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Why do good policy ideas turn into porridge?

Why do good policy ideas turn into porridge?

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Published by David Mathews
Commonwealth and ACT Ombudsman Allan Asher looks at the gulf between how a policy is framed and how it is delivered.
Commonwealth and ACT Ombudsman Allan Asher looks at the gulf between how a policy is framed and how it is delivered.

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Published by: David Mathews on Sep 14, 2011
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09/15/2011

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 Why do good policy ideas turn into porridge?
A speech by Commonwealth and ACT Ombudsman Allan Asherto the MEAA and Walkley Foundation’s 2011 Public Affairs ConventionNational Convention Centre, Canberra ACTTuesday, 6 September 2011
 
INTRODUCTION
Every year, my oce receives thousands o approaches and complaints about Australian Governmentagencies – just shy o 39,000 last nancial year. This places us in a good position to identiy recurring issuesin how those agencies are delivering their services, and what some o the underlying causes o those issuesmight be.It also puts me in a good position to hold orth on occasions such as this.One o the key issues my oce encounters is the gul between how a policy is ramed and how it isdelivered.I believe that to a great extent this comes down to poor communication, which underlies many o thecomplaints we receive. This is partly because many agencies see the way they communicate as a side issueto the services they provide, whereas the two are inextricably linked or indeed the same thing.By poor communication I mean lack o accessibility, poor complaint-handling procedures and language that isunduly complex or bureaucratic. Failures in service delivery are also due to rolling out programs that are toohigh level and don’t involve enough community consultation, as highlighted in a recent opinion piece by NoelPearson who said:Politicians and public servants who have never built anything rom the ground up in such communitiesnever really get it. Most people in social policy live in a world o programs and plans, bearing scantrelation to realities
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.Ultimately, I believe addressing these problems come down to empathy, to putting yoursel in the shoes othe end-user and to working on broad, underlying issues. To making sure that the wellbeing o Australians isyour ocus, that social inclusion and customer-centred service are your watchwords, not your buzzwords.Today I will be looking at a series o examples that highlight these problems, in particular executiveschemes and Commonwealth-State agreements, where scrutiny, accountability and clear and consistentcommunication are oten lacking. And I will look at ways these problems can be addressed, including a ve-point action plan to improve service delivery.
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       T       R       A       N       S       C       R       I       P       T
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‘Social policy begets social misery as the Western world fails the poor’,
The Weekend Australian
, 30-31 July 2011
 
Page 2 of 10
 HOW GOVERNMENTS COMMUNICATE WITH PEOPLE
It is no good having well-designed policies or programs i the very people they are intended or havediculties accessing them. The outcomes government policies and programs seek to achieve simply won’tbe realised. Sometimes these barriers are ound in the complex and ormal language government agenciesuse to communicate with the public. So we must use much simpler and better targeted language and wemust improve communication with those who are not literate.Some common examples o poor, or even lazy, communication include:
•
computer-generated orm letters, or letters that cut and paste great tracts o impenetrablelegislation, or reer to websites to which their clients may not have access
•
sending people too much correspondence, or too little, or none at all
•
call centre sta who don’t have enough inormation themselves, or don’t have the authority tomake proper decisions
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ailing to provide key inormation, such as the right to review, and how to complain
•
writing in bureaucratese rather than plain language, using jargon, acronyms and abbreviations
•
ailing to provide simple explanations or people with cognitive impairment
•
taking an ocious tone
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not providing translations or interpreters, and
•
having no single point o contact, so that people have to repeat their concerns over and overagain.Poor communication is overwhelmingly the main source o complaints to my oce rom Indigenous peoplein the Northern Territory. For instance, there is oten conusion about how people are aected by governmentprograms, due to insucient communication, or communication that is too high level, or has been over-simplied to the point o excluding important inormation, or doesn’t explain how government initiatives willaect lives.A report
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my oce published in April this year ollowed a series o complaints about interpreters not beingused when they should have been, either because they were not available, or because they were notdeemed necessary.A resident o a remote Indigenous community complained to my oce that Northern Territory Governmentsta and building contractors had not used interpreters when they met with residents to discuss housingplans in that community.As a result, some residents did not understand the nature o the work that was planned, where they wouldlive while work was being done, and whether they would be re-allocated the same house when the workhad been completed.We raised this with the Department and I’m pleased to say that in response they organised two meetingsattended by an Indigenous language interpreter at which the housing program and other housing-relatedmatters were properly explained.This illustrates that poor communication creates a wall between agencies and the people to whom theyprovide services. So we must sweep away this obuscation. Helping governments do this by seeking tochange the culture o poor communication is one o the things my oce will be looking at over the nextthree to ve years.
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Talking in Language: Indigenous language interpreters and government communication
, April 2011 http://www.ombudsman.gov.au/les/Talking_in_Language-Indigenous_Interpreters_REPORT-05-2011.pdf 
 
