Fairer and less Kafkaesque: Elizabeth Cosson takes command of DVA's five-year plan

By Stephen Easton

July 20, 2018

The new secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Elizabeth Cosson, has spent some of her first few months in the job putting out fires by apologising to aggrieved veterans and promising to deliver fairer outcomes in future.

This week, she accepted a list of recommendations from Commonwealth Ombudsman Michael Manthorpe including that she personally apologise to Naval officer Mr A, the latest in a sombre parade of former Defence Force members whose efforts to claim their entitlements over the years had the opposite of the intended effect, hurting rather than helping them heal.

The report details the extremely serious cumulative effects that a litany of small administrative errors can easily have on one citizen, and the ongoing problem of bureaucratic silos that can’t communicate well enough.

“The negative impact on the life of this veteran cannot be overstated,” writes Manthorpe. “He expressed to my Office that he lives in constant fear that tomorrow there may be no payment in his account, or that payments may be recovered in the future and he may not be able to meet his basic needs. His health has suffered and his relationships have been strained.”

Unfortunately, dealing with serious complaints about how the limits on support for veterans are applied has been a semi-regular task for the head of DVA over the years.

Cosson has also recently said sorry to former paratrooper Martin Rollins, who took his story to the ABC’s 7.30 program. Military compensation lawyer Brian Briggs accuses the department of “bureaucratic bastardry” because its staff appear to have revoked a policy specifically to stop Rollins relying on it.

On July 11 the ABC reported DVA had denied this claim despite documentary evidence. The permanently injured veteran wasn’t exactly impressed with a previous apology he got from Cosson’s predecessor Simon Lewis only a couple of years ago, along with two payments including one for about $69,000 that was conditional on signing a legal release over the long-running matter.

“Well I fired an email back to the Secretary of DVA,” Rollins said on the current affairs program, “and I basically told him where he can shove his $69,000.”

At that point Cosson had only just taken on the role of chief operating officer, second in charge to Lewis, a return to the department she joined in 2010 after over 30 years in the Army, where she reached the rank of major-general. The voices of angry veterans were growing louder, with protests outside Parliament House in 2016 and DVA’s Melbourne office in 2017, with calls for a Royal Commission into the mental health effects of dealing with the department.

Cosson came into the top role this year with demands for major administrative reform coming from all angles, and a five-year “transformation” program as the vehicle.

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More recently the auditor-general reported on clunky processes, inefficient business systems, weak record-keeping and inadequate performance measures, leading to unreasonably inefficient and slow claims. Cosson accepted six recommendations and the Minister, Darren Chester, said reforms funded with $112 million in this year’s budget would get the ball rolling, “first by transforming DVA’s business processes and culture, improving service options and information, and redeveloping information technology systems.”

The proof, of course, will be in the pudding and how many more like Martin Rollins and Mr A come forward. The ombudsman doesn’t get involved because of a few honest mistakes in isolated cases, and he makes clear the case is only one particularly Kafkaesque example of the human consequences of multiple systemic problems.

Mr A’s case shows error piled upon error, with inaccurate information traveling a chain of administrative actions from the Navy to the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation to the department, compounded by DVA’s habit of providing little or no details to explain its various calculations and decisions.

“What started as a minor unchecked oversight between agencies culminated in multiple administrative deficiencies, including the raising in excess of $100,000 in debts and the veteran enduring periods with no financial support, followed by the identification of an underpayment of more than $500,000,” Manthorpe reports.

Manifold administrative failures led to policies and legislation being wrongly applied and “overpayments, omission of benefits and incorrectly identified benefits” as a result. “Attempts to recover the overpayments were themselves infected with further error.”

The detailed findings and recommendations clearly align with the auditor-general’s report. While many of the individuals who get lost in this maze can only conclude, like Rollins, that DVA staff are deliberately playing hardball and viewing them with disdain or outright contempt – as have critics of the Tax Office or the civilian welfare agencies – these two reports speak to an organisation that would struggle to do much better regardless of culture.

Mr A’s case could almost inform a satire in the tradition of the gold standard in lampooning military bureaucracy, Catch-22, except the reality is not funny at all. The ombudsman notes there are about 300,000 Australian veterans currently and many have paid a hefty personal cost for our security.

“They face physical and mental health challenges that many Australians will fortunately never encounter. They are more likely to suicide and self-harm than the general population and face physical incapacity at a higher rate than the general population.”

Cosson is surely well aware of this, however, having served for most of her career in Army.

“I would firstly like to extend a personal apology to [Mr A] for the mishandling of his case and express my deep disappointment for the long term stress and hardship that this situation has caused,” she writes to Manthorpe, a former colleague from Immigration, beginning a detailed response addressing each of the recommendations.

“Sadly, the department did not take into consideration [Mr A’s] circumstances or personal hardships when responding to his claims.”

The Commonwealth’s newest department secretary assures Manthorpe that “making sure errors of this magnitude do not continue to happen” is a key focus of the transformation plan. In his opening paragraphs, he acknowledges the beginning of efforts to improve the Byzantine system, which has been built layer upon layer over many years.

“To its credit, DVA has implemented significant reforms to better meet the needs of our veterans and continues to work at simplifying a complex and confusing legislative system borne out of years of accreted adjustments to policy settings.

“But more work is needed to assure the public, serving personnel and veterans that processes, policies and guidance are robust and rigorous. In this case, DVA failed to ensure timely record keeping and adequate quality assurance and internal review processes were in place.

“Simple additional checks from the very earliest of DVA’s dealings with this veteran may have prevented the snowballing of events that led to years of suffering to one man. While cases involving this level of accumulated administrative errors are rare, the individual errors are not isolated incidents.”

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