The audit objective was to assess the effectiveness of DHS’ implementation of initiatives to support the delivery of services to Indigenous Australians.

Summary

Introduction

1. In 2008, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) committed to a national effort to address the levels of disadvantage experienced by Indigenous Australians. The National Indigenous Reform Agreement (NIRA) established an overall framework for action by governments, as well as identifying six key targets to reduce Indigenous disadvantage.

2. The NIRA was an initiative, in part, to facilitate a broad and comprehensive focus by all government agencies on the needs of Indigenous Australians, including those in urban and regional areas. While acknowledging the role of programs and services deliberately targeting Indigenous Australians (Indigenous specific programs), the NIRA emphasises that significant gains could be made through improving the contribution of mainstream (universal) services to reduce Indigenous disadvantage.

3. Universal programs and services are generally available for all members of the community to access,1 and a major part of the strategy of successive governments has been to ensure that universal services are accessible to Indigenous customers. Improving universal programs in order to facilitate equitable access and outcomes for Indigenous Australians nonetheless remains a major challenge and one where concentrated and coordinated effort has been identified as necessary to change approaches within Australian Government agencies.

4. The NIRA sets the expectation for significant changes to universal programs, and emphasises the need for ‘key system changes and a coordinated approach to service delivery by universal programs within and across governments.’2 The NIRA particularly highlights the need for service delivery agencies to develop appropriate cultural competencies, ensure that their services are effective and accessible for Indigenous people, and maximise linkages between Indigenous specific and universal services. Providing a high level of service to Indigenous customers rests on sound service delivery principles, as it does for all service delivery across all sectors—know the customer base, understand their needs, communicate effectively, consult them as stakeholders in service design, and monitor outcomes.

5. The Department of Human Services (DHS) is the Australian Government’s principal agency for service delivery. In 2012–13, DHS administered $149.4 billion in payments (or around 39 per cent of government outlays) for a wide range of programs including Centrelink and Medicare and facilitated transfers between parents via Child Support.3 Centrelink alone provides services to over 7 million customers annually, and DHS provides services to most Australians at least once in their lifetime.

6. Through its operations DHS has contact with a significant proportion of the Indigenous population. For example, DHS reported that as at 30 June 2013, the total Centrelink population was 7 359 634, of which 248 955 customers identified themselves as Indigenous, equating to 3.4 per cent of the overall Centrelink customer base,4 and 45.4 per cent of the total Indigenous population5. As at 30 June 2013 1.5 per cent, or 337 662, of Medicare customers and 5.6 per cent, or 75 585, of Child Support customers identified as Indigenous. These customer groups are not mutually exclusive and an individual customer can be a customer of any combination of these three areas. Identification as Indigenous is voluntary, and is a separate process in the different service delivery areas of DHS.

7. Overall DHS expects that Indigenous customers will account for a greater proportion of their customer demographic over time and that, compared to the general population, a higher proportion of these customers will belong to DHS’ high risk or vulnerable customers.6 In this context a well considered approach to Indigenous service delivery by DHS can be expected to make a positive contribution to the Government’s broader goal of reducing Indigenous disadvantage.

Audit objective, criteria and scope

8. The audit objective was to assess the effectiveness of DHS’ implementation of initiatives to support the delivery of services to Indigenous Australians. To form a conclusion against the objective, the ANAO adopted the following high level criteria:

  • sound planning and administration arrangements were established to identify and address the access needs of Indigenous customers;
  • service delivery arrangements were established to support the access needs of Indigenous customers; and
  • performance monitoring and reporting arrangements provided visibility over service delivery to Indigenous customers and information to improve service delivery.

Overall conclusion

9. The Department of Human Services (DHS) provides services to a large proportion of the Indigenous population and expects that this customer group will continue to grow as a proportion of its overall customer base. Effective service delivery to disadvantaged groups remains challenging for government departments and a number of factors can affect access and uptake of services by Indigenous customers. In line with its goal of providing high quality services to all Australians, the department has made a number of organisational investments to better understand the needs of customers (including Indigenous customers) and the performance of the department in meeting customer needs through universally accessible services. The department has also acknowledged that accessibility to its universal services is central in its approach to Indigenous service delivery.

