Unreasonable or difficult behaviour should not mean inadequate service from government agencies, according to a report released today by the Commonwealth Ombudsman Mr Allan Asher.
The report examines the Child Support Agencys write only policy which restricts certain customers to written contact only, as a result of unreasonable behaviour, which might include threats or abuse or unnecessary persistence.
The Child Support Agency (CSA) is part of the Department of Human Services and it has a unique role compared to other government agencies. For each child support case, the CSA has to respond to the needs and enquiries of two customers, whose interests are often diametrically opposed. A customers involvement with the CSA frequently begins at a time of recent relationship breakdown, when arrangements for children and finances are far from settled.
Mr Asher saidThere are two sides to the story of course.
We know that the Child Support Agency has a difficult job; that its customers can sometimes be quite challenging. Money, kids and a relationship breakdown can be a potent mix. Some people resent the CSAs involvement in their lives.
This can lead to angry and unreasonable behaviour. In turn (and we accept that) the CSA needs to impose service restrictions in some cases, for the safety and well-being of its staff….Under these circumstances write only restrictions can be applied to customers meaning that the CSA will only engage with them in writing, not over the telephone or face to face. When the Ombudsmans office began investigating some customers were banned indefinitely from telephoning the CSA.
One man had written numerous letters and emails to the CSA about his child support case and sought documents under the Freedom of Information Act. After much correspondence the agency had judged him to be unreasonable due to the nature and frequency of his communication. The CSA imposed the service restriction of write only contact.
As a consequence, at the time customers are in contact with the CSA, they may express a range of emotions, from frustration and anger, to resignation or deep sadness. In some cases, a persons behaviour can appear disproportionate to the child support problem they are experiencing and their conduct can become unreasonable.
Like many government agencies, the CSA had a policy of restricting a customers access to its services if it considered this was necessary to manage the customers unreasonable conduct. The CSAs most common method of restricting access was to designate customers write only meaning that the agency would only engage with them in writing, not over the telephone or face-to-face.
This is a departure from its normal service delivery approach as a phone first organisation, meaning that it prefers to deal with its customers by telephone. The
write only policy was intended to emphasise the CSAs expectation that customers will treat its staff with appropriate levels of civility; to protect CSA staff members and other customers from possible harm. It also limited the extent to which CSA staff were unnecessarily tied up in unproductive communications.
It was evident from this investigation that CSA customers experience frustrations and problems when they have to deal with the CSA exclusively in writing. While the cases that we examined were ones where the CSA imposed this restriction in response to unreasonable conduct, we note that there are other people who have communication challenges arising from disability, geographical location, language barriers or educational disadvantage. We consider that the CSA also needs to keep these people in mind when it makes decisions about service delivery and resources, including whether to impose write only restrictions.
At the start of this investigation, the CSA told us that it had 133 write only customers. The majority (113 customers) had requested that the CSA not telephone them. The remaining 20 write only customers included 17 where CSA had made the decision to impose that status and three where it was a joint decision.
We found that the CSA did not have standardised procedures for restricting certain customers access to services. Our investigation also revealed that limiting customers to write only will often inconvenience both CSA staff and customers. Imposing write only status in one notable case, actually increased the CSAs interaction with that customer. We also found that write only restrictions made it more difficult for customers to communicate their concerns and could obscure a genuine customer grievance.In those 20 cases, there was frequently no clear trail of documentation to indicate who had made the decision, the reasons for the decision, and when (or if) a review might occur. We have reservations about the completeness of the CSAs records. Three write only customers we identified through our own complaints and these did not appear on the CSAs list. We consider it is likely, that of its 1.5 million customers, the CSA has restricted many more than just 20 to written communication about their child support case.
We consider that a write only restriction can be a significant barrier to the CSA providing good service. Accordingly, it should be used rarely and only for as long as is necessary to manage a customers unreasonable behaviour, with the eventual aim of reinstating access to the CSAs usual service delivery arrangements.
Most importantly, a write only restriction should not be the CSAs first, or only, response to unreasonable customer conduct.
Our investigation showed that the CSA needed a comprehensive response to support its staff in the difficult task of managing unreasonable customer conduct. We recommended that it develop a single written procedure with:
- guidance for staff about the factors relevant to making a decision to restrict customer access
- a range of possible service restrictions, such as refusing to communicate further with a customer about a specific issue but providing business as usual
- service for other matters; or ongoing management by a specified officer;
- as well as the option of designating the customer write only for appropriate cases
- clear advice about which officers are authorised to restrict customer access procedures for communicating a service restriction decision to the customer,
- including the use of template letters
- centralised arrangements to record and report details of customers with service restrictions to assist with ongoing management and review of these cases
- a standardised process for reviewing decisions to restrict access, including fixed time periods and criteria for review, and a presumption that any restriction will be lifted unless there is a clear need for it to continue.
We recommend that the CSA review its letters and other procedures for write only customers to ensure that they receive an appropriate level of service even though they are not permitted to talk to the CSA. We also believe the CSA should review all the existing cases where it has imposed a write only restriction, to determine whether restricted access is still necessary and if so, what form it should take.
We consider that a single, national approach; a commitment to learning from other agencies (such as Centrelink); and considering options other than merely write only, will improve the CSAs response to unreasonable customer conduct.
The CSA has accepted the recommendations in this report and has advised us how it intends to implement them. We intend to conduct a further review in six months time to determine whether the CSA has in place appropriate mechanisms for managing unreasonable conduct, and that any CSA imposed service restrictions are
proportionate, and do not unreasonably affect its duty to provide advice and service to the customer.
The CSA accepted all 11 recommendations from the Commonwealth Ombudsmans report and started implementing new procedures in September 2010. The agency also agreed to review every case where it has imposed service restrictions disallowing customer contact in person or by telephone.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman Mr Allan Asher saidJust as difficult behaviour can cloud an issue, so too, write only restrictions can obscure a genuine grievance,.
I urge all agencies to develop a consistent approach in managing unreasonable customer conduct. Its very important to distinguish the persons behaviour from the complaint, which may be quite valid. Find and fix the problem, manage the behaviour.
I am delighted that the CSA has used our investigation as a prompt to rethink its approach to managing challenging customer behaviour
Mr Asher praised the CSAs responsiveness to the report and its commitment to fair and accountable administration. The Ombudsman will review the effectiveness of the CSAs write only system in six months.
Download the report: Department of Human Services, Child Support Agency: Unreasonable Customer Conduct and Write Only policy, November 201014|2010
Media contact: Shaun Rohrlach, Director of Public Affairs 0408 861 803
link to the Commonwealth Ombudsman