Annual Report 2016-17

External scrutiny

External audits: Australian National Audit Office

In 2016-17 the ANAO tabled six performance audit reports involving the department, making a total of 15 recommendations relevant to the department. The department did not disagree with any of these recommendations, but for a small number it either agreed with qualifications or noted that actions to address the recommendation were already in train.

When the ANAO made recommendations involving the responsibilities of policy departments, the department worked with them to help effectively respond to the recommendations.

The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit is required by the Public Accounts and Audit Committee Act 1951 to examine all Auditor-General reports that are tabled in Parliament. The department was required to attend public hearings of the committee during 2016-17, relating to the ANAO performance audit of Qualifying for the Disability Support Pension, Report No. 18 2015-016.

Representatives from the ANAO were invited to attend all departmental Audit Committee meetings as observers.

The department maintains a collaborative and productive relationship with the ANAO and welcomes the audit and assurance activities it undertakes.

The department uses the ANAO's performance audit activities to help ensure the adequacy of its internal audit across the department and to minimise duplication of assurance effort.

The department works closely with the ANAO throughout the annual financial statements audit cycle. The department also closely monitors implementation of ANAO performance audit and financial statements audit recommendations.

Relevant ANAO audits tabled in the Parliament in 2016-17

Commonwealth Ombudsman

The number of investigations the department received from the Commonwealth Ombudsman has steadily declined over the last four years.

In 2016-17 the Commonwealth Ombudsman initiated 635 section 8 investigations.

The department maintains a collaborative and productive working relationship with the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman and welcomes the own motion investigations that the Commonwealth Ombudsman undertakes.

Liaison with the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman

The department works closely with the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman to ensure timely and quality responses to investigations, including own motion investigations. In 2016-17, the department responded to 90.6 per cent of the Commonwealth Ombudsman requests within their timeframe. The department also monitors implementation of own motion recommendations.

The Ombudsman published three section 15 reports involving the department, under the Ombudsman Act 1976, making a total of 21 recommendations. The department agreed with all recommendations relevant to the department.

Section 15 reports published by the Commonwealth Ombudsman

Report No. 05/2016, published in December 2016-Department of Human Services: Accessibility of Disability Support Pension for remote Indigenous Australians

The investigation's objective was to determine the accessibility of the Disability Support Pension job capacity and medical assessment processes for Indigenous people living in remote communities.

The report found that Indigenous people living in rural and remote Australia experience particular difficulty in preparing applications for the Disability Support Pension and meeting the high standard of evidence required by social security law. The report also found that there remains a gap between the department's service delivery commitments and the reality experienced by Indigenous people in remote areas. The Ombudsman made eight recommendations to improve the accessibility of the Disability Support Pension for Indigenous recipients. The department agreed with the recommendations.

Report No. 06/2016, published in December 2016-Accessibility of Indigenous Language Interpreters: Talking in Language Follow Up Investigation

The investigation's objective was to consider the progress of selected departments and agencies in implementing the recommendations of the Commonwealth Ombudsman's own motion report, Talking in Language: Indigenous Language Interpreters 05/2011. The report found that a coordinated whole of government response is still required and that ongoing barriers to accessing interpreters continue to undermine communication between government and Indigenous language speakers.

The report made five recommendations-three to PM&C and two to all agencies. The recommendations to all agencies related to giving consideration to how agency policy and administrative arrangements could address the issues raised in the report, including developing best practice principles. The department agreed with the recommendations.

Report No. 02/2017, published in April 2017-Centrelink's automated debt raising and recovery system

The investigation focused on debts raised through the department's online compliance system. Importantly, after examination of the business rules underpinning the system, the Ombudsman was satisfied that debts raised by the online system were accurate, based on the information which is available to the department at the time the decision is made. Also, it was the Ombudsman's view that it is entirely reasonable and appropriate for the department to ask recipients to explain discrepancies following a data match.

The report made several constructive and practical recommendations. The report acknowledged the department has already improved the usability, accessibility and clarity of information provided as part of continual ongoing improvement. The department and DSS, which is responsible for the relevant legislation and policy, responded positively to the Ombudsman's investigation, agreeing to all eight recommendations, which in many cases were already being implemented.

Parliamentary inquiries

On 8 February 2017, the Senate referred an inquiry into the design, scope, cost-benefit analysis, contracts awarded and implementation associated with the Better Management of the Social Welfare System initiative to the Community Affairs References Committee (the Committee).

