Victoria’s new ombudsman on learning from complaints

By David Donaldson

Friday September 19, 2014

Deborah Glass
Deborah Glass

Deborah Glass believes buy-in is critical if you want to achieve change in the public service.

“An example I gave to staff here on my first day,” Victorian’s new ombudsman told The Mandarin, “was about some work I did in the UK on the way Metropolitan Police dealt with race complaints. It’s one of those areas where it’s very easy to be critical, very easy to get a headline — but actually, how does that make the police less racist? …

“I made a point of sitting down with some senior officers at the Metropolitan Police and said: ‘OK, this is the problem, you’re the ones who are going to have to solve this. What do you think you can do about this?’

“We had some difficult but constructive conversations, and came up with a set of recommendations which they accepted, because they were part of the process that contributed to them, and they felt ownership.”

She wants to make clear that collaboration is about improving outcomes, not weakening her ability to hold the bureaucracy accountable: “The message from me is that it does not compromise the independence of my office to collaborate with the public sector on achieving change.

“… the most impactful powers are the ones that you don’t need to use because everybody knows you have them.”

“This is a very powerful office. But I also think that the most impactful powers are the ones that you don’t need to use because everybody knows you have them. When I write to an agency or department and say, ‘these are some proposals I am suggesting that you may wish to consider’, the take-up rate is very high. And it should be.”

Glass agrees that being an outsider to the VPS will be a strength: she grew up in Melbourne, but spent the past couple of decades overseas, recently completing a 10-year stint as deputy chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission of England and Wales. The experience taught her there are common challenges confronting complaints systems around the world.

“I came into this role with plenty of background in the complaints and investigations field, but no exposure to the Victorian public service. I thought it would be a very steep learning curve,” she said. “But one of the things that really surprised me was that it wasn’t steep at all. What that says to me is how universal the complaints and investigations business is.”

This includes a “universal” defensiveness about complaints which, she says, are “free feedback”. “Complaints are the people using your services telling you what they think, for which you should be grateful,” she said.

At the moment the office is working on own-motion investigations into the two areas on which they receive the most complaints: local councils and prisons. They’ve conducted a survey of how councils across the state deal with their own complaints and plan to release a best practice guide.

“If we could do something to get them to handle complaints better,” said Glass, “we would get fewer complaints, and they would have happier constituents.”

Communicating the message

She pointed out often those most in need of the Ombudsman’s services are those least connected to it: “How do you try to instil confidence in the system in those who either don’t know it’s there, or don’t really want to know because they don’t trust it? It’s a perennial problem for complaint systems. I can’t tell you the answer to that yet. All I can do at this stage is identify the question and the gap.”

This, she says, is the reason the Ombudsman needs to do a better job on communications and engagement — citizens need to know that it exists and that it can help. But there are barriers: its annual report stated the Ombudsman Act‘s strict confidentiality provisions:

“… do not sit comfortably with the increased focus on communications and engagement with the public which I believe is necessary to the role.”

The report also raised the fact that currently complaints must be lodged in writing, despite 80% of contacts being made over the phone. Glass adds that she would like to develop a single, online complaints portal so citizens do not have to figure out which of the “dozens of bodies” is most appropriate.

There are around 34,000 contacts with the Ombudsman’s office per year. The data that creates could be used better, she says.

“I’d like to be able to do much more with that information,” Glass said. “I want to build the analytical capability within this office so that we can analyse the contacts that come to us. For two key reasons: one is to give me more of an evidence base about systemic issues, that I can then use to launch own-motion investigations. But also to feed back to departments and agencies what the public is saying. That’s information I would want to publish, so it’d be completely transparent.”

In the annual report, Glass called for legislative clarification of the roles of the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission and the Ombudsman, whose responsibilities have overlapped somewhat in recent years, arguing too much time is being taken up by investigating whistleblower complaints. “Corruption is the business of IBAC and fairness is mine,” she said.

Legislation introduced in the Victorian parliament this week will remove the requirement for complaints to be made in writing, and is intended to give the Ombudsman greater flexibility in handling protected disclosure complaints referred to it by IBAC.

Glass views the reforms positively: “The changes effecting protected disclosures are very useful, although I would want to assess their effectiveness in the light of experience. The change to the requirement that complaints must be in writing is small in legislative terms, but would deliver significant improvement in making my office more accessible and responsive to the people of Victoria.”

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