COMMITTEE ON THE OFFICE OF THE OMBUDSMAN
Report: Access and Awareness Inquiry
Mr FRASER (Coffs Harbour) [1.02]: The committee announced this inquiry in the context of comments made by the New South Wales Ombudsman that the right of review available though his office was of no use to people who are not aware of it. Aborigines and people who are of a non-English speaking background, in custody, or resident outside the Sydney area, and people with poor written communication skills were perceived by the Ombudsman as experiencing specific difficulty in gaining access to his office. Similarly, reports, inquiries and surveys undertaken at Commonwealth level, a client survey by the New South Wales Ombudsman and the 1993 management review by KPMG Peat Marwick highlight the low level of awareness of the Ombudsman and his function among such groups and the difficulties experienced by them in gaining access to avenues of administrative review. The results of these studies point to the need for the development of strategies and programs targeted at specific, vulnerable or disadvantaged groups as a means of improving their awareness of the Ombudsman and their access his office.
The committee supports the Ombudsman's client surveys and recommends in this report that the practice continue on a regular basis as a valuable means of ensuring that: the office's access and awareness strategies are effective, barriers to easy access are identified, and benchmarks for these programs are established. The collection of relevant statistical information and the development of a comprehensive statistical database are supported as an integral feature of the office's access and awareness programs. As a complement, the committee recommends that the Ombudsman consider preparing an annual access and awareness plan for the office. That report would outline details of initiatives undertaken for each year, outcomes, performance measures and targets.
The recommendations contained in the committee's report reflect the problem areas perceived by witnesses and authors of submissions to the committee. They offer suggestions to the New South Wales Ombudsman for planning the office's access and awareness strategy and are aimed at improving the understanding among the community of the services provided by the office as well as increasing accessibility. The report pinpoints the directions and priorities that the committee feels the Ombudsman should be considering in planning this area of the operations of the office. For example, it proposes that the Ombudsman consider conducting a particular pilot project aimed at a different target group each year, in consultation with representatives of the group selected, and that the effectiveness of each report be measured through feedback and follow-up surveys.
In relation to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the committee's recommendations include: implementation of a community education plan to be devised in consultation with relevant advisory groups, public meetings on Aboriginal outreach campaigns which would be advertised beforehand in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander media; liaison with other bodies providing legal education to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders; and consultation with community groups, land councils, legal services and other bodies about their preparedness to access distribution points for information about the Ombudsman's services. Maintenance of a strong contact network with representatives and leaders of these indigenous communities, plus the appointment of a full-time Aboriginal liaison officer were considered viable by the committee.
In relation to young people, the committee recommends that the Ombudsman consider: a series of information pamphlets designed in consultation with experienced youth workers and distributed to outlets such as local youth centres, making regular contributions to young people's publications, a specific information package for educational courses about the Ombudsman, a youth liaison strategy, a youth impact study to evaluate the latter's practice, and a dedicated investigation officer, youth, with specific training and involvement in the office's youth outreach campaign. On the basis of the evidence taken and research material available, the committee felt that individuals in custody, especially young people and members of minority groups, may experience specific problems in relation to access to and awareness of the Ombudsman.
Consequently, it supports the practice of supplying all prisoners, upon their admission to gaol, with information about the Ombudsman and the complaints process. The committee further recommends that the Ombudsman approach service groups visiting specifically disadvantaged groups in custody about distributing information on the Ombudsman to their clients during prison visits. In order that the office fully utilise media services, especially ethnic media and Aboriginal media, the committee recommends that the Ombudsman consider: advertising in ethnic newspapers, radio, video and magazines in targeted community languages; advertising through radio, newspaper and television servicing Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders; regularly publicising cases of public interest in major newspapers; producing a casebook series; and publishing public interest and test case notes in the ethnic and Aboriginal media when relevant to those communities.
Language difficulties also were perceived by the committee to be a particular barrier to access and awareness, not only for people of non-English speaking background but also for people with poor literacy or little education. For that reason the committee recommended that the Ombudsman should: continue to improve his office's use of existing interpreting and translation services; consider arranging interpreting services for ethnic and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities who would be available at the office during specific times advertised in the media beforehand; access complainants by formalising their complaints in writing; continue to encourage his officers to use plain language in all correspondence and documentation; and review the office's publications and written resource material to ensure that all documentation produced by the office accords with a plain language policy.
