Complaints to the Ombudsman: resolving them early

Ombudsman Public administration Statutory authorities Victoria
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Forward by Victorian Ombudsman, Deborah Glass

My office is well known for its investigations, many of which generate headlines about some serious or systemic failing in public administration. But my office does much more than investigate. And for most of the 40,000 people who contact us each year, an investigation is not what is needed. They have a problem, they want it fixed, and quickly.

This report describes the work of my office in resolving complaints early. Of course, not all complaints are either suitable for early resolution, or able to be resolved to a complainant’s satisfaction. But many complaints can be resolved with a phone call, a few enquiries to an agency to clarify the situation, or an explanation provided to a member of the public.

The Early Resolution Team now deals with about 85 per cent of approaches to my office, closing most within 30 days.

The cases in this report illustrate this approach. They describe unfair fines being withdrawn and overpaid council rates being refunded following the intervention of Ombudsman staff – usually the result of some human error that can be easily rectified.

The early resolution approach not only involves complaints that some would see as minor. In one of the cases in this report an unfair housing maintenance debt of over $20,000, owed by an Aboriginal victim of family violence, was waived and new accommodation found for her by the Office of Housing.

Sometimes, complaints to my office raise systemic issues that can also be resolved by early resolution rather than investigation. A complaint about a TAFE’s poor communication identified that 24 students had been affected, and the TAFE made ex gratia payments to all of them. A series of complaints about VicRoads from holders of overseas licences resulted in VicRoads changing its overseas licence verification process.

I thank the agencies named in this report, and the many others we deal with daily, for their willingness to engage informally with my office to resolve complaints.

Sometimes, it takes the gentle nudge of the Ombudsman’s elbow to ensure agencies do the right thing.

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