Home Affairs and ANAO at odds over citizenship report

By David Donaldson

Tuesday February 12, 2019

The Auditor General has criticised Home Affairs for dragging its feet on citizenship processing, but the department refuses to concede.

While travellers through airports are breezing through at record speeds under reforms by Department of Home Affairs officials, it’s a very different story for those choosing to make Australia their permanent home.

Citizenship applications “have not been processed efficiently” by Home Affairs, according to an Australian National Audit Office report published Monday.

“Processing times have increased and long delays are evident between applications being lodged and decisions being taken on whether or not to confer citizenship,” says Auditor General Grant Hehir.

“Significant periods of inactivity are evident for both complex and non-complex applications accepted by the department for processing.”

The auditor is also concerned the department has stopped publishing how long it takes for citizenship applications to be finalised.

“The lack of externally reported key performance indicators for processing time efficiency means transparent and meaningful information is not being provided to the parliament and other stakeholders so as to hold Home Affairs accountable for its performance,” Hehir argues.

Before the decision was made to stop reporting, Home Affairs’ performance against the target of making 80% of decisions within 80 days of the application being lodged had been in decline, sitting at 15% in 2017-18.

Reporting ‘led to complaints’, which hurt processing times

But Home Affairs is not clearly happy with the report.

Unusually, the department’s response letter is written not by Secretary Mike Pezzullo, as would be the normal practice, but by someone three rungs below him — Assistant Secretary Megan Seccull. In the hierarchical world of Canberra public administration, some will read this as a snub to the auditor.

Home Affairs “disagrees” with the auditor’s finding that processing of citizenship applications has not been done efficiently, noting that the number of citizenship refusals has doubled in the past four years, diverting significant resources into investigations.

However, the ANAO saw fit to comment on the department’s response, arguing the problem is not just the length of time processing is taking, but that “significant periods of inactivity” have been occurring.

Unusually, the department also openly disagrees with one of the recommendations — that it recommence reporting processing times.

Instead, Home Affairs says it “already publishes on its website meaningful and realistic timeframes from lodgement to acquisition of conferral cases within the 75th and 90th percentiles … noting that each case is assessed on its individual merits with substantial variation in processing times.” To publish the full data on processing times may cause distress to those going through the application process, as previous target-based service standard KPIs “were often incorrectly perceived by the client as a maximum processing time”.

This, in turn, “led to significant client correspondence and complaints which diverted limited resources away from visa or citizenship processing and incurred additional costs to the Commonwealth,” says Home Affairs.

The department has, however, agreed to Hehir’s other two recommendations: to set up performance standards addressing periods of processing inactivity, and to work with Finance to update funding mechanisms for citizenship processing.

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