Another suggestion made by the committee was that the office utilise its customer response information service system to record telephone complaints in document form and provide the documented record of such a complaint to the complainant for verification. The committee is convinced that youth and community workers form a vital link in the information network available to the Ombudsman. As a result, it proposes that the Ombudsman consider developing a training program for community and youth workers, which program should consist of a half-day seminar conducted at the office and lectures and discussions at established service centres. Consultation with the Commission of Ethnic Affairs appears to be another means by which the Ombudsman could obtain expert advice and assistance in liaising with members of particular ethnic community groups.
The committee also thought that the Ombudsman should emphasise direct contact with private groups through public meetings, lectures and visits. The committee proposed just two features that it deemed central to this program: public meetings in various target communities preceded by advertising in local and ethnic media; and a regular schedule of visits to major regional centres in rural New South Wales, vigorously advertised beforehand in the local media. After gathering evidence, the committee undertook its own survey of Australian ombudsmen in an attempt to place the access and awareness strategies employed by the New South Wales Ombudsman in a wider, contemporary context.
The survey showed that useful information can be derived from the experience of the New South Wales Ombudsman's peers. In view of this, the committee recommends that the Ombudsman consider commencing an information exchange program with other Australian ombudsmen about access and equity issues and public awareness strategies. It further recommends that the New South Wales Ombudsman continue joint public awareness initiatives with other Australian ombudsmen - similar to those already undertaken with the Commonwealth Ombudsman. Any possible arrangements with other intrastate ombudsmen that would facilitate easier access to the office by complainants, plus quicker processing of complaints, likewise seem worth while to the committee.
It is also recommended that the Ombudsman Act 1974 be amended to provide that the Ombudsman may educate and advise public authorities, public officials, and the community about his powers and functions and the services provided by the office; an amendment that gives statutory recognition to a function already performed by the Ombudsman. Of course, the suggestions put to the Ombudsman by the committee in this report raise the issue of the cost of any expanded public awareness strategy. On previous occasions the Ombudsman has presented evidence and submissions to the committee about the costs incurred by his office in relation to access and awareness programs.
The committee has considered these submissions where relevant to previous inquiries, for example the funds and resources inquiry, and recommends that the Ombudsman consider making provision for the costs of additional access and awareness activities in his annual budget estimates. In presenting this report to the Parliament I place on record my appreciation to the committee staff - Helen Minnican and Vanessa Lovett - for their dedication and work. They have done a terrific job. It has been a fairly wieldy exercise trying to pull together information, and organise hearings and witnesses. I am sure all members of the committee would join me in thanking them for their dedication and effort.
Mr RICHARDSON (The Hills) [1.10]: I endorse the remarks of the committee chairman about the staff of the Ombudsman committee having done a first-class job in preparing this report. I hope some positive benefits for access and awareness of the Ombudsman's office come from the report. The inquiry came about as a result of the Ombudsman's concern regarding access to his office by the community. Three matters primarily led to the inquiry, particularly the KPMG Peat Marwick 1993 management review of his office, which noted the need to raise awareness among Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, young people, people with a poor level of education, and non-professional members of the workforce.
The Roy Morgan group had also carried out an awareness survey for the Commonwealth. This survey basically confirmed the results of the Peat Marwick review, adding only that throughout Australia more men than women are well aware of the Ombudsman, by a margin of around 10 per cent. I suspect that relates to the kinds of issues that ombudsmen traditionally deal with, which tend to relate to the police and correctional institutions. Women tend to be much more law-abiding and, therefore, do not have such a need for the Ombudsman's office. Roy Morgan found that while only 60 per cent of people nationally were aware of their Ombudsman, 67 per cent were aware in New South Wales. This points to the job that the Ombudsman has been doing in this State.
The third factor contributing to the Ombudsman's concern was a client satisfaction survey carried out by AGB-McNair last year. Five main areas of concern arose from those three surveys and reports: awareness among Aborigines, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, young people, those in custody, and country people. I should like to briefly discuss each of those areas. Apparently the best way to reach the Aboriginal population is through Aboriginal owned and run media outlets. Unfortunately, the only Aboriginal radio station in New South Wales is 2WEB at Bourke. The Koori News is a good medium, but reaching Aborigines exclusively through the airwaves is a problem. Pamphlets were not a good means of reaching Aborigines. There has been a problem finding a full-time Aboriginal liaison officer to help improve awareness in conjunction with Aboriginal groups. The Ombudsman is addressing that issue. The suggestion for the employment of part-time field officers was rejected because of cost.
