Commonwealth Ombudsman Reveals Challenges of Social Inclusion & Service Delivery
8 September 2011 at 12:29 pm
The Commonwealth Ombudsman has called on the Federal Government and its agencies to take active steps to improve their approach to social inclusion, in particular those who are newly socially excluded.
In a wide ranging speech delivered to the 2011 Public Affairs Conference in Canberra, held by the Walkley Foundation and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Asher said social inclusion or lack of it, was a huge issue in his office.
He said that last financial year, his office received around 39,000 approaches from people wishing to make a formal complaint about a government department or agency, of which they investigated more than 4,000.
However, he told the conference that he suspected that for every complaint the received, there are maybe 10 they don’t.
He said that he believed that the people they don’t hear from are the people they should be hearing from most, because they are likely to be those members of the community who are the most marginalised and disadvantaged.
He said if only 10 per cent of people who should be complaining are complaining, the remaining 90 per cent cannot be said to be fully enfranchised in any meaningful sense.
The Ombudsman told that conference that a recent public awareness survey his office conducted showed that less than one-third of people under 35, and a similar number of people who speak a language other than English, have heard of his office.
He said that more surprisingly, only 60 per cent of women are aware we exist versus 72 per cent of men.
He said that while his office addresses some of these issues through its outreach and education programs, as well as broader publicity work, it is clearly their responsibility to find innovative ways to tackle this better.
He said one of the reasons some people don’t make contact with his office, or fully engage with other government agencies, is lack of access and this is particularly true of socially marginalised people in remote areas.
He said how do you contact an agency, including his office, if you don’t have a landline, or if the local payphone doesn’t work or a mobile phone, but not enough credit to make calls to 1800 and 1300 numbers, which are only free or charged at a local rate if you’re using a landline.
The Ombudsman says he has highlighted his concerns about this issue in discussions with Chris Chapman, Chairman of the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
He told the conference that of particular concern to his office are those people who are newly socially excluded such as the recently unemployed or homeless, immigration detention centre detainees or newly arrived and vulnerable migrants.
He says he is heartened that the phrase ‘social inclusion’ is cropping up more often in government and public sector discussion, and in initiatives such as the National Compact which seeks to strengthen relations between Government and the Not for Profit sector.
His office is in the process of signing up to the Compact.
He also told the Conference that to a great extent poor service delivery by government agencies came down to poor communication. This includes lack of accessibility, poor complaint-handling procedures, lack of community consultation, and language that is unduly complex or bureaucratic.
Allan Asher concluded his speech with a five-point action plan for how government agencies can improve their service delivery including the call to take active steps to reach socially excluded stakeholders.
Among his recommendations is the introduction of a government-wide plain language program.
The full transcript of the speech is available on the Commonwealth Ombudsman website.