Why do good policy ideas turn into porridge?
A speech by Commonwealth and ACT Ombudsman Allan Asher
to the MEAA and Walkley Foundation’s 2011 Public Affairs Convention
National Convention Centre, Canberra ACT
Tuesday, 6 September 2011
Every year, my office receives thousands of approaches and complaints about Australian Government
agencies – just shy of 39,000 last financial year. This places us in a good position to identify recurring issues
in how those agencies are delivering their services, and what some of the underlying causes of those issues
It also puts me in a good position to hold forth on occasions such as this.
One of the key issues my office encounters is the gulf between how a policy is framed and how it is
I believe that to a great extent this comes down to poor communication, which underlies many of the
complaints we receive. This is partly because many agencies see the way they communicate as a side issue
to the services they provide, whereas the two are inextricably linked or indeed the same thing.
By poor communication I mean lack of accessibility, poor complaint-handling procedures and language that is
unduly complex or bureaucratic. Failures in service delivery are also due to rolling out programs that are too
high level and don’t involve enough community consultation, as highlighted in a recent opinion piece by Noel
Pearson who said:
Politicians and public servants who have never built anything from the ground up in such communities
never really get it. Most people in social policy live in a world of programs and plans, bearing scant
relation to realities1.
Ultimately, I believe addressing these problems come down to empathy, to putting yourself in the shoes of
the end-user and to working on broad, underlying issues. To making sure that the wellbeing of Australians is
your focus, that social inclusion and customer-centred service are your watchwords, not your buzzwords.
Today I will be looking at a series of examples that highlight these problems, in particular executive
schemes and Commonwealth-State agreements, where scrutiny, accountability and clear and consistent
communication are often lacking. And I will look at ways these problems can be addressed, including a fivepoint action plan to improve service delivery.
1. ‘Social policy begets social misery as the Western world fails the poor’, The Weekend Australian, 30-31 July 2011
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HOW GOVERNMENTS COMMUNICATE WITH PEOPLE
It is no good having well-designed policies or programs if the very people they are intended for have
difficulties accessing them. The outcomes government policies and programs seek to achieve simply won’t
be realised. Sometimes these barriers are found in the complex and formal language government agencies
use to communicate with the public. So we must use much simpler and better targeted language and we
must improve communication with those who are not literate.
Some common examples of poor, or even lazy, communication include:
computer-generated form letters, or letters that cut and paste great tracts of impenetrable
legislation, or refer to websites to which their clients may not have access
sending people too much correspondence, or too little, or none at all
call centre staff who don’t have enough information themselves, or don’t have the authority to make proper decisions
failing to provide key information, such as the right to review, and how to complain
writing in bureaucratese rather than plain language, using jargon, acronyms and abbreviations
failing to provide simple explanations for people with cognitive impairment
taking an officious tone
not providing translations or interpreters, and
having no single point of contact, so that people have to repeat their concerns over and over
Poor communication is overwhelmingly the main source of complaints to my office from Indigenous people
in the Northern Territory. For instance, there is often confusion about how people are affected by government
programs, due to insufficient communication, or communication that is too high level, or has been oversimplified to the point of excluding important information, or doesn’t explain how government initiatives will
A report2 my office published in April this year followed a series of complaints about interpreters not being
used when they should have been, either because they were not available, or because they were not
A resident of a remote Indigenous community complained to my office that Northern Territory Government
staff and building contractors had not used interpreters when they met with residents to discuss housing
plans in that community.
As a result, some residents did not understand the nature of the work that was planned, where they would
live while work was being done, and whether they would be re-allocated the same house when the work
had been completed.
We raised this with the Department and I’m pleased to say that in response they organised two meetings
attended by an Indigenous language interpreter at which the housing program and other housing-related
matters were properly explained.
This illustrates that poor communication creates a wall between agencies and the people to whom they
provide services. So we must sweep away this obfuscation. Helping governments do this by seeking to
change the culture of poor communication is one of the things my office will be looking at over the next
three to five years.
2. Talking in Language: Indigenous language interpreters and government communication, April 2011 http://www.ombudsman.gov.au/files/Talking_in_Language-Indigenous_Interpreters_REPORT-05-2011.pdf
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I’d like to talk a little about social inclusion because of the obvious challenges agencies face in not losing
touch with those who are, often, most in need of adequate government services. Or not being in touch in
the first place.