Page 3 of 10
 SOCIAL INCLUSION
I’d like to talk a little about social inclusion because o the obvious challenges agencies ace in not losingtouch with those who are, oten, most in need o adequate government services. Or not being in touch inthe rst place.To illustrate this I will use my own oce as an example.The Australian Government has dened a socially inclusive society as one in which all Australians eel valuedand have the opportunity to participate ully
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.This means ensuring that people who are currently marginalisedbecome ully engaged – people such as newly arrived immigrants, the elderly, people with disabilities,mental illness or problems with addiction, many Indigenous people as well as whistleblowers, children, theilliterate, those who are impoverished, particularly the homeless, and many others.O particular concern are those who are newly socially excluded – or instance, the recently unemployed orhomeless, immigration detention centre detainees or newly arrived and vulnerable immigrants – who areless likely to be aware o their opportunities to have a voice.It is heartening that the phrase ‘social inclusion’ is cropping up more oten in government and public sectordiscussion, and in initiatives such as the National Compact
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, which seeks to strengthen relations betweenGovernment and the not-or-prot sector. My oce is in the process o signing up to the Compact and I verymuch look orward to us taking part.Social inclusion, or the lack o it, is a huge issue or my oce. Last nancial year, we received around 39,000approaches rom people wishing to make a ormal complaint about a government department or agency, owhich we chose to investigate more than 4,000. However, I suspect that or every complaint we get, thereare maybe 10 we don’t. In general terms, I believe that the people we don’t hear rom are the people weshould be hearing rom most, because they are likely to be those members o our community who are themost marginalised and disadvantaged.I only 10 per cent o people who should be complaining are complaining, the remaining 90 per cent cannotbe said to be ully enranchised in any meaningul sense. How can we provide accurate eedback andrecommendations to agencies, how can the agencies themselves get direct eedback, i we’re not hearingrom most o the people with real problems?I suspect there is a range o reasons why these complaints aren’t made. A person could be unaware o ourexistence, or has heard o our oce but doesn’t realise we take complaints rom the public, or knows all thisbut doesn’t think we can do anything. Or perhaps they have cultural or language issues, or concerns aboutthe implications o making a complaint, or certain disabilities such as cognitive impairment.A recent public awareness survey we conducted showed that less than one-third o people under 35,and a similar number o people who speak a language other than English, have heard o my oce. Moresurprisingly, only 60 per cent o women are aware we exist versus 72 per cent o men.While my oce addresses some o these issues through its outreach and education programs, as wellas our broader publicity work, it is clearly our responsibility to nd innovative ways to tackle this better.With that in mind, I am keen to raise the prole o my oce wherever appropriate, including in socialmedia orums. We are currently using Twitter and very soon we will establish Facebook sites or theCommonwealth and ACT Ombudsman roles. We will also soon start posting material on YouTube.That such a large proportion o the community is unaware o us, or precisely what we do, points not just tothe communication imperatives o my oce but highlights a degree o ignorance o the complaint-handlingprocess in general, and indeed the need or it. Ater all, our survey also ound that a substantial number opeople under 35 (around 14 per cent) weren’t even sure whether they had ever been treated unairly by agovernment agency – seven times more than those aged 65 and older.One o the reasons some people don’t make contact with us, or ully engage with other governmentagencies, is lack o access. This is particularly true o socially marginalised people in remote areas. Howdo you contact an agency, including my oce, i you don’t have a landline, or i the local payphone doesn’t
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 A Stronger, Fairer Australia
, summary brochure published by the Social Inclusion Unit, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2009
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. www.nationalcompact.gov.au

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