I commenced my appointment as ACT Ombudsman on August 30, 2010 and quickly formed the view that residents of the Australian Capital Territory were not receiving the level and quality of services from the ACT administration to which they are entitled. I set as an early and urgent priority for my term as Ombudsman, to review all areas of complaint with a view to identifying root causes and systemic problems and to work with ACT Government agencies to correct them.
I made a commitment to making the ACT Ombudsman role more engaged with the challenges of ensuring ACT Government agencies delivered services more effectively.
By the close of the 2010-2011 year it was clear to me that there remain significant areas for improvement in service delivery and complaint-handling. Overall, 742 approaches and complaints were received by my office about ACT Government agencies and ACT Policing, up from 676 the previous year. Those specifically about ACT Government agencies have risen 19 per cent on 2009-10, from 507 to 600. Of these, my office formally investigated 126 complaints, which in 14 cases resulted in a finding of 'administrative deficiency'. This is four more than in 2009-2010.
Four of the recommendations to Housing ACT were made from a single investigation into an application for priority listing. The report, Housing ACT: Assessment of an application for priority housing -01|2011, published in June 2011 provides details about this investigation and our recommendations. It is available on our website (www.ombudsman.act.gov.au).
This report sets out in some detail what my office found during 2010-2011. It summarises approaches and complaints made about ACT Government agencies and ACT Policing. There is an account of our inspection work relating to the child sex offenders register and controlled operations. It also deals with our community engagement and provides details of agency and public awareness research surveys undertaken during the reporting period.
Following a series of meetings with senior ACT Government officials and members of the legislative assembly, I put forward a '10-Point Plan' of steps which could be taken to improve service delivery and offer assurance to members of the Legislative Assembly and the general public that administration in the ACT meets legitimate community expectations.
We have observed no decline in complaints since 1 July 2011. In fact, the reorganisation of agencies under nine new directorates has given rise to complaints. As such, looking ahead, my office has developed a program for working with all of the Government directorates to improve complaint-handling processes and to ensure consistent high-quality administration. As a Member of the Law Reform Advisory Council I will be providing advice on areas of the law that the government chooses to review and I look forward to working with the government to update the Ombudsman Act and to improve the laws relating to child sex offenders.
This year we plan further inspections on police controlled operations and the use of surveillance devices as well as a program of inspections at the Alexander Maconochie Centre. Specifically we will be looking carefully at aspects of ACT Corrective Services including complaints handling, record-keeping, detainee property records and behaviour management routines applied there. Management of mentally impaired detainees and building closer cooperative relationships between ACT Corrective Services and the Ombudsman is a continuing priority.
Following a public awareness survey, in which we found relatively low levels of awareness of our work amongst young people and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, we will be extending our outreach to these communities.
Lack of responsiveness in some parts of the ACT administration also makes it harder to carry out one of the roles of my office, namely to foster public administration that is accountable, lawful, fair, transparent and responsive. This is important because over the past decade there has seen a slowing in the pace at which the ACT has kept in step with other jurisdictions in relation to broader integrity issues. For instance, while other jurisdictions are developing or have passed new legislation in relation to anti-corruption, personal privacy, freedom of information, lobbying activities, and parliamentary integrity, the ACT has not. Rather, it still mostly relies on Australian Government agencies to provide these services or on legislation which was largely passed from the Commonwealth when self-government was granted in 1989.
I have sought to address these priorities in a number of ways. For instance, we made a submission to the ACT public sector review conducted by Dr Allan Hawke AC (the Hawke Review) in December 2010, in which we pointed out that the ACT was once a leader in integrity and government accountability, but has recently fallen behind reforms in a range of other jurisdictions. Among our recommendations and discussions with government were that consideration be given to the establishment of an ACT Integrity Commission to comprise responsibility for Ombudsman, personal privacy, law enforcement inspections, freedom of information, ethical advice, anti-corruption and lobbyist regulation functions. Neither this, any of the other recommendations have, as yet, been acted on. Our full submission is available on the ACT Ombudsman's website (www.ombudsman.act.gov.au).
Related activities of my office to improve administration over the course of the financial year included:
- a submission to the Hamburger review in the operation of the Alexander Maconochie Centre in November 2010
- a series of meetings with senior politicians and bureaucrats
- a contact officers' forum for ACT Government agencies to discuss good public administration in the ACT, and issues of concern
- contributing to induction training for newly recruited ACT Corrections Officers.
My office will continue to seek the improvements to public sector integrity within the ACT. For instance, it is our view that the imminent introduction of Commonwealth whistle-blower legislation should be mirrored in the ACT by amendments to the Public Interest Disclosure Act (ACT) 1994 .
A final area of concern to my office has been the implementation of Tasers for officers by ACT Policing. Earlier in the year I had consultation with ACT Policing, raising concerns about the training regime to accompany any roll-out, but was subsequently surprised by the announced implementation - with some of these matters outstanding. My office will monitor this closely during 2011-2012.
We're ready and willing to act against agencies who don't commit to action, and equally ready and willing to work with anyone prepared to contribute to our goals of fairness, accountability and greater social inclusion through improved service delivery to residents of the ACT community.
Allan Asher, ACT Ombudsman