The Committee held hearings in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Hobart, Launceston, and Brisbane. Two hearings were held in Canberra. Departmental officials attended each of these hearings and, after the first Canberra hearing, a compliance officer and social worker were made available to provide assistance to individuals who had questions or needed support after they had provided evidence to the Committee. Department officials, including local service leaders, appeared as witnesses at each hearing (except for Launceston, where officials still attended to note any relevant feedback). The department provided a submission and a supplementary submission to the Committee. These were published on the Committee's website.

The report was tabled in the Parliament on 21 June 2017. The government's response is due on 21 September 2017.

Reviews of social welfare payment decisions

Review of decisions

The department's review and appeals systems consists of internal and external review mechanisms.

An internal review is a review decision requested by the person or their nominee. Under the internal review process only one internal review of decision takes place by the department.

The steps in the internal review process are:

  • the person or their nominee request a review of a decision
  • a quality check and explanation of the decision is undertaken by a Subject Matter Expert (SME), and where appropriate, the original decision can be altered
  • if the person remains dissatisfied with the decision, a formal internal review of the decision is completed by an Authorised Review Officer (ARO).

A formal review of a decision by an ARO is an independent process undertaken by an officer not involved with the original decision. The ARO can affirm, vary or set aside the original decision.

In 2016-17 the department continued to focus on managing outstanding reviews of decisions. An improved business model saw a significant reduction in the number and the age of reviews on hand. The model gives people the earliest opportunity to correct any misunderstandings and present new information before progressing to a formal review of a decision.

Once the internal review process is completed, if still dissatisfied, a person can apply for a review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) Social Services and Child Support Division (referred to as the 'AAT First Review').

If the person still remains dissatisfied after the AAT First Review, they have a right to request a further review by the AAT General Division (referred to as the 'AAT Second Review').

Decisions most commonly challenged were:

  • rejection of a claim for payment, such as Disability Support Pension
  • raising or recovery of debts, including Family Tax Benefit reconciliation debts
  • participation failure
  • start date of payment
  • rate of payment.
Table: Social welfare payments merit review applications
Applications

2014-15

2015-16

2016-17

Internal reviews(a)

111,982

105,786

83,143

AAT First Review

12,289

11,198

12,767

AAT Second Review customer applications

1,999

2,178

2,179

AAT Second Review Secretary applications(b)

75

81

88

  1. The counting methodology for internal reviews in 2016-17 differs to previous years due to the introduction of an improved business model on 12 November 2016, under which reviews finalised by a SME are no longer considered to be a formal review.
  2. This refers to the Secretary of any department where the Minister is responsible, under the Administrative Arrangements Order, for part of the social security laws that allow decisions to be appealed to the AAT.
Table: Social welfare payments merit review outcomes
 

Unchanged decisions(a)

Changed decisions

Applications

2014-15

2015-16

2016-17

2014-15

2015-16

2016-17

Internal review officer

66.1%
83,286

62.5%
60,963

63.2%
60,345

33.9%
42,732

37.5%
36,617

36.8%
35,207

AAT First Review

75.3%
7,974

74.6%
8,195

75.5%
8,716

24.7%
2,619

25.4%
2,788

24.5%
2,830

AAT Second Review-customer applications

79.7%
1,390

79.2%
1,542

79.2%
1,621

20.3%
354

20.8%
404

20.8%
427

AAT Second Review-Secretary applications(b)

50.0%
18

50.0%
43

46.1%
41

50.0%
18

50.0%
43

53.9%
48

  1. Unchanged decisions include reviews that were withdrawn.
  2. Refers to the Secretary of any department where the Minister is responsible, under the Administrative Arrangements Order, for part of the social security laws that allow decisions to be appealed to the AAT. Secretary applications are managed in accordance with the policy department's instructions.

Reviews of child support decisions

In accordance with the Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act 1988, the department is required to finalise all objections to child support decisions within 60 days for domestic customers and 120 days for international customers.

Parents are contacted through the objection review process before any decisions are made. To ensure procedural fairness, both parents are given the opportunity to provide information to ensure decisions are accurate and based on individual circumstances.

The department provides feedback to original decision makers on the outcomes of objections to help improve future decision making.

