How to improve agency practices

The ACT Ombudsman encourages agencies to improve their practices so people using agency services understand agency decisions that affect them. The information below is designed to help agencies avoid common issues.

Tips from the Ombudsman

Provide reasons

Provide reasons FOI review applications and complaints often arise not because there is necessarily a problematic outcome, but because the agency has failed to explain the reasons behind a decision or action. The most common outcome from our complaint investigations is a more detailed explanation.

Communicate

Communicate matters often escalate when a member of the community interacts with government and does not understand what is happening. An individual wants to be kept up to date, even if it is to know their matter hasn’t been missed or overlooked.

Work with people

Most people who deal with government are reasonable. On many occasions a conversation with an individual may avert the need to use formal processes and provide the answer they are looking for. This is not always possible, but demonstrating a willingness to engage on an individual level will often have the desired effect.

Learn lessons from complaints

Complaints should be seen as an opportunity and an excellent source of intelligence. Good complaint-handling processes and the ability to identify trends in data is vital for efficient operations and continual improvement.

Keep records

Whether it is due to technological limitations, poor processes or lack of training, not maintaining accurate records is often the problem. There are times when an agency or organisation may have taken the right action or made the right decision, but by not documenting it properly, it is difficult to prove how the decision was made.

Share information

We find agencies can be reluctant to tell the whole story or they can be concerned about sharing information. We encourage you to work with us and discuss any concerns you have so they can be addressed.

Guidelines for managing complaints and improving practices

To help agencies improve their practices we have written guidelines on FOI, reportable conduct and complaint management.

Complaint-handling case studies

Regular communication and timely complaints handling can avoid escalation

Case study:

A person complained to the Ombudsman about poor quality building work. The building work was completed in December 2015. The person reported problems with the build in January 2016. The site was not inspected until December 2016. The issue was not addressed until after a considerable amount of correspondence and the complaint being investigated by the Ombudsman.

What could have been done?

By following up complaints, escalation to the Ombudsman could have been avoided if the original complaint was assessed and responded to in a timely manner. Where there are unavoidable delays due to resource limitations, the relevant agency should communicate with the complainant regularly regarding their progress. In this case, a site inspection soon after complaint lodgement could have quickly determined whether the complaint was valid and/or any urgent action was required.

Complaints can highlight problematic processes

Case study:

A complainant runs a small business that does work for an ACT Government agency. They wrote to our Office, saying their business had been waiting for payment of outstanding invoices for work that was completed, and their complaints had gone unanswered. Following our intervention, all outstanding invoices were paid.

What could have been done?

The agency could have engaged with the complainant and explained that delays in issuing the invoices had contributed to payment delays, and also apologised for further delays due to internal processes. The complaints made could have been used as an opportunity to identify situations where the agency was not acting in accordance with the ACT Accounting Policy, and used to do a review of their processes to improve services for future suppliers.

Conflict of interest can be unproblematic if managed pro-actively

Case study:

An ex-employee of an ACT Directorate, made an FOI request under the Freedom of Information Act 1989 for access to certain documents about their employment. They contacted the Ombudsman because they were concerned that an internal review decision letter on their FOI request was signed by their former supervisor. The former supervisor had made the decision to suspend them from their employment. As a result of this review, extra documents were provided to the ex-employee.

What could have been done?

The FOI decision-maker should have alerted their supervisor to the potential conflict of interest, and arranged for a different FOI decision-maker to make the decision. If this was not possible due to resource limitations, a plan should have been put in place to ensure the potential conflict was managed—for example, including additional consultation steps to avoid any perception of bias.

Balancing long term and short term outcomes

Case study:

A person had acquired a significant disability and as a result their public housing property was no longer suitable for their needs. The persons care needs limited where the family could move. This meant it would take some time for a suitable property to be found.

The family asked if they could install a temporary modification, at their own expense, to improve access to the current property. This was not allowed as the agency was concerned that approval would encourage the family to stay in the property, when their long term welfare required them to move. As a result, the family lived in the unmodified property for more than 12 months before being moved into a new more accessible home.

What could have been done?

The agency could have communicated clearly to the family that a longer term solution was required, but also implemented interim arrangements to ensure their immediate needs for health, safety and dignity were managed.

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