The New South Wales Ombudsman’s Office needs more funding to deliver its required statutory obligations, with the agency head describing the current arrangement as “insufficient”.
The resourcing of state and federal integrity agencies has recently come into the spotlight after the national auditor-general wrote to the prime minister to request a “more sustainable basis” for audit office funding, the underfunded NSW corruption watchdog launched a widely reported investigation into Liberal MP Daryl Maguire, and as the government has faced renewed calls for the establishment of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission.
The agency’s annual report, tabled in Parliament on Tuesday by acting ombud Paul Miller, noted that the agency received 33,036 contacts in 2019-20, down from 47,069 the previous year.
“While contacts to our office were down, receiving and assessing contacts is only a part of our work — our Assessments Unit, which is responsible for the intake and assessment of those 33,000-odd contacts, comprises just 21 staff in an office of around 120,” Miller said in a statement.
The office received 13,674 actionable complaints this year — down from 19,436 in 2018-19 — with 68% of the complaints finalised within one week. Of the total complaints, 39% (5362) were about state government departments and authorities, 33% were about custodial services, 19% were about local government, and 7% were about community service providers.
The decline in complaints “correlates entirely with the impact of COVID on us, on the public and on government service provision”, Miller said.
He noted that during the pandemic, the agency has prioritised its oversight of the services which the most vulnerable members of the community rely on, particularly the corrective and youth justice system.
“We were conscious of the need to ensure that agency responses to protect inmates and staff from COVID-19 needed to be reasonable and proportionate,” he said.
“Reduced in-person visits by families as well as by external bodies like us also meant that there would be fewer ‘eyes’ in the system.”
The report noted the state ombud received 115 contacts about hotel quarantine from March to June 2020, including 25 actionable complaints about the Ministry of Health. The issues most often raised in regards to hotel quarantine were food quality and options, access to fresh air, access to support services, the quality of hotel facilities, and the length of quarantine.
The ombud office this year has participated in the NSW Parliamentary Committee inquiry into the funding processes for independent oversight bodies, as well as the Audit Office’s review into the financial arrangements of the state’s four key integrity agencies.
Miller noted that the agency identified “serious concerns” with the current funding processes in its submissions to both reviews.
“We suggested that Parliamentary statutory offices such as the NSW Ombudsman should have their funding recommended to Parliament through a transparent Parliamentary Committee approach,” he said.
“These questions about funding process are happening now at a time when serious questions are being raised about the adequacy of funding provided to bodies such as ours. Inadequacy of funding, particularly where that shortfall is chronic and worsening, point to a failure in the funding process itself.”
He said that while the ombud’s office is “doing what it can to optimise its own efficiency”, its current funding allocation is “insufficient to deliver our required statutory obligations”.
The state audit office last week released its report into the funding arrangements for NSW integrity agencies. The report stated that the current approach to determining and administering funding for the agencies “presents threats to their independent status”, and funding decisions “could be influenced by previous or planned investigations by the integrity agencies”.
Miller recently stepped into the role of ombud after Michael Barnes departed the agency in late August. Miller said Barnes led “major organisational restructure”, and the delivery of a new strategic plan, and thanked him for his leadership.
“Together, these initiatives will ensure our office is well placed to face the dynamic legislative, economic and social environment in which we operate,” he said.