Victorian Ombudsman seeks independence from executive

By David Donaldson

October 9, 2015

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass has requested the office’s funding appropriation decisions to be handed from the executive to the parliament, arguing that the existing setup “doesn’t feel right”.

In the agency’s annual report, released Wednesday, Glass argues that “as an independent officer of Parliament … I believe that my budget should not be reliant on the executive — over whom I have jurisdiction,” suggesting that giving parliament responsibility for appropriations, as is the case for the auditor-general’s office, would be in the public’s long-term interest.

The Ombudsman answers to the parliament, rather than the government of the day, and can only be dismissed by the parliament.

Glass told The Mandarin “it’s more a matter of principle, as the executive has been cooperative in my requests” but that “it doesn’t feel right, even when you’re dealing with a cooperative and helpful department.

“Ultimately I have jurisdiction over the government and it’s not a good look for the office.”

Increase in complaints

The Ombudsman’s annual report shows approaches from the public increased to 38,980 in the financial year, of which 92% were dealt with within 30 days. The office completed 3,256 formal enquiries and investigations, over 500 more than last year.

This rise in complaints, wrote Glass, “is partly the result of small steps over the past year to engage more widely with the people of Victoria.”

This awareness raising is not only helping to inform people what the Ombudsman does, but also what the Ombudsman doesn’t handle. “Importantly, the proportion of approaches within our jurisdiction rose by 12% last year. That means we’re spending more time addressing issues we can assist with and less time directing people to other organisations,” she said.

“We’ve made a concerted effort to improve understanding of our role, and that’s beginning to show in our numbers.”

The engagement drive includes regional Victoria in particular — the office has recently taken to public complaints sessions in places such as Warrnambool, Shepparton and Mildura. The response has been positive and productive, says Glass, with people especially relishing the opportunity for face-to-face interaction.

She wants to improve access by creating a single complaints portal for Victorian complaint handling bodies, but adds that increased engagement will mean a bigger workload, making it important the agency learn how to better use that data.

“We could get a multiple of the complaints we already get through the new portals, but we probably won’t get a multiple of the current budget,” she explained.

“So we need to develop ways of pulling together data that we find in complaints to help identify the themes and trends of those complaints in a form that gives agencies meaningful information about where dissatisfaction sits that they can use to respond.”

Cooperation with the public sector

The Ombudsman is keen to ensure she maintains a high degree of cooperation with public servants.

“What may be surprising to some is the degree to which I seek to collaborate with the public sector”, she wrote, before noting “collaboration does not compromise my independence, which remains sacrosanct.”

This is the same message she gave when speaking to The Mandarin last year: her primary concern is to produce outcomes, not headlines.

One of the key examples of her cooperation with the public sector, she thinks, is the report into complaints handling systems at Victoria’s local government authorities. The Ombudsman surveyed Victorian local councils about their practices for dealing with complaints, receiving responses from all 79. The result is a good practice guide for how councils can deal with complaints, which Glass hopes will not only help councils lift their game, but will lead to fewer complaints to the Ombudsman itself.

Over the 2014-15 financial year the Ombudsman tabled eight parliamentary reports, including into improper conduct in the Office of Living Victoria, excessive force used by authorised officers on public transport, and failings of the Department of Health and Human Services in regulating an aged care facility. Of the 50 recommendations made to government, 96% were accepted.

Glass hopes that, in addition to reforms to give appropriations powers for the office to the parliament, the government will implement a review of the confidentiality provisions in the Ombudsman Act, something she raised last year. The government has indicated it will bring changes to this effect before the parliament before the end of this year.

Parliamentary committee recommendations

The Victorian parliamentary accountability and oversight committee’s report into the state’s accountability agencies, released on Thursday, also recommended reforms allowing the Ombudsman to refer cases to the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission in electronic form and a review of requirements to investigate every protected disclosure case.

The committee also concurred with the plan to create a single portal for making complaints about public bodies, including a recommendation to amend the Act, which currently requires complaints to be delivered in writing, to allow for the submission of complaints in electronic or verbal form.

It was also argued that “there is a need for greater financial transparency and accountability to be included in the FOI Commissioner’s annual report”, as unlike the Victorian Ombudsman or Victorian Inspectorate, the FOI Commissioner’s financial accounts are not contained in its annual report.

Inaugural freedom of information commissioner Lynne Bertolini stepped down in August over questions around expenditure decisions and an inability to meet the expectations of the parliament.

The committee made three findings:

  1. The Committee finds that, due to the increasing number of complaints carried over into subsequent reporting periods, additional information (without identifying specific cases) on reasons for the carry-over of requests, should be included in the FOI Commissioner’s annual report. This would help identify whether there are any systemic issues to be resolved or additional resources and education initiatives required, to reduce the carry-over of complaints.
  2. The Committee finds that the annual report should include an analysis of factors which have contributed to changes in the volume of FOI requests and FOI appeals and complaints. This includes the role played by education and training initiatives and alternative dispute resolution techniques.
  3. The Committee finds that the Victorian Inspectorate’s annual report refers to ‘comprehensive and adequate’, in relation to reports made to the Victorian Inspectorate by the Ombudsman. However, there is no definition of what ‘comprehensive and adequate’ means.

And eight recommendations:

  1. That the FOI Commissioner include in subsequent annual reports, the average length of time for FOI reviews and the common circumstances under which the applicant agrees to extend the reporting date.
  2. That the Victorian Government supports the continuation of the FOI Commissioner’s Practitioners Forum, as a key annual training and evaluation exercise for FOI officers and government agency staff.
  3. That the Freedom of Information Commissioner’s financial statement reports are published as part of the FOI Commissioner’s annual report.
  4. That the FOI Commissioner develops a targeted training program for departmental and agency staff using alternative dispute resolution (ADR) techniques and that an evaluation program is established to determine the value of ADR in reducing the volume of FOI reviews and complaints.
  5. That the Victorian Parliament amends Section 14(2) of the Ombudsman Act 1973 to allow complaints to be made by means other than writing, such as verbally or electronically transmitted.
  6. That the Victorian Parliament amends Section 16E of the Ombudsman Act 1973 to allow referral of complaints from the Ombudsman to IBAC to be made in ways other than writing, such as electronically transmitted.
  7. That the Victorian Government in consultation with the Accountability and Oversight Committee and the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission Committee reviews the legislative requirement under the Ombudsman Act 1973 that all protected disclosure cases must be investigated by the Victorian Ombudsman.
  8. That the Victorian Government develops a seamless ‘one-stop shop’ framework to provide a single point of entry for people seeking to make a complaint about a public body.
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