To illustrate this I will use my own office as an example.
The Australian Government has defined a socially inclusive society as one in which all Australians feel valued
and have the opportunity to participate fully3.This means ensuring that people who are currently marginalised
become fully 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, the
illiterate, those who are impoverished, particularly the homeless, and many others.
Of particular concern are those who are newly socially excluded – for instance, the recently unemployed or
homeless, immigration detention centre detainees or newly arrived and vulnerable immigrants – who are
less likely to be aware of their opportunities to have a voice.
It is heartening that the phrase ‘social inclusion’ is cropping up more often in government and public sector
discussion, and in initiatives such as the National Compact4, which seeks to strengthen relations between
Government and the not-for-profit sector. My office is in the process of signing up to the Compact and I very
much look forward to us taking part.
Social inclusion, or the lack of it, is a huge issue for my office. Last financial year, we received around 39,000
approaches from people wishing to make a formal complaint about a government department or agency, of
which we chose to investigate more than 4,000. However, I suspect that for every complaint we get, there
are maybe 10 we don’t. In general terms, I believe that the people we don’t hear from are the people we
should be hearing from most, because they are likely to be those members of our community who are the
most marginalised and disadvantaged.
If only 10 per cent of people who should be complaining are complaining, the remaining 90 per cent cannot
be said to be fully enfranchised in any meaningful sense. How can we provide accurate feedback and
recommendations to agencies, how can the agencies themselves get direct feedback, if we’re not hearing
from most of the people with real problems?
I suspect there is a range of reasons why these complaints aren’t made. A person could be unaware of our
existence, or has heard of our office but doesn’t realise we take complaints from the public, or knows all this
but doesn’t think we can do anything. Or perhaps they have cultural or language issues, or concerns about
the implications of making a complaint, or certain disabilities such as cognitive impairment.
A recent public awareness survey we conducted showed that less than one-third of people under 35,
and a similar number of people who speak a language other than English, have heard of my office. More
surprisingly, only 60 per cent of women are aware we exist versus 72 per cent of men.
While my office addresses some of these issues through its outreach and education programs, as well
as our broader publicity work, it is clearly our responsibility to find innovative ways to tackle this better.
With that in mind, I am keen to raise the profile of my office wherever appropriate, including in social
media forums. We are currently using Twitter and very soon we will establish Facebook sites for the
Commonwealth and ACT Ombudsman roles. We will also soon start posting material on YouTube.
That such a large proportion of the community is unaware of us, or precisely what we do, points not just to
the communication imperatives of my office but highlights a degree of ignorance of the complaint-handling
process in general, and indeed the need for it. After all, our survey also found that a substantial number of
people under 35 (around 14 per cent) weren’t even sure whether they had ever been treated unfairly by a
government agency – seven times more than those aged 65 and older.
One of the reasons some people don’t make contact with us, or fully engage with other government
agencies, is lack of access. This is particularly true of socially marginalised people in remote areas. How
do you contact an agency, including my office, if you don’t have a landline, or if the local payphone doesn’t
3. A Stronger, Fairer Australia, summary brochure published by the Social Inclusion Unit, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2009
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work? Perhaps you have a mobile phone, but not enough credit to make calls to 1800 and 1300 numbers,
which are only free or charged at a local rate if you’re using a landline. That is the irony – it is often the most
disadvantaged who do not have landlines but are most in need of ‘free’ phone services.
I’ve highlighted my concerns about this issue in discussions with Chris Chapman, Chairman of the Australian
Communications and Media Authority. The Authority’s own research has found that the number of people
without a landline is increasing. Indeed, 14 per cent of the population are mobile-only users5. There has also
been a decrease in the number of payphones available to the public6.
Now, there’s online of course, but only around half the population has functional access to the Internet. This
digital divide must always be borne in mind when an agency seeks to engage meaningfully with its more
marginalised clients. And of course not all agency websites are equally accessible.
It should also be remembered that a website, even an accessible one, is no panacea in itself. Online should
complement, not displace, other communication channels.
