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Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee - 26/05/2014 - Estimates - PRIME MINISTER AND CABINET PORTFOLIO - Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman

Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman

[21:34]

CHAIR: Welcome. Mr Neave, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr Neave : No, thank you.

CHAIR: For the benefit of the committee, I would be looking to conclude this shortly after 10 o'clock.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Can I ask that that information be relayed to Senator Lundy as deputy chair if that is a matter of timing which would limit the amount that had been previously allocated to these witnesses?

CHAIR: Yes—

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Thank you.

CHAIR: the secretary will communicate with Senator Lundy that she is meant to be here.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I think we are just slightly ahead of the time that you proposed that we return.

CHAIR: No, we are not actually.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I think by agreement I said that I was happy that we start earlier, but maybe people want to play games.

CHAIR: It is not; it is past the appointed hour. If you want to play games, I am happy to have it out with you, but ask your questions and leave your comments aside.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I am happy to ask some questions. Thank you for allowing me that opportunity on this occasion, Chair. Mr Neave, the abolishing of both the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the Freedom of Information Commissioner involved the transferral of some of their functions to the ombudsman without additional resources. Is that correct?

Mr Neave : Discussions are underway at the moment on that issue. The role has not come to us yet of course because legislation will be required. So, in due course, the role will come but it has not arrived as yet.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: In terms of the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor we heard about changes occurring before legislation has been passed. I am asking whether any additional resources have been allocated thus far.

Mr Neave : Not that we are aware of, but discussions are continuing between us and the Attorney-General's Department in relation to the change, but they have not commenced formally. We will need to see how that transpires in due course.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: When the legislation passes.

Mr Neave : Yes, that is right.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Are the functions of the information commissioner and the FOI commissioner continuing or have they been terminated?

Mr Neave : At the moment they are underway because in order to make that change legislation is required, but I am not really able to comment on that issue; that is a matter for the Attorney-General.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: As I said, we just heard that the Independent National Legislation Security Monitor, which is also established by and operates under legislation, and indeed requires a monitor to be appointed, is not functioning, but, to your understanding, the FOI commissioner and the information commissioner remain functioning.

Mr Neave : Yes, as far as I am aware.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: It would be a concern to you if it is envisaged that you will pick up at least some of their functions and if there was going to be a lull in those functions operating, wouldn't it?

Mr Neave : I think that the role which is envisaged for us is a matter which the ombudsman's office is familiar with, given that before the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner was established that role was performed by the ombudsman's office. I am looking, as far as possible, at the bureaucratic level to make sure that there is, first of all, a continuing service available to the community, because that is the ombudsman's role, and I will be doing everything I can to ensure that that occurs.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: You are saying that, were that role not to continue through the currently legislated arrangements—because it is envisaged that they will ultimately move to you—and were it to involve an absence of that provision in the interim, that would be very concerning to you.

Mr Neave : I would not use quite that language. What I am intending to do, as I said before, is to ensure that, by agreement between my office and the current commissioner's office, we will put in place arrangements to ensure that the level of service to the community continues.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Even if that meant you picking up additional functions before the legislation had been passed?

Mr Neave : No, I do not think we would be able to pick up additional functions until the legislation is passed. What I am saying is that of course there are a number of issues that have to be worked through. I am very committed to making sure we work through them effectively and efficiently in order to continue to provide a service, and for that reason, as I said at the outset, we have had some very preliminary discussions with the current commissioner, and those discussions will continue.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Okay. Was the Ombudsman consulted about the new functions that would be conferred under the proposed legislation?

Mr Neave : No.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: In your view, what additional resources would be required to meet those functions?

Mr Neave : I think first of all I would need to see the legislation and what exactly is envisaged. That is a time that I would start looking at issues of resources. At the moment, it is just a little too early to estimate resources, because, as we all know, resources are finite and we all need to operate within the resource limits which we have and which might be available to us. So it is a bit too early to speculate on resources just yet.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Then I presume it is also too early to speculate on how adopting additional functions might bear on existing functions.

Mr Neave : Yes, it is a little bit early to do that. I would agree with that.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Given, as I am understanding it, you are also dealing with the additional 2.5 per cent efficiency dividend, if you were not to be allocated additional resources with the transfer of any of these responsibilities, what impact would that have on the agency?