10. Overall DHS has developed a reasonable approach to improving its focus on supporting the delivery of services to Indigenous Australians, although there is scope to apply key elements of the approach more consistently across the department. DHS’ key organisational responses to strengthening its approach to Indigenous servicing have included the development of the Indigenous Servicing Strategy in 2012; structural arrangements, including specialist staff focused on supporting Indigenous servicing at both the frontline and national office levels; consideration of Indigenous service delivery issues and priorities in departmental business planning; and development of systems and processes to monitor data relating to Indigenous access and use of DHS services. The department has also worked to promote improving Indigenous service delivery as a corporate priority to which all DHS areas need to contribute, and has promoted this priority through senior management of the department.

11. The development of the Indigenous Servicing Strategy has provided the foundation of a planning and monitoring framework to support an improved standard of Indigenous servicing across the department. Reflecting the importance of improving access to mainstream services for Indigenous customers, a central aspect of DHS’ approach is the concept that Indigenous servicing is ‘everyone’s business’. However, while various areas of the department pay specific attention to the accessibility of the services they are able to influence or control, this is not uniformly the case across the organisation. In particular, the approach taken by different business areas and service zones to reflect Indigenous service issues was variable, with some areas demonstrating considered approaches while other areas adopted a more minimalist approach with little explicit consideration of Indigenous matters. There is scope to improve guidance for planning and to develop a stronger quality assurance process in relation to the development of plans by business areas and service zones.

12. DHS collects and maintains data relating to customer usage across a range of service areas. The analysis of usage data can assist departments with respect to assessing the effectiveness of resource allocations and service delivery approaches, as well as informing aspects of policy development.7 Indigenous usage data, while available, is not regularly extracted for analysis and often does not allow a comparison to be made between non‑Indigenous usage and Indigenous usage of services. Such comparative analysis would contribute to the department’s understanding of whether equitable and accessible services are being provided for Indigenous customers. More specifically, improved data analysis would allow the department to provide front line and program design staff with a better understanding of the composition and needs of their customer base, including the unique needs of particular groups, and allow them to respond to service gaps and needs with targeted resources within operational budgets.

13. Through the Indigenous Servicing Strategy, DHS has established a performance framework to provide internal management information on the department’s performance in providing services to Indigenous customers. The department’s first report on the ISS identified several areas where DHS had performed favourably against performance measures. These included reported increases in the numbers of Indigenous people registered for Medicare and increases in the use of self-service channels. The framework is a positive step in developing a departmental‑wide view of Indigenous usage of key services. A further positive aspect of the performance framework is that performance information is also collected on aspects of DHS’ internal capability. There is however scope to improve the measures used in the framework through the inclusion of baseline information on service usage by Indigenous customers and targets for its improvement.

14. The ANAO has made one recommendation aimed at improving the use of existing data within DHS in order to inform service delivery, service design and to enhance the department’s ability to contribute to policy development.

Key findings by chapter

Planning and structural arrangements to support Indigenous servicing within DHS (Chapter 2)

15. One element of DHS’ approach to Indigenous service delivery has been to maintain specialist positions within service regions to support delivery of services to Indigenous customers. Resource allocation for these positions is largely historical and while the distribution across service zones of Indigenous specialist staff generally aligned with the distribution of the customer base, there were some regions with a high Indigenous customer base with few, or no, Indigenous specialist staff.

16. The creation of a specific branch, the Indigenous Services Branch (ISB) and the development of a departmental‑wide strategy, the Indigenous Servicing Strategy (ISS), provides a sound platform for promoting Indigenous service delivery across the department. The ISS establishes a guiding principle for business areas of DHS and service zones to specifically incorporate Indigenous issues into their annual planning processes. This is supported by the ISB through annual formal discussions, the provision of templates and advice and monitoring of plans. This guiding principle commenced in 2012 and while it represents a sound approach, in practice the degree to which planning arrangements reflect Indigenous servicing matters varied across the department. While most business plans at the division and branch level referenced Indigenous issues, less than half of the 122 region and service centre plans sampled by the ANAO made reference to Indigenous issues.