Communicating with people who are socially excluded is obviously a particular issue for frontline agencies
such as Centrelink. It should be said that those of my staff who deal with Centrelink are of the view that
it has a culture geared towards improving service delivery to the disadvantaged, and it’s encouraging to
see that its 10-year service delivery reform plan places a strong emphasis on this. In March this year we
accepted an invitation from Centrelink to work with them on the design and review of their new internal
review process, and I look forward to this7.
Governments are increasingly relying on executive schemes, which I mentioned before as being a form of
service delivery where problems often crop up.
By way of definition, an executive scheme is a means for an agency to make discretionary compensation
payments or provide government grants under their own power rather than that conferred by legislation.
Examples include the School Chaplaincy Program, which I’ll talk about in a moment, and the Home Insulation
Program as well as the provision of emergency assistance for victims of the 2009 Victorian bushfires.
It’s not my intention to declare open season on executive schemes, which certainly have their advantages.
Sometimes there is simply no time to get the necessary legislation through Parliament and it is often quite
appropriate for agencies to exercise their powers under the Constitution to meet particular needs as they
However, because they are often developed on the run, the implementation of executive schemes is not
always fully thought through. There are also issues of public accessibility, consistency of decision-making,
lack of accountability, public consultation, Parliamentary scrutiny and effective complaint-handling, all of
which are discussed in a report my office issued in August 20098. For instance, decisions made under
executive schemes are not subject to review under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act, or by
administrative tribunals, or to a great extent by the High Court or Federal Court. Only my office can review
such decisions, though, as with any other administrative decision, we do not have the power to overturn
The complaints made to my office about executive schemes tend to fall into the following categories:
a lack of comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date information to potential claimants (such as
inadequate guidelines, or none at all)
criteria not properly thought through
inadequate liaison with other organisations resulting in inconsistent advice
poor decision-making practices
lack of effective review of decisions.
ACMA, 2009-2010 Communications Report 2 – Take-up and use of voice services by Australian Consumers, pp 4, 14, 22
Centrelink: Right to Review – having choices, making choices, March 2011 – http://www.ombudsman.gov.au/files/centrelink_the_right_of_review_having_choices_making_choices.pdf
Executive Schemes – August 2009 – http://www.ombudsman.gov.au/files/investigation_2009_12.pdf
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Three of these categories relate to issues of communication either between agencies or between agencies
and the public in both directions. The public needs to be fully and consistently informed as much as possible
given time constraints, and people affected by the scheme need to be able have decisions reviewed in a
meaningful way. In addition, the complaints they make need to be taken seriously and where appropriate
result in changes to the way the service is delivered.
NATIONAL SCHOOL CHAPLAINCY PROGRAM
In July, my office published a report9 on our investigation into the Department of Education, Employment
and Workplace Relations’s administration of the School Chaplaincy Program, which is an executive scheme
as well as an inter-government agreement (although State governments have kept it at arm’s length). In my
report, I noted the lack of precision in the way the Department runs this admittedly complex program and
the need to improve its management and oversight.
In the report I expressed the view that the Department should be clear about how it expects schools to
consult with the community. It needs to provide more and better guidance about the minimum standard
expected of schools when gauging community support.
The report highlights one case in which a woman complained to us that the staff at her child’s school made
only a token attempt to consult with parents and that those who were consulted rejected the proposal to
appoint a chaplain. The school went ahead and appointed the chaplain anyway.
We also found that there is a degree of informality about the current complaints mechanisms. A lot of
people aren’t even aware that they can complain, and when they do, their complaints often don’t find their
way from the schools or State or Territory authorities to the Department.
So among my recommendations were that the Department should:
consider giving guidance to schools and education authorities on how best to obtain parental
consent for participation in the program
review the code of conduct to provide clarity on what actions could be considered to be in breach
of the requirement that chaplains not proselytise, and to clarify this with the public
amend the program guidelines to define the terms ‘chaplain’ and ‘pastoral care’, and mandate a
minimum qualification for the position of chaplain
implement more robust mechanisms to capture and manage complaints
work towards a review of funding agreements to ensure: consistency; that all key participants are
accountable; and that the protection of children and parental rights is central to the administration
of the program.