Mr Neave : The whole resource issue, to set the context, is always going to present agencies and departments with challenges. My own experience with some of the resource issues which were encountered when I first became a public servant in 1987—a time which is actually very similar to the times that we are going through right now with efficiency dividends of about three per cent per year—meant that one had to focus the way in which services were delivered with great precision. One needs to take the opportunity of looking at processes and procedures throughout the office. We have, of course, within the Ombudsman's office had a lot of discussion amongst the staff and our people about how we will be coping with the pressures which are on our office along with the rest of the public sector. I am very confident that we will be able to provide a reasonable level of service as we always have as long as the estimates of what we are called upon to perform with the resources remain broadly the same as they have been indicated to us so far. It certainly presents us, along with a lot of agencies, with a lot of challenges, but I would be confident that we will be able to cope with them.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: What year was it that the Information Commissioner was established?

Mr Neave : It was before my time—I think 2010.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: And the FOI Commissioner?

Mr Neave : At the same time.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Okay. What concerns me in your case is that you are not only looking at an efficiency dividend scenario; you are also looking at adopting additional functions. For example, when the information commissioner was established, was there an adjustment in terms of the resourcing of the Commonwealth Ombudsman? You indicated you previously had dealt with some of those functions.

Mr Neave : My office dealt with them, yes. I was not there at that stage. I will need to have a look and take that as a question on notice to see what resources we lost that stage, if any. We may not have lost resources.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: That would indeed be an ideal environment in some ways for the work that you would carry out. To lose functions but not lose revenue would be a dream, I would think, in your position.

Mr Neave : Yes. It is always quite a nice thought!

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I will be interested to hear on notice whether that is actually what transpired since you took us through the history of efficiency dividends but perhaps not the history of changes in roles and function.

Mr Neave : I accept that, yes.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I remain concerned that you are confronting both the efficiency dividend and a gain in functions but accept, as you say, that exactly what those additional functions may be—from my point of view I would like to see them as broad as possible so that we do not lose some of the functions that were previously carried out. I am concerned about whether you will attract resourcing sufficient to carry out those functions.

Mr Neave : Thank you.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: That concludes my question.

Senator McKENZIE: Could you give the committee an idea of how the office is tracking against your key performance indicators?

Mr Neave : Broadly, the best way of putting it is that we are closing as many cases as we are getting in. We are not developing any major backlogs, and to me that is one of the most important key performance indicators. I might ask my deputy to go into a bit more detail on that.

Senator McKENZIE: Could you do it with regard to improved administration?

Mr Glenn : In terms of improved administration, I think the things that illustrate our success in those areas include an own-motion report that was recently released by the Ombudsman into Centrelink service delivery. I think the successful implementation of the public interest disclosure scheme at the beginning of this year and our continued work with agencies across the Commonwealth to improve complaints handling and standards of decision making. Finding quantitative measures for those are difficult, but I think we are very actively engaged in that area. I think we have in recent times moved a lot of emphasis into that area, perhaps away from trying to deal with complaints as they come through at the back end, so to speak, and pushing more of our resources to the front end to improve the operation of agencies and stopping complaints needing to be referred to us in the first place.

Senator McKENZIE: Okay. I note from your annual report that you have had a bit of success at reducing the number of complaints, as you have just been saying, by 34 per cent, down from 40,000 calls to just a little over 26,000. Could you flesh out for the committee what that was in relation to and whether that trend is being maintained.

Mr Neave : I might make a few general comments there. We have in fact changed our processes and procedures quite considerably by making it very clear to people who are making contact with us that they first of all needed to raise whatever the problem might be with the agency or department with which they had that problem. That meant there was a 'second chance' provided to departments and agencies to deal with the problem. Coming to us and getting the information from us, which led to a referral back to the agencies, meant that usually the problem was solved by the agency itself. That tended to change the emphasis of our work. We then only dealt with the cases that we really had to. In one sense it looks as if there has been a reduction in the number of cases, but the actual number of cases we investigated has remained pretty steady for the last few years and is steady again in this current year.

I should go on to add that another inquiry which we are engaged in at the moment is in relation to the manner in which agencies and departments actually handle complaints themselves. It is what we call an own-motion investigation. We are gathering information from all departments and all agencies about how they handle their complaints and consolidating that, which will lead to a report on best practice in complaint handling within Commonwealth agencies. Even asking the agencies to think carefully about how they handle complaints has a positive effect on their own performance in that regard.

Senator McKENZIE: When is that report going to be handed down?

Mr Neave : It will be several months. It was due around June, but my guess it will probably be August or so this year. At the time we get that report, it will be made public, and we are hoping to get all the agencies and departments together in one big room and talk to them about how they can handle complaints more effectively and efficiently.

