonwealth Ombudsman, along with a panel discussion by industry complaint-handling organisations, rounded out another stimulating forum.
Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with many suggestions to help make the 2020 event another success!
Contacts was called approaches in previous annual reports. See glossary for the full definition ↩