The problems arising from the Chaplaincy Program are common to many inter-government agreements
where lines of accountability, review and complaint handling are not clearly defined.
The challenge for governments in this area is to ensure that appropriate governance and accountability
measures are in place to complement the greater collaboration, flexibility and innovation that are among the
benefits of inter-government agreements. Governments need to be jointly held to account for outcomes that
National Funding Agreements seek to achieve. It is not sufficient for the Australian Government to provide
the funds and leave it to the state and territory governments to deliver the programs.
In our experience, through the investigation of complaints by Indigenous Australians, people are often
confused about how to seek resolution of a housing matter, challenge a decision or request information
about the various Indigenous and other housing programs. There is often a lack of clarity about which agency
or tier of government has the responsibility to resolve their issue – such as getting urgent repairs, certainty
about rent or access to new housing. The onus should not be on members of the public to know the specific
agencies responsible for each component of these programs in order to seek redress or to complain. In
9. Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations: Administration of the School Chaplaincy Program, July 2011 – http://www.ombudsman.gov.au/files/commonwealth_ombudsman_chaplaincy_report_06_11.pdf
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such circumstances providing a one-stop-shop for people to complain, have matters investigated and issues
resolved is important. The NT Department of Housing, Local Government and Regional Services is presently
developing a more integrated housing complaints and review process that enables Indigenous people to
seek redress of housing matters without having to know the level of government or agency that has prime
responsibility. This is a positive development which could form the model for other areas covered by National
One important measure of accountability is the existence of effective independent oversight, and complaints
and review mechanisms. Supporting and properly resourcing strong, efficient and independent oversight
agencies such as my office and that of the Auditor-General is a critical component of an accountable and
transparent governance framework.
I suggest that National Partnership Agreements and National Funding Agreements should clearly set out
appropriate governance arrangements to enable reporting on outcomes, and comprehensive and accessible
review and complaints mechanisms to enable the public to seek redress of issues.
Consideration should also be given to expanding the independent oversight of programs delivered under
Australian government funded programs. This includes expanding the jurisdiction of my office to enable it to
investigate complaints relating to such programs and where administrative action may cut across the three
tiers of government.
NORTHERN TERRITORY EMERGENCY RESPONSE
One obvious example of an inter-government agreement that has encountered problems is the Northern
Territory Emergency Response.
In December 2009 we published a report10 on how the Department of Families, Housing, Community
Services and Indigenous Affairs communicated the results of its asbestos surveys of housing in remote
The initial surveys took place from November 2007 across all 73 communities. That asbestos was present in
many houses became clear from January 2008 but an organised, deliberate communications strategy was
not introduced until August the following year. This strategy would have kept people informed of the process
and when results would be available, while providing an avenue to make enquiries and raise concerns. It was
our view that the longer people were left without specific information about the asbestos in their homes, the
greater the risk of them disturbing it. Quite apart from the fact that they had a right to know.
Communication issues have been at the core of many complaints made to my office about the Emergency
Response and other Indigenous programs in the Northern Territory. The Emergency Response is particularly
noteworthy because it involves so many government agencies and so many different levels of government.
Common elements in these complaints include:
not articulating clearly to intermediaries the expectation that they will inform all members of a
information being conveyed solely in one-off sessions and meetings
different approaches by intermediaries to providing information, leading to varying degrees of
understanding and awareness across the communities
crucial written material not being translated into the appropriate language(s)
failure to use interpreters
a limited understanding of cross-cultural communication issues
key messages and important information being delivered in one format or via one method only
passive communication of important information, for example, only conveying information on the
10. NTER – Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs asbestos surveys: communications issues, December 2009.
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In fairness, I acknowledge connecting with the Indigenous community poses a unique set of challenges.
Prior to the introduction of my office’s Indigenous outreach program, virtually no Indigenous people
complained to us – as far as we are aware – and it hardly needs saying that this is not because they had little
about which to complain.
A report11 based on research my office commissioned late last year revealed that Indigenous people are
unlikely to complain because:
they do not know it is possible or acceptable to complain, or who to complain to
they believe they must accept their lot in life
they fear reprisals
they dislike confrontation
there are language issues
complaining brings with it a sense of shame
they have poor self-esteem
they believe that complaining in itself won’t change anything.
