Individual tragedies lost in the great statistical wash of rising complaints

By Verona Burgess

Wednesday November 15, 2017

While chaos and ‘I didn’t mean it, Miss,’ seem to be the preferred mode of politics at present, spare a thought for people who, when up against the brick wall of powerful institutions, are afforded not one drop of mercy.

One of the most telling annual reports for 2016-17 in that respect is that of the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

Some say it takes five years for an auditor-general to become angry. The new(ish) Ombudsman, Michael Manthorpe, has only a five-year term, of which six months have already gone by as he metamorphoses from Immigration deputy secretary to chief government complaints watchdog.

The report contains no clues that he intends to bark loudly, but it does make some clear points.

As usual, it is sprinkled with case studies, such as ‘Melanie’ who had a debt raised against her by the Department of Veterans Affairs. During the investigation, it turned out that she had been underpaid by more than $51,000 since 1998 … oops.

There was also ‘Holly’, an Aboriginal non-English speaking woman, with whom a Department of Human Services investigator conducted a tape-recorded ‘prosecution’ interview – with no interpreter.

And ‘Deanne’, who after receiving a letter from the National Disability Insurance Agency advising that her son had been granted access to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, went ahead and booked speech therapy sessions for him. Nobody had explained that before having any support services paid for, he must have an NDIS plan in place.

Then there was ‘Paul’, whose Newstart allowance was cancelled when he started taking part in the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme, even though he had a dependent child in his care, which should have entitled him to a partial Newstart allowance.

These ‘little disturbances of man’, to plagiarise American author Grace Paley, are life-changing and sometimes life-breaking for the people suffering them.

Complaints office stretched with workload

The Ombudsman’s remit has expanded a lot over the last 12 years. In 2016-17, with an appropriation budget of not quite $21 million, another $8 million or so from other government agencies, and a staff of 228 (up from 171 in 2007-08) the office received 41,301 ‘approaches’, mostly from would-be complainants, up 9% from 2015-16. At a wild guess, that’s 41,301 people with no sympathy for our dual-citizen parliamentarians.

Of those, 34,606 were in-jurisdiction complaints (meaning they came under the Ombudsman’s remit). More than half related to DHS (11,867 about Centrelink, up by 36%, and 1362 about Child Support); 4109 were about Australia Post; and 2071 about Immigration and Border Protection, down from 2341 the previous year. Private health insurance complaints were also up (5750, up from 4416) as were those about the NDIS (429, from 62). That’s a lot of complaints for such as small budget.

As usual, by far the most complainants (59%) picked up the phone to make contact; 38% went on line, 2% posted letters and 1% came in person. People really do want to talk to real people.

But the report notes, “In an environment of increasing demand for our services, we are focusing on innovation and technological opportunities to deliver our services more efficiently.” Hey, Siri? It also admits the office struggled somewhat to meets its targeted service standards, largely due to the increase in complaints about Centrelink and private health insurance.

However, it ‘finalised’ 34,268 in-jurisdiction complaints, up 9% on the previous year, although the news is mixed: most (89%) were ‘finalised’ without commencing an investigation. What that means varies, but includes referring a complainant back to the offending agency; transferring him or her to another complaint-handling body; or forming a view that no further investigation is required, for instance if the complaint lapses or is withdrawn; if the matter is more than 12 months old; or if there being no prospect of a remedy. Not much succour there.

The office also expanded its functions in 2016-17, in particular the Defence Force abuse reporting; vocational education and training student loans; the ACT Reportable Conduct Scheme and the ACT Judicial Council (it’s also the ACT Ombudsman under a deal with the ACT government).

It conducted 63 inspections or reviews of the use of covert, intrusive or coercive powers by law-enforcement and regulatory agencies; it received 635 complaints about Defence agencies, up from 491, as well as 163 reports of serious abuse under the new jurisdiction that started on December 1. And it received 290 complaints about the Australian Federal Police, four more than the previous year.

It also received 684 public interest (whistleblowing) disclosures, with 57 of 176 agencies receiving one or more, and provides a run-down of how the PID legislation is going.

Then there is Immigration, including mention of the statutory reports that are tabled (and published online) every six months on everyone held in detention for two years or more.

“The trend for an increase in the number of assessments the Ombudsman sends to the minister continued in 2016–17,” the report says simply. “A total of 1325 reports were tabled, an increase of 469 (55%) over the previous year.”

Read them and weep.

A song to get through relocation day

On a cheerier note, those intrepid chroniclers of public service culture, the Shiny Bum Singers, will perform a new opera on December 10 at the Weston Community Hub (the old primary school) to raise money for Pain Support ACT – tickets through Eventbrite.  Called ‘Seize the Day’, it covers commuter troubles, office romances, IT crashes, ministerial interference and, wouldn’t you know, an announcement that the department is moving – to Crookwell. To the tune of Roger Whittaker’s ‘The Last Farewell’, the chorus goes:

And even the town’s name’s an oxymoron
How can one boondock be both crook and well?
Though we are dutiful, we hate so much to leave here
We hate it more than spoken words can tell
It’s all political, it’s pay-up for a favour
Pork-barrelling – we recognise the smell.

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