17. DHS focus on structural and planning considerations has also been supplemented by initiatives in relation to staff capacity to better understand and to contribute to Indigenous service delivery initiatives. These initiatives include a cultural awareness training program and the support of an internal consultative forum, the National Indigenous Coalition, to provide advice on Indigenous service delivery practice and design issues.

Data collection and analysis to support Indigenous service delivery (Chapter 3)

18. Being able to readily identify particular customer groups and analyse relative trends in access to and use of services is an important aspect of service delivery. DHS is able to reasonably estimate and identify the level of Indigenous usage of its particular services. While Indigenous customers make up around 3 per cent of DHS’ total customer base, a large proportion of Australia’s Indigenous population receive services through DHS. Centrelink alone has over 248 000 Indigenous customers, or 45.4 per cent of Australia’s total Indigenous population. As a result, the department’s performance in delivering services affects a large proportion of the Indigenous population.

19. Customer data can be an important source of information which government agencies can analyse, within existing policy and legal requirements, to better understand aspects of service use and relationships with other services with a view to improving service delivery approaches and coverage. DHS is well‑placed in terms of holding a wide range of data which potentially reflects on the quality of services provided to Indigenous Australians and the extent to which those services are accessible and equitable. There has been some effort to enable better sharing of data across the department, although the extent of analysis of existing data varies between the different business areas of DHS.

20. Improved access to, and use of, customer data, within existing policy parameters, would allow further analysis of key aspects of Indigenous servicing and identify areas where access to services may not be equitable or effective. In particular a greater use of comparative data would position the department better to understand the differences between Indigenous and non‑Indigenous access to services. It would also highlight areas where further analysis may improve accessibility and use of front line services, refine systems design and enable the department to better inform policy development.

The Indigenous Servicing Strategy’s performance measures (Chapter 4)

21. The performance framework established by DHS for the Indigenous Servicing Strategy (ISS) is positive in that it promotes a departmental‑wide view of Indigenous servicing, and also seeks to provide focus to important aspects of internal capability, including staff understanding of Indigenous issues. The range of areas measured under the strategy reasonably reflects Indigenous customer usage of the main DHS payments and services. While usage levels are relevant measures of performance, on their own they do not enable a full assessment of the effectiveness of services and their accessibility. In the absence of comparative data, contextual benchmarks or relevant proxy indicators, the existing measures do not allow for an assessment of progress against the department’s broader objective of providing equitable and accessible services, including to Indigenous Australians.

22. The inclusion of targets and associated timeframes would also strengthen the department’s ability to measure whether it is achieving its goals in relation to improving Indigenous service delivery. Additionally, periodically assessing the effectiveness of the department’s implementation of the ISS would assist in identifying areas that require a stronger focus by management and support the fine tuning of strategies to support improved service delivery to Indigenous customers.

Summary of agency response

23. The department welcomes this report, and considers that implementation of its recommendation will enhance the department’s ability to inform Indigenous service delivery, service design and policy development, resulting in better servicing to Indigenous Australians.

Recommendation

Recommendation No.1

Paragraph 3.25

In order to improve the department’s capability to support outcomes for Indigenous Australians, the ANAO recommends that DHS review the extent to which data is accessed and analysed to inform Indigenous service delivery, service design and contribute to policy development, and reduce the barriers to its use.

 

DHS’ Response: Agreed

Footnotes

[1] Except when access is conditional, for example by income levels.

[2] Council of Australian Governments, National Indigenous Reform Agreement (Closing the Gap), p. A31.

[3] DHS, 2012–13 Annual Report, DHS, Canberra p. 3.

[4] DHS, Indigenous Servicing Strategy 2012–15, Annual Report 2012–13, DHS, Canberra, 2013, p. 32.

[5] There were 548 323 Australians who identified themselves as Indigenous in the 2011 ABS Census.

[6] DHS, Indigenous Servicing Strategy 2012–15, DHS, Canberra, p. 3.

[7] The Australian Public Service Commission Capability Review: Department of Human Services 2012 noted that while the department gathers a significant amount of transactional data which is used for performance management, this data is not always aggregated in a useful way for strategic decision‑making.