Service delivery to children


9.3 Children are an important client group of government agencies. This is too little recognised even in areas such as care and protection where they are the predominant clients. There is limited information available specifically for them concerning federal, State or Territory government services, again even where the services are expressly designed for children.[2]

9.4 During consultations the Inquiry heard repeatedly of government agencies treating children involved in administrative or legal processes inappropriately.[3] Concerns included the lack of a clear complaints avenue in many departments.[4] The Inquiry was left in no doubt that there is an urgent need for government agencies to develop appropriate standards for effective service delivery to children.[5]

Children living in rural and remote communities

9.5 Children in rural and remote communities have particular difficulties accessing government services and challenging associated administrative decisions simply because the nearest government office is not within easy travelling distance.[6] A number of respondents to the survey highlighted the disparity between services available in urban and rural areas.

In the country we don’t get as many opportunities as city kids.[7]

9.6 The federal Government has given a general commitment to improve service delivery in regional areas.[8] The Rural Youth Information Scheme, administered by DEETYA, provides young people aged 15 to 25 living in rural and remote communities with access to information, advice and referral services concerning education, training, employment, income support, accommodation and health. The Rural Youth Information Scheme has offices in regional centres throughout each State and Territory, for example, in Kingaroy in Queensland and in Jabiru in the Northern Territory.

9.7 Initiatives in regional centres, such as the Rural Youth Information Scheme, should be supplemented by greater use of technology to get information about government services to children living in remote communities. All government agencies should work towards making their advice and complaints services available to children through facilities such as freecall telephone hotlines advertised in schools and youth centres, on local radio and the Internet.

Recommendation 12 All government agencies should ensure that their advice and complaints services are accessible by children in rural and remote areas through facilities such as freecall telephone hotlines advertised in schools and youth centres, on local radio and the Internet.

Service charters

9.8 Service charters first emerged as accountability mechanisms in contemporary Westminster style governments under the Major Government in Britain. The Citizens’ Charter was designed in the context of privatisation to make the providers of public services accountable to their users.[9]

9.9 In July 1997 the then Minister for Small Business and Consumer Affairs announced that by 1999 every federal government body providing services to the public will be required to develop a service charter.[10] The charters are to accord with certain principles and must guarantee specific standards for service delivery.[11] They will contain performance criteria for each government agency and provide consumers with information on the level of service they can expect from these bodies. Compliance with the charters is to be monitored internally and the results included in each agency’s annual report. Charters should be externally reviewed at least every three years.[12]

For the public sector this is a significant move toward a proactive approach and away from the passive even reactive style traditionally applied in dealings with consumers…[13]

9.10 A number of Australian federal government service providers already have charters in place. For example, the Commissioner of Taxation recently released a Taxpayers’ Charter outlining customers’ rights and obligations and the complaints mechanisms available. The Child Support Agency has a separate Child Support Clients’ Charter.[14]

9.11 Most young people have little experience in dealing with authority outside the home or school. Approaching a government agency can be an intimidating experience. It requires considerable fortitude for a child to make a complaint about agency staff or service delivery. A child will quickly lose the confidence necessary to pursue a claim or make a complaint if agency processes are lengthy or complicated or if staff are dismissive of the child’s claim.[15] The Inquiry considers that, in developing and implementing service charters, agencies should have regard to the particular needs of young people. Agencies should consult widely with the youth sector before settling the terms of service charters and should submit charters to OFC in draft form for comment. The proposal for standards of agency best practice in this regard is supported by a number of submissions.[16]

9.12 When developing service charters, agencies should give particular attention to the most child friendly way of publicising their services and the most effective means of distributing that material. Attention should also be given to staff training and developing an agency culture that takes child clients and their concerns seriously. This would include adapting internal processes as appropriate and providing support persons for children during interviews.[17] The Inquiry considers that very young children should only be interviewed by government officials where this is necessary for their protection or well being, not merely, for example, to obtain evidence adverse to a parent’s claim to entitlements.[18]

9.13 When developing service charters agencies should also take into account the essential elements of an effective complaints handling process as enunciated by Standards Australia.[19] These elements include ensuring that the process is accessible to all, that complainants are assisted in formulating complaints and that complaints are dealt with quickly and courteously.[20] The NSW Government and NSW Ombudsman submitted that agencies that deal with young people should advertise appeal and complaints mechanisms to relevant adult advocates as well as to the children themselves.[21] The Inquiry supports this suggestion.

9.14 State and Territory government agencies should also ensure that service charters take account of child clients’ particular needs.

