Complaints wrangler and regulatory buff Tim O’Mahony spends his days trying to nut out trends in the data of the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman to improve the responsiveness and impact of a small agency with a very broad remit.
Speaking to The Mandarin about his day-to-day, the 36-year-old executive level-two APS employee says he enjoys the challenge that strong stakeholder engagement of the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman demands.
“The office is a reasonably small agency; however, we punch above our weight in our influence and positive impact on improving public administration,” O’Mahony says.
“In a typical day I might meet (virtually) with staff from another government agency to provide advice on how to improve their complaints-handling systems, assist another area of the office with a data query for an external report, review trends in our complaints data, and then oversee quality assurance of the office’s complaints handling processes.”
As leader of the business intelligence and quality improvement team, he is also responsible for advising the ombud on where to focus resourcing for optimum impact. Data analysis, especially in a complaints-handling context, is critical to ensuring emerging trends are identified early, O’Mahony says.
“Emerging issues are typically due to policy decisions or events outside our control, therefore it is and will continue to be important to analyse complaints data to identify emerging trends.
“Data will also allow us to more effectively forecast future workload and the workforce this will require, and to target our limited discretionary budget towards problems associated with administration,” he says.
Previously, O’Mahony directed the VET Students Loans Ombudsman Team, where he was instrumental in the designing student redress measures — an 18 month whole of government endeavour to establish measures that would clear student debt incurred from dodgy education providers.
Based on the findings of his office, the ombud put recommendations to the Secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) to resolve these wrongful student debts. In the last quarter of 2020 alone, 1690 VET student loan debt complaints were resolved, and a total more than $157 million in related debts recommended to be cleared. Complaints related to student debt were the highest number (31%) received by the ombud for that period.
“I was involved in influencing senior executives across multiple agencies, drafting new legislation, developing procedures and guidance in collaboration with DESE, and recruiting a team of more than 50 contractors and staff after a successful new policy proposal,” O’Mahony says.
“These were all new experiences for me, where I learned a great deal about policy design and implementation. Also, many of the people affected were vulnerable or disadvantaged people, which made this work particularly satisfying.”
O’Mahony’s knack for bringing people together to solve complex issues can be traced to skills he honed in his first job out of university (he has a bachelor of science from ANU) as a Questacon outreach worker. For six-week-long hauls, he would travel to regional and rural communities, hosting science shows and workshops for school students.
“Playing with controlled explosions and liquid nitrogen as my first job was pretty amazing,” O’Mahony says.
Then in 2009 he did a stint abroad working with a small NGO in the Philippines, and another 12 months spent working in China managing a science communication company, Kexue Kids, with a pal. By mid 2011 O’Mahony had returned to Australia to join the Department of Health and Ageing.
“This two-year break from the APS helped to build my skills and experience, particularly the challenges of running a small business or a charity. It has also made me appreciate the benefits of the APS,” he says.
O’Mahony has worked for the ombud for four years now, with peers he refers to as ‘contacts’ having suggested that the agency was a good match with his skills. The collegiality of the agency, coupled with his past experience working in complaints and regulatory roles in Health made the move worthwhile.
Reflecting on the advice he would give to his young self, O’Mahony says there came a time when he realised that as he progressed through his career, he couldn’t know or do everything himself. He recommends early career public servants turn their minds to fostering skills of collaboration and cooperation to achieve success, instead of simply working harder in their own silo.
“This has been especially true as I have moved into managerial roles and have modelled myself as more of a generalist, rather than a technical expert.
“I have also learned the importance of cross-agency collaboration to achieve the best results, along with the importance of engaging with academia and industry,” he says.