The research also found that many Indigenous people prefer to use an intermediary whom they know to
discuss problems or issues, preferably face-to-face in a familiar location, and only after they have come to
trust the impartiality and effectiveness of the complaint-handling process.
That is presumably why our outreach teams are effective in gathering complaints from Indigenous people.
And it is perhaps telling that we have occasionally drawn criticism from some within the Public Service for
using such methods to supposedly ‘drum up’ business.
In response to the research, we are preparing a report called Lessons learnt from our engagement with Indigenous
communities and working on new Indigenous communications resources.
HOME INSULATION PROGRAM
Another example of a problematic inter-government agreement and executive scheme is the Home
Insulation Program implemented by the then Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts in
2009 and 2010.
The Hawke Review12 into the Program pinpointed a number of problems with the Program, a number
of them springing from the haste with which it was developed and poor communication among the
Department and the various State and Territory agencies it had dealings with.
The Review claimed that States and territories reported to it that they had minimal input during development
and implementation of the Program, particularly once the decision on the business model was taken.
They would have preferred more engagement and a better flow of information to them about the Program,
including information on action taken on complaints or other issues that impacted on state responsibilities13.
The Department put in place memoranda of understanding (or similar) with state and territory consumer
affairs agencies to cover information sharing about complaints, but some states reported that there was
often no information flow back to the state from the Department about what action had been taken or the
results obtained from audits14.
11. Improving the services of the Commonwealth Ombudsman to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, prepared by Winangali Indigenous Communications and Research, November 2010
12. Review of the Administration of the Home Insulation Program, by Allan Hawke AC, 6 April 2010
13. Ibid, page 17
14. Ibid, pages 18-19
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I now want to focus on ways the issues I’ve raised today can be addressed.
First, without genuine stakeholder engagement, it is a mistake to think that you know what impact your
policies and actions will have on people. When we do engage, sometimes the reality of what people think
we should be doing or prioritising can be a bit of a shock. There are real benefits in consulting with a wide
audience on organisational work plans. As well as market testing messages to make sure they are clear,
effective and accessible, particularly when it comes to Indigenous audiences.
Tell people what’s going on. The Information Age has brought with it demands to be more open about
organisational decisions and policies and to be more careful about how information about individuals is
handled and shared. It is vital to keep abreast of these changes and meet new legal obligations.
Think creatively about how to disseminate and collect information. Online services provide great scope for people
to access information about programs and to transact with government. Though again it’s worth keeping
in mind issues of accessibility. Being innovative with technology to which your target audience doesn’t
necessarily have access is obviously counter-productive.
The work being done as part of Government 2.0 is very encouraging, and it will be interesting to see the
extent to which public sector culture shifts towards using technology as a means of creating more open
Second, of particular importance to any agency aiming to focus better on the needs of people is Ahead of
the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration15, which can be summed up as: talk to
the people in ways they understand and communicate between themselves, get their views and feed them
back into better performance.
Among the recommendations of Ahead of the Game are that service delivery be simplified to make access to
government services more convenient through automation, integration and better information sharing. Over
time, this would lead to:
a ‘tell us once’ approach
a service delivery portal that guides citizens through interaction with government,
physical locations where citizens can access multiple services.
This would be grounded in a view of policy and service delivery that places the interests of citizens first.
Third, people need to be given clear pathways and opportunities to seek review of a government decision,
action or inaction. This should include clarity about how people can seek redress through a comprehensive
and accessible complaints mechanism that enables them to have their matter effectively investigated and
Agencies that have good complaint-handling systems are doing themselves a favour. Not only do they
have the opportunity to clarify or resolve a matter for their customer – thereby making them happier – but
complaints are a valuable source of intelligence on how effectively the agency is performing. They also
provide an opportunity to learn from any mistakes made and improve systems.
A healthy bureaucracy welcomes all this input and smart administrators recognise its value.
15. Improving the services of the Commonwealth Ombudsman to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, prepared by Winangali Indigenous Communications and Research, November 2010
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One way in which agencies can make this happen is to shift their attitude towards complaints themselves.