Recommendation 13 In developing service delivery standards and implementing its service charter, each federal government agency should have regard to the following principles.

  • The agency should consult as appropriate with its child clients and with relevant non-government organisations to determine the most effective ways of informing children about available services.

  • Publicity and information about services and review mechanisms should be directed specifically at young people. This material may be most effective if it is in the form of stickers, comics, posters and specifically designed brochures for distribution through schools and youth centres. The information should also be available by telephone and on the Internet.

  • Staff should be trained to deal sympathetically with young people and to communicate in age appropriate language. A culture of listening to children should be cultivated. Information and evidence provided by children should be treated with the same degree of seriousness as that provided by adults.

  • It will often be inappropriate for agencies to rely on written material alone as a means of communicating with children. Wherever possible communication with children should be in person rather than in writing.

  • Most young people cannot deal with complicated forms and elaborate bureaucratic requirements. Where these processes cannot be avoided or adapted for children, the relevant agency should ensure that children are provided with a support person to assist them to negotiate the process.

  • Administrative decisions concerning children should be made in a timely manner. Where children are dependent on the provision of services, delay in providing them can put the child at risk. Further, children’s perception of time is such that they may interpret any delay as an indication that their application has been rejected. Where delays in decision making are unavoidable, agencies should contact children to explain the reasons for the delay.

  • Children should be entitled to have a support person of their choice, such as a parent or community worker, present whenever they are interviewed by a government department or give evidence to a review body concerning an administrative decision.

  • Except where it is necessary for the protection or well being of the child, government agencies generally should not interview young children. Where younger children are interviewed, including where they are interviewed on a matter relating to their parents, the process should be carefully explained to the child.

[2] See Federation of Community Legal Centres (Vic) DRP Submission 72.

[3] eg a 13 year old girl who had asked to have a support person present during an interview with a representative and a Family Court counsellor was apparently pressured into being interviewed alone by comments such as ‘Aren’t you brave enough to talk to me on your own?’: Children’s Protection Society IP Submission 108.

[4] J Owen & G Crowter, AAYPIC Public Hearing Submission Brisbane 31 July 1996.

[5] Minimum standards for children involved in care and protection systems have been developed by the Standing Committee for Community Services and Income Security Administrators: see para 17.20.

[6] National Children’s and Youth Law Centre DRP Submission 59; Federation of Community Legal Centres (Vic) DRP Submission 72.

[7] Survey Response 354.

[8] J Sharp, Minister for Transport and Regional Development Rebuilding Regional Australia AGPS Canberra 1996.

[9] S Smith ‘Customer charters: The next dimension in consumer protection?’ (1997) 22 Alternative Law Journal 138, 139 fn 11; D Goldsworthy ‘The Citizens Charter in the UK’ (1993) (74) Bulletin of Public Administration 89.

[10] G Prosser, Minister for Small Business and Consumer Affairs Media Release 9 July 1997.

[11] Dept of Industry, Science and Tourism Putting Service First: Principles for Developing a Service Charter Dept of Industry, Science and Tourism Canberra 1997.

[12] The benefits flowing to consumers from the implementation of service charters should be complemented by the increased use of benchmarking in the public sector: see Management Improvement Advisory Committee Report 21 Raising the Standard: Benchmarking for Better Government AGPS Canberra 1996.

[13] S Smith ‘Customer charters: The next dimension in consumer protection?’ (1997) 22 Alternative Law Journal 138, 140.

[14] The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission also has a Service Charter: (1997) (9) ACCC Journal 70.

[15] See also paras 4.16-19.

[16] Kreative Kids DRP Submission 35; Education Centre Against Violence DRP Submission 43; Townsville Community Legal Service DRP Submission 46; NT Government DRP Submission 71.

[17] National Children’s and Youth Law Centre DRP Submission 59 considered that support persons should be trained in advocacy, procedural fairness and children’s rights. The Inquiry does not consider training to be necessary in this area. The presence of a supportive carer or youth worker should be sufficient to put the child more at ease. Where the role is performed by someone from the network of grassroots advocates he or she will have had relevant training: see rec 9.

[18] Kreative Kids DRP Submission 35.

[19] Out of 80 federal depts that responded to a recent survey by the Cth Ombudsman less than 20% had internal complaints handling mechanisms that would satisfy the Australian Standard: Cth Ombudsman Annual Report 1996–97 Cth Ombudsman Canberra 1997, 3.

[20] Complaints Handling AS 4269–1995 Standards Association of Australia Sydney 1995, 6.

[21] DRP Submission 86; DRP Submission 80.