This audit assessed the effectiveness of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s delivery of services to Australians travelling or residing abroad.

Audit objective and criteria

The objective of the audit was to assess the effectiveness of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s delivery of services to Australians travelling or residing abroad.

To form a conclusion against the audit objective, the ANAO adopted the following high level criteria:

  • effective strategies were in place to support the delivery of consular services to Australians in selected countries;
  • appropriate arrangements were in place to engage with, and provide, Australians travelling or residing abroad with information relevant to their safety and security;
  • accessible consular services were provided for Australians travelling abroad who required assistance; and
  • the capacity to respond to, and coordinate, a consular crisis had been established.

In conducting this audit, the ANAO observed the delivery of consular services in four of DFAT’s overseas posts, and one Austrade post.

Overall conclusion

The operating environment for consular services is complex and DFAT delivers these services through a global network of 167 posts. Each of the countries where Australia maintains posts has unique legal, logistical and security‑related factors that influence the types of services and assistance that DFAT can provide. Demand for services is increasing, and the situations in which DFAT is called upon to provide consular assistance are becoming increasingly complex due to changes in Australian traveller demographics and behaviour.

DFAT’s delivery of consular services to Australians travelling or residing abroad includes advising Australians of issues relevant to their safety and security overseas; providing consular assistance to Australians in difficulty; preparing and responding to crisis events; and developing strategies to manage these services in an environment of increasing demand and complexity. DFAT’s capacity to intervene in individual cases is defined in the Consular Services Charter and, inevitably, perceptions as to the adequacy of the services provided to individual Australians will vary. Within this context, DFAT’s administration of consular services is broadly appropriate, and these services are generally delivered effectively. DFAT’s dispersed network of service delivery locations, however, and the variety of work undertaken across this network, creates challenges for DFAT in ensuring that relevant policies and guidance are adhered to and accurate performance information is collected and reported to senior management and key external stakeholders, including the Parliament.

DFAT recently released its consular strategy for 2014–16. Prior to this, DFAT had not articulated its strategic direction for consular services, nor integrated its approach to engaging with consular stakeholders. The strategy sets its future focus and strategic direction for the delivery of consular services and also outlines plans to improve the targeting of services to those individuals most in need, including cost recovery or possible limitation of assistance to individuals who knowingly or repeatedly compromise their own safety. In introducing the new strategy (and proposed changes), it will be important to manage and, where necessary, adjust the expectations of the public, by ensuring the strategy is adequately communicated, and the circumstances in which cost recovery or service limitation might be applied clearly explained. DFAT intends to incorporate messages regarding the limits to consular assistance, and the need for traveller self-reliance, into the Smartraveller campaign in future.

The Smartraveller campaign, currently in its third phase, has raised awareness of DFAT’s consular services among the Australian public. The campaign has been informed by several successive rounds of market research and evaluation and its overall administration is sound. Despite high levels of awareness, the department has experienced difficulty in translating this success into behavioural change by the travelling public. There would be merit in DFAT reviewing those messages of the Smartraveller campaign which have proven less successful, such as promotion of the traveller registration system. Despite high levels of awareness among the public, the system is poorly utilised and promotes an attitude of dependency among those who complete the process.

While DFAT has predominantly sound practices for the provision of most aspects of consular services, the rationale for and documentation of key decisions, such as those related to the provision of financial assistance, is inconsistent. Developing an annual, risk-based, quality assurance process for consular assistance functions would provide assurance that procedures are being consistently applied. Such assurance is particularly important in the case management context, due to the increasing complexity of consular cases, the unique nature of many cases, and the need to consider clients’ welfare.

There is also scope for DFAT to strengthen its oversight and coordination of the lessons that can be learned from consular crises and related contingency planning. Consular crisis events are unique, they are also comparatively infrequent and demanding, placing a premium on contingency planning prior to events and capturing the lessons learned after events occur. While DFAT has responded well to recent crises, stronger emphasis should be given to the consistent and coordinated implementation of departmental post‑event review findings. Incorporating these findings into future assessments of risks, contingency planning, and crisis response exercises would better position DFAT to respond to future events.

DFAT’s key performance indicators are aligned with its program objectives, but do not provide a clear and complete picture of overall program performance. The department also lacks accurate and reliable performance information necessary for informed management decision-making, and to provide assurance that service delivery standards are being met across the network. These shortcomings could, in part, be addressed through proposed improvements to DFAT’s Consular Management Information System (CMIS) and improved data entry.

DFAT has acknowledged the need to improve its delivery of consular services, and has identified areas for improvement as part of its recently released consular strategy. To assist this process, the ANAO has made three recommendations relating to improving consular case management processes and crisis response arrangements, and performance reporting.

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