The department continued to review and enhance the objections process to make it more efficient while continuing to uphold the integrity of the Child Support program.

Table: Objections received and finalised
 

2014-15

2015-16

2016-17

Number of objections received:

16,317

16,698

16,590

  • percentage relating to care

34.7%

35.8%

37.9%

  • percentage relating to change of assessment

18.7%

16.8%

17.4%

  • percentage relating to estimates

14.2%

13.3%

14.4%

Percentage finalised in 60 days-domestic

83.8%

94.8%

86.4%

Percentage finalised in 120 days-international

86.6%

96.5%

89.6%

Objections to change of assessment

The objection rate to change of assessment decisions is 16 per cent in 2016-17. 40 per cent of objections changed the original change of assessment decision, with provision of new information by parents being the most common reason.

Table: Change of assessment applications finalised and objections received
 

2014-15

2015-16

2016-17

Change of assessment applications finalised

18,092

17,232

18,024

Change of assessment objections received

3,056

2,888

2,891

Administrative Appeals Tribunal reviews

The AAT's role includes responsibility for independently reviewing objections to child support decisions. The AAT First Review received 2,371 applications for review of child support decisions in 2016-17. Disputed care arrangements of children was the most common reason a review by the AAT was sought.

Table: Child Support AAT review outcomes(a)
 

Unchanged decisions(b)

Changed decisions

Applications

2014-15

2015-16

2016-17

2014-15

2015-16

2016-17

AAT First review

582

555

541

753

806

703

  1. The number of reviews finalised will not equal the total number of applications received as finalised numbers do not include applications that are withdrawn, dismissed or still in progress.
  2. Unchanged decisions are those made by the AAT affirming the original decision made by the Child Support Registrar. Unchanged decisions do not include withdrawn or dismissed applications.

To improve service delivery and policy outcomes the department continued to analyse child support review decisions to identify any systemic procedural or operational issues.

Judicial decisions and tribunal appeals

In 2016-17 there were no judicial decisions that had a significant effect on the operations of the department. A large number of the department's decisions are subject to merit review by the AAT, as noted above.

Freedom of information and reviews

In 2016-17 the department had an Information Publication Scheme page on its website.

During the year the department received 7,435 freedom of information (FOI) requests for documents.

The department received 20 requests for amendment or annotation of personal records.

Taking into account cases pending from previous years, 7,401 FOI requests were finalised. Of these requests:

  • 858 were withdrawn before decisions on access were made (with the majority of these withdrawn as a result of the department being able to provide access by way of administrative release)
  • full access was granted in 2,728 cases
  • part access was granted in 3,142 cases
  • access was refused in 632 cases
  • 41 cases were transferred to other departments/agencies.

In 2016-17 the department received 151 FOI requests for internal review of access or amendment decisions. Taking into account requests pending from previous years, 126 decisions were completed in 2016-17. Of those 126 completed decisions, 60 affirmed the original decision and 47 set-aside the original decision and granted further access in full or part. The remaining 19 requests for internal review were withdrawn or otherwise finalised.

Required FOI Reporting-Information Publication Scheme Plan

As required under Part II of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) the department has an Information Publication Scheme (IPS) Plan.

Most mandatory information that must be published under the Act is available in various documents on the department's website and can be easily identified by the IPS logo visible on the Freedom of information page.

In 2016-17 the website information included:

  • information about the IPS
  • details of the department's organisational structure
  • details of the department's functions, including its decision-making powers and other powers affecting members of the public (or any particular person or entity, or class of persons or entities)
  • appointments of officers that are made under legislation (other than Australian Public Service staff), such as the appointment of statutory office-holders
  • the department's annual reports
  • consultation arrangements
  • contact details to enquire about access to the department's information or documents under the FOI Act
  • the department's operational information
  • information in documents to which the department routinely gives access in response to requests under Part III (access to documents) of the FOI Act, except information that is otherwise exempt
  • information that the department routinely provides to Parliament in response to requests and orders from Parliament.

Office of the Australian Information Commissioner

During the year the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner published seven decisions in relation to applications for review of the department's FOI access decisions. These reviews affirmed the department's decisions.

Personal information requests

The department offers various ways for people to access their own information including through online services. The department also responds to requests for personal information in the public interest and under specific legislative provisions.

In 2016-17 the department processed 90,900 personal information requests.

Page last updated: 15 November 2017