Do governments listen to the ombudsman?

By David Donaldson

July 6, 2018

Ombudsmen make lots of recommendations, some of which aren’t greeted very enthusiastically by the people who have to implement them.

But do governments listen?

It seems they do, if the Victorian Ombudsman’s biennial recommendation tracking report is anything to go by.

Deborah Glass

Nearly one-third of Ombudsman Deborah Glass’s 125 recommendations from the past two years have been implemented in full, while 68% are in progress.

Only one of her recommendations — that the government stop the practice of routinely strip searching female prisoners — was not accepted by the relevant body.

The ombudsman also said she’d be monitoring to see if the implemented recommendations had the desired effect — though she acknowledged outcomes would not be obvious in many areas for some years.

Glass sees her role as standing up for the vulnerable, while highlighting the problems for the broader community if people are allowed to slip through the cracks.

“The strongest theme emerging from my reports is one of social justice for the most marginalised in our society, and the impact on all of us when it is not realised,” she said.

“We investigated the unfairness of a system that discriminates against kinship carers, many of them grandparents on low incomes struggling to look after children when the child’s own parents cannot cope. They not only take on some very damaged children to provide a supportive family environment, a key factor missing in many children who end up in trouble, they save us a fortune when children might otherwise be in state care.

“We also investigated expulsions in schools — formal and informal — one of the common factors that can start a child on a life of crime.”

Applying rules inflexibly

One of the most common sources of complaints to the ombudsman is systemic failure within public institutions, Glass noted.

“The source of systemic failures varied across these investigations.

“Some, for example, stemmed from out-of-date laws, overstretched resources or archaic case management systems. Often, a combination of factors contributed to the failures.

“The one factor common to these investigations was authorities’ inflexible application of their policies, procedures or business rules — where an unwavering focus was placed on process, rather than purpose.”

Following Texas’ lead?

Glass said in her first year as ombudsman in 2014, she began looking into rehabilitation in prisons, and since then her office has investigated “many aspects of social disadvantage that all too often contribute to our burgeoning prison population.”

She said it was pleasing that in line with the recommendations from her 2015 report into rehabilitation in prisons, the state government has expanded some therapeutic forms of justice such as drug courts, invested more in mental health services and drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, and allowed Aboriginal prisoners to retain the proceeds of their artwork produced in prison to support their rehabilitation.

However, she noted the prison population is higher than ever, with over a third of prisoners on remand, including in the women’s prison. An auditor-general’s report found it costs $127,000 per year to house each prisoner.

Glass called for an evidence-based approach to prisons, rather than the ineffective punitive method preferred by many politicians and members of the community.

“What should really trouble us is the recidivism rate, which remains around 44%, from a low of 33.7% in 2010,” she stated.

“I said in 2015 that building more prisons was not making us safer — over 99% of prisoners will be released one day. We need to do more to ensure they do not come out only to reoffend and return, at the cost both to public safety and the public purse.

“But we have not yet seen a greater focus on a whole-of-government approach to reducing offending — the first recommendation I made in my 2015 report. Until we start focusing more on the causes of crime — many of which have their origins in early childhood, education, health, housing and employment — we will not solve this problem,” said Glass.

“If the hard-line US state of Texas can reduce both crime and spending on prisons by diverting resources to rehabilitation, surely, so can Victoria.”

Making an impact

Among the other recommendations the ombudsman listed as having contributed towards positive outcomes for Victorians:

  • Thirty councils are now live streaming their council meetings, in line with a recommendation from the ombudsman’s investigation into the transparency of local government decision making.
  • On-the-spot penalty fares on public transport have been abolished, in line with a recommendation from the ombudsman’s investigation into public transport fare evasion enforcement.
  • The Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages has improved its business practices and customer service, in line with a recommendation from the investigation into the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages’ handling of a complaint.

Plus enquiries and investigations undertaken by the ombudsman’s office since last December’s release of the investigation into the financial support provided to kinship carers have resulted in a further $200,000 of entitlements, including back payments, being made to kinship carers.

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