Senator McKENZIE: Excellent. Does the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman have any interaction with international counterpart organisations? Could you outline the extent of that interaction?

Mr Neave : Yes we do at different levels. There is an organisation called the International Ombudsman Institute, of which we are members. I am the chair of the Asia-Pacific region subcommittee of that group and a member of the board of the International Ombudsman Institute. It is a very useful body to be part of because we get to know a lot about best practice from overseas. Having said that, we are not spinning around the world constantly going to conferences or anything. It is just an exchange over the internet.

Senator McKENZIE: Is there a way you can quantify that engagement?

Mr Neave : I get something from the institute about every two days. It is really quite interesting because it draws one's attention to reports which might have been completed in the UK, Belgium, Sweden or anywhere else, and one can then go online, read the reports and learn what is going on. That is at the broad international level.

We are also, through the office and with funding from AusAID through DFAT, providing leadership to what is known as the Pacific Ombudsman Alliance, which consists of a variety of institutions throughout the Pacific. We have a very special twinning arrangement with Papua New Guinea where we endeavour to give support to that office because there are a lot of learnings that we have in Australia which, modified to suit PNG, can be quite useful to that jurisdiction. We also have strong connections in the Solomons, Vanuatu and New Zealand as well. We find that is a very good way of building up the capability, particularly in the Pacific region, of ombudsman organisations, which we think has a positive effect on the governance arrangements within some of those areas and in turn is relevant to making those countries valuable trading partners in Australia. One starts to see a bit of an economic value where you make a contribution to improved governance. There are also sometimes fewer opportunities for corruption.

Senator McKENZIE: How do we assess that relationship between that interaction and less corruption in Y country?

Mr Neave : It is a very interesting question. It has always been the theory that these contributions can lead to assistance in that regard. We have had a number of reviews conducted by AusAID before the funding is made available to us which seem to suggest that there is value in the programs, but I cannot go much further than that, to be honest with you.

Senator McKENZIE: Okay. Could you outline the plans for staff from your office to travel to engage in these types of forums?

Mr Neave : The plan?

Senator McKENZIE: The staff travel to participate in these engagements.

Mr Neave : The arrangements are made through out office with funding through AusAID and DFAT.

Senator McKENZIE: How many staff? How big a budget out of AusAID? What is the travel budget for participating in these?

Mr Neave : I think we might take that question on notice. That is probably the easiest way.

Senator McKENZIE: Thank you. I noted that you gave a speech recently in April to the 11th International Tax Administration Conference in Sydney.

Mr Neave : I did.

Senator McKENZIE: For those of us who have not read your speech, could you outline the key points that you made?

Mr Neave : The key point that I made in relation to the tax jurisdiction that we have is that in my view the tax office itself has made considerable progress in engagement with its clients and customers—because that is the way I think taxpayers should be viewed—but that it was necessary to continue to improve in various areas, such as engagement with the more vulnerable in the community who have engagements with the tax office. I think that is a particular role which the Ombudsman has a very keen interest in, because our focus generally is the most vulnerable people in the community. So we were, I think, getting the message—and this is back in April. I could provide you at least with my notes of the speech, if you would like them yourself, Senator?

Senator McKENZIE: No, it is available on your website for those that might not have had the time—

Mr Neave : That is good. Heavens, I should have re-read it before I came!

Senator McKENZIE: It made some really good points, as you do say, and I think one of the things you referred to was the ANAO's report indicating that it costs an average of $611 every times someone makes a complaint to the ATO. Does that refresh your memory of the speech?

Mr Neave : Yes, it does; I think I remember that now.

Senator McKENZIE: How are you working with the ATO on their complaints handling process?

Mr Neave : As I said, we have been very impressed with the way in which they have particularly engaged with our office locally. We think that the progress made is excellent. We find that the ATO has been telling us about any problems which they are anticipating arising. They have been briefing us very fully, for example, on the proposal to send our tax returns either fully filled out or partially filled out based on information which the tax office has. We are expecting that this engagement with us is going to lead to fewer complaints coming to us, and to the tax office itself being better at handling its own complaints.

Senator McKENZIE: $611 for every single complaint—that is pretty exorbitant.

Mr Neave : That is probably a pretty good estimate, by the sound of it.

Senator McKENZIE: Thank you.

CHAIR: I thank you, Mr Neave and your officers, for your attendance this evening.