Summary: This audit assessed the effectiveness of the Department of Human Services’ administration of the child support objection review process.
To assist in evaluating the department’s performance in terms of the audit objective, the ANAO developed the following high level criteria:
- the department effectively promoted the review process and ensured accessibility for those considering objections;
- the department implemented fair and responsive processes and practices to decide on objections in an effective and timely manner; and
- the department analysed, and reported on, the outcomes of reviews to support the systemic improvement in child support decisions and associated processes.
Over 25 years, the Department of Human Services’ Child Support Scheme (the scheme) has provided a means for independently calculating support payments for the children of separated parents, as well as providing a mechanism for transferring child support payments between parents. In 2012–13, the scheme transferred $3.4 billion between parents for the benefit of approximately 1.2 million children.
The objection review process, a feature of the scheme since its inception, enables a parent or eligible carer to request a review of a child support decision made by the department. In 2012–13, the department received a total of 15 307 objection applications and completed 14 032 objection reviews. The administration of the objection review process is resource–intensive, involving over 100 staff with a direct cost to the department of $11.17 million in 2012–13.
Human Services’ administration of the child support objection review process has been reasonably effective, with the department operating a generally accessible and methodical review process. The objection review process also features a number of positive elements intended to support customers, such as direct customer contact at key milestones, and a capacity to provide more intensive customer support for those with complex issues. However, there remains scope to strengthen aspects of quality assurance and to realise the full benefits of existing mechanisms with the potential to improve outcomes, to the advantage of customers and the department.
Those mechanisms include the relatively new Customer Review Gateway, which can help customers avoid the need to seek objection reviews altogether by referring them to specialist officers trained to assist in resolving cases. There is scope to evaluate the use of the Registrar’s existing information‑gathering powers, which include a capacity to compel evidence from non‑cooperative customers, so as to improve the evidence base for departmental decision‑making and reduce the potential for successful appeals on the basis of new information. Further, the more effective use of existing departmental feedback loops, particularly feedback provided by objection review staff to original decision‑makers, has the potential to help reduce both the number of objections lodged by customers and the incidence of original decisions overturned through the objection review process.
In a resource‑constrained environment, administrative effectiveness can be further improved by realising the full benefits of existing departmental quality assurance processes and using information that is currently collected to enable improved reporting on performance. Specifically, the department could provide additional assurance on the integrity of the objection review process by strengthening existing processes for recording delegate approvals of decisions and pre‑decision quality assurance checks. Further, public reporting should include information such as the number of departmental decisions overturned through the objection review process and on appeal to the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, to improve stakeholders’ capacity to assess the effectiveness of departmental decision‑making under the objection review process.
The ANAO has made four recommendations aimed at improving the department’s administration of the child support objection review process. The recommendations relate to: reviewing use of the Registrar’s information gathering powers; recording delegate approvals of decisions and completion of pre‑decision quality assurance checks; improved feedback by objection officers; and improved public reporting on the effectiveness of the department’s decision‑making.