In relation to people from non-English speaking backgrounds, Professor Cheryl Saunders, former President of the Administrative Review Council, identified a cultural problem of some ethnic people: they may come from countries that lack benevolent governments and therefore have a fear of authority and apprehension about government. This needs to be overcome. If the Ombudsman's office is to be accessible to all, no repercussions should flow from an approach by citizens of this State. Some innovative techniques may be needed to access these people. Professor Saunders suggested that the Ombudsman should set up at markets and railway stations. She said also that the dorothy dix style of column run in Vietnamese television magazines
referring to the all-wise, all-knowing Ombudsman solving problems has proved successful. I commend that approach.
Stepan Kerkyasharian, the Chairman of the Ethnic Affairs Commission, recommended public meetings as a cost-effective way of reaching many people. The Ombudsman suggested renting space at the end of ethnic videos. I am sceptical that this approach would work because when people reach the end of the video they tend to switch it off and rewind it rather than viewing the advertisements at the end. It is not surprising that only 36 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds are aware of the Ombudsman. In many cases those people would not require his services. Spending large sums of money to tell them something they do not really need to know seems rather pointless. It would be different if they were arrested and taken into custody. I support the recommendation that youth be given a kit about the Ombudsman when they enter a detention centre.
One interesting finding was that kids need to be kept informed of the progress of their complaint. I should have thought that everyone dealing with the Ombudsman would be treated equally. The committee recommended that a specific person be designated to specialise in complaints from young people, and that youth workers be targeted because apparently their knowledge of the Ombudsman's office is at best patchy. One recommendation was that the Ombudsman should consider producing a series of information pamphlets for young people. The emphasis on pamphlets seems to be a little misguided as significant evidence revealed that pamphlets were not well read. Surely buying space in young people's magazines and buying time on television and radio shows watched or listened to by young people would be more appropriate. [Time expired.]
Mr TURNER (Myall Lakes) [1.15]: I congratulate the Ombudsman for already having taken some of the initiatives that have arisen from the report. I was chairman of the Ombudsman committee when the access and awareness inquiry commenced. It arose out of an earlier hearing, particularly from a comment by witness Belinda Jones that many people in the community do not know or do not have access to what the Ombudsman does. That was an issue I considered the committee should look at, and submissions were called for. I chaired public meetings on 29 June and 3 August 1993, when evidence was heard from many people. That has culminated in this report. I congratulate my successor, Andrew Fraser, the honourable member for Coffs Harbour, for finishing the report and doing such a sterling job. I join with him also in congratulating and thanking the staff of the Ombudsman committee for their work.
One reason I called for an inquiry in these terms was that I was concerned with the Ombudsman's continued predilection with the police force, prisoners and local government. My difficulty was that many people in the community did not have access to or awareness of the Ombudsman to the level they perhaps should have. The object of the inquiry was to seek out ways by which other people might attain awareness of or access to the Ombudsman over and above those principal areas in which he is involved. Police are high-profile people and citizens who feel aggrieved with the police can pursue a number of avenues, as can prisoners through wardens, the governor, prison action groups and friends of the prisoner's groups. Many people in the ethnic field did not know what the Ombudsman was, let alone know they had the right to see an Ombudsman if they had a grievance with a State government department. I hope this report will assist in opening up the Office of the Ombudsman to many more people that might seek redress if they feel they have been aggrieved.
I recently received, as I presume my colleagues have, a folder from the Ombudsman titled "NSW Ombudsman". I like to think it is as a result of this report. The folder contains a series of pamphlets outlining in relatively simple terms what the Ombudsman does. It deals with problems with police, prisoners and access and trouble with councils. My earlier comments about police, prisoners and local government are perhaps reflected here, but I presume the Ombudsman believes they are the three major areas that he deals with. The kit shows a corporate image, setting out a guarantee of service and a statement of intent, and has various ethnic brochures and pamphlets. I congratulate the Ombudsman. I am not sure how the pamphlet is distributed, but at this stage it is targeted at members of Parliament whose constituents have problems. It tells them how to process a complaint through the Ombudsman's office and what happens when the complaint gets there.
I have only one concern with the kit. It has a laminated information sheet that is directed to electorate staff. It suggests three steps to take in making a complaint to the Ombudsman. Step 2 says, "Identify yourself as an electorate officer. This will give you priority attention". I would have liked to have seen the laminated sheet without the second sentence relating to priority attention. I am not sure that members of Parliament or their staff should necessarily receive priority over others who approach the Ombudsman unrepresented by members of Parliament. Indeed, perhaps such people should receive priority over those referred by our staff. In any event, our vigorous staff will ensure that the claims of our constituents are dealt with. It may be better if that second sentence was deleted.