Many within the private sector still view their complaints areas as punishment details for errant executives
rather than a strategic resource. Increasingly, the result of this approach is that these businesses are the
first to go out of business. There’s no such inducement for senior officers in the public sector, but perhaps
there ought to be.
In addition, one way an agency can measure the effectiveness of its service delivery is fewer complaints to
agencies, and fewer complaints to my office.
William Tyndale was the 16th century English scholar who translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into
English for a public readership. He also took advantage of cutting-edge technology, namely the printing
press, to increase the readership as much as possible. Remember that at this time clergymen were in the
habit of reading the Bible to themselves during services, tinkling a bell now and then so the congregation
would know when they’d come to an especially edifying bit. This is I suppose the very definition of lack of
It is perhaps not surprising then that, Church authorities, fearful of becoming obsolete, burnt Tyndale at the
So in a way he was a martyr to plain language. Though he enjoys a degree of immortality in the King James
Bible, which was introduced about 80 years after his death and was largely based on his translation.
I’ve had productive talks with a latter-day crusader for plain language – Dr Neil James, Executive Director
of the Plain English Foundation in Sydney. The Foundation recently conducted a survey16 looking at what
motivates public sector agencies to adopt plain language and what factors lead to success or failure.
The results were interesting. For instance, external criticism had little effect on whether an agency took
up plain language. The main reason they did was that a similar agency had done so, or an internal review
or senior staff member championed the idea. Worth noting if you’re keen to see a plain language program
rolled out in your agency.
The benefits of plain language to all concerned are clear. The time and money saved from the agency’s point
of view, and the improved accessibility for users, can be significant. It is curious too how plain language can
affect attitudes. One respondent in the survey wrote: “I now see the clients I write to as real people when I
prepare a document.”
According to a briefing paper prepared for the NSW Premier in 2009, NSW agencies that adopted plain
English enjoyed the following benefits:
a reduction in drafting time of roughly half
a reduction in management editing time of around 40 per cent
an increase in client satisfaction to a 92 per cent rating.
International case studies also reveal startling savings. For instance, the US Navy has saved $350 million by
moving to plain English memos.
Introducing a plain language program is one obvious way an organisation can begin attending to its
communication issues, and illustrates in a broader sense the whole idea of wellbeing and how to evaluate it.
Many government agencies introduce such programs, but only 40 per cent reach completion and therefore
have a lasting effect.
One of the problems routinely encountered by plain language programs are:
management not supporting or participating in the program
templates and systems that are inconsistent with the new approach
16. Reported in ‘Persuading the public sector to invest in plain language’ – Industry seminar for Clarity 2010 Lisbon
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individual staff or departments opposing change
the underlying culture of the organisation.
A project I have been interested in for some time is a long-term, Government-wide plain language program.
I am in discussion with the Plain English Foundation on what measures might be required to make this
happen, and I have written to the Prime Minister suggesting we meet to discuss the plan. Such a program
would have to involve the creation of clear standards, strong and consistent support from the Prime Minister
down, an effective training and auditing program, and even legislation.
It would help change the public sector culture from one in which agencies see communication as a side
issue to the services they provide, to one that recognises that good communication is integral to good
The issues I’ve raised this morning are not intractable. And some of them will be the subject of further
discussion at the Commonwealth Ombudsman National Conference on 8–9 November. The key themes of
the conference are:
delivering customer-centred services
innovation for good governance and public sector integrity
the tough task of improving social inclusion.
I would encourage anyone interested in these issues to register as soon as possible via the Commonwealth
Meanwhile, here are five ways agencies, and government as a whole, can begin to improve the services
1. Support a Government-wide plain language initiative
2. Take active steps to reach socially excluded stakeholders
3. Consult with key stakeholder groups before implementation, not afterwards
4. Support better scrutiny of executive schemes. This might be from other sections of an agency or
even an inter-departmental review committee that randomly selects and reports on half a dozen
schemes a year.
5. Build in better complaint-handling and accountability mechanisms into inter-government
For any agency, improving service delivery means going back to first principles and asking: are we placing
the needs and wellbeing of the Australian community first, and if so does our service delivery reflect this?
Are we giving the way we communicate our policies the same attention as the policies themselves?
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