The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade needs to improve its data management systems and better implement the lessons learned during overseas crises, according to an audit report on DFAT’s consular services by the Australian National Audit Office.
The report, released on Tuesday, found that DFAT’s administration of consular services “is broadly appropriate”, and that “these services are generally delivered effectively”.
The ANAO did, however, make three main recommendations.
DFAT needs to strengthen its management and oversight of consular services to Australians overseas by ensuring it “improves the recording of key consular case management information in the relevant case management system” and implementing “an annual risk-based quality assurance process” for consular cases.
The report recommends the department “strengthen its crisis preparations and response capabilities” by carrying out post-crisis contingency planning risk assessments of secondary risks and making sure the findings of evaluations are properly implemented.
Improving transparency and reporting is the third area of concern for the ANAO, which suggested developing appropriate key performance indicators and targets and including reporting on whether consular services performance targets are being reached:
“While DFAT has in place consular services KPIs that are aligned to the program objective and deliverables, these indicators do not, at present, directly measure and provide an assessment of performance. The development of a set of KPIs, that measure key consular performance, provide a target for achievement, and illustrate trends over time, would better position DFAT and stakeholders, including the Parliament, to assess how effectively consular services are being delivered.”
DFAT has agreed to implement these recommendations.
The ANAO also argued elements of the department’s Smart Traveller program to raise awareness of consular services could be improved. The number of people who register with DFAT’s Online Register of Australians Overseas — used to help track down Australians in an emergency — remains very low, despite widespread understanding of the benefits of doing so.
Given that only 20% of those who begin the process of registering reach the end, there is some evidence a significant reason for low registration rates appears to be difficulty in using the website. The department’s consular strategy has flagged that it plans to make this system easier to use.
Greater demand is being placed on Australia’s consular services, as the report notes. The number of Australians travelling overseas — including higher risk individuals such as the elderly and children — has grown markedly from 3.4 million in 2002-03 to 9.2 million in 2013-14, thanks in part to cheaper airfares and improved standards.
Meanwhile, funding for consular services peaked in 2009-10 at $83.5 million and sat at $76.2 million as of 2013-14.
Another challenge to consular service provision is “the rising expectations of individuals and their families about the level of assistance provided, partly driven by media interest in higher profile cases”.
Alex Oliver, director of polling at the Lowy Institute, told The Mandarin in December that DFAT’s resources “have stagnated, and its budget is looking increasingly anaemic” because of these pressures.
The Abbott government last year signalled a crackdown on those who abuse the consular assistance system.
Releasing the Consular Strategy 2014-16 in December, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said it “emphasises there must be less latitude to the small minority who have unreasonable demands of consular assistance or whose actions are wilfully reckless”.
More at The Mandarin: The rising cost to DFAT of Australians travelling abroad