VCOSS supports Victorian government reforms aimed at improving the state’s accountability and integrity system, but urges they be further considered and implemented in a way that shows good faith, consideration and respect towards community organisations and the people they work with.
Victorian community organisations receive significant funding each year from the state government to deliver a wide range of services and supports for the community, including those facing poverty and disadvantage. As a result, the government has extensive oversight of the activities of funded community sector agencies. The Victorian government is seeking to extend this oversight with new powers being given to the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) and the Victorian Ombudsman.
VAGO’s powers have been extended through the Integrity and Accountability Legislation Amendment (A Stronger System) Act 2016, which grants VAGO the power to examine the effectiveness, economy and efficiency of activities performed on behalf of the public sector by non-public sector entities. This includes community sector organisations providing services on behalf of the Victorian government. Similarly, the discussion paper released by the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet regarding the Victorian Ombudsman, raises the possibility of extending the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction to cover the community sector.
While VCOSS supports the intent of the legislation and discussion papers to improve the accountability and integrity system in Victoria, we also urge some consideration be given to how these new powers apply to community sector organisations. In our submission to the discussion papers we recommend broad consultation and education around the powers as they apply and are intended to be used in relation to the community sector. Our submission also calls for further reforms to strengthen the complaints handling system.
A great deal of oversight already exists over government-funded community sector organisations, and they spend significant time and money meeting these requirements. This includes legislative requirements, Victorian government service agreement obligations to funding departments, and accreditation and auditing requirements. Further oversight is
also provided by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits
Commission (ACNC) and Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV).
Extending the oversight of the VAGO and the Victorian Ombudsman to cover the community sector as proposed, holds the potential for duplicating this oversight. There is the risk it could add to the community sector’s regulatory burden, without adding value to the integrity and accountability system. VCOSS submits a range of ways in which this can be avoided, including VAGO and the Ombudsman working together with existing oversight agencies and government funding departments, and adopting a ‘report-once, use-often’ framework.
Sensitivity is needed regarding the practices of community sector organisations and their often vulnerable client groups. There may be a range of sensitivities around independent authorities such as VAGO and the Ombudsman having overarching access to community sector premises and records, including cultural and historic sensitivities for clients, or the physical presence of clients in community sector premises.
VCOSS urges these sensitivities be respected when considering new powers contained in the government’s integrity and accountability reforms, so as to not put at risk community sector organisations’ relationships and important work with vulnerable client groups, and to not potentially further marginalise and isolate people. Our submission includes a range of recommendations and supporting discussion supporting this.
VCOSS also views the Integrity and Accountability Legislation Amendment (A Stronger System) Bill 2015 and discussion around these offers as an important opportunity to strengthen the Victorian complaints handling system and the Victorian Ombudsman’s role within it. There has been over recent years calls for the Ombudsman to have an expanded role and resources, including greater information sharing powers, ability to educate the public about its role, and ability to help simplify and improve people’s access to it. Our submission includes recommendations and discussion supporting these aims.
While VCOSS supports the government’s integrity and accountability reforms to help build a robust system of accountability and integrity in the Victorian public sector, we suggest it is important these reforms are further considered, and implemented in a way that avoids duplication of oversight, involves consultation with the community sector, provides education around new procedures and powers, improves people’s access to complaint handling mechanisms and shows good faith, consideration and respect towards community organisations and the people they work with. This will help ensure the government’s new integrity and accountability reforms create a more accountable Victoria and improve people’s access to fair outcomes when dealing with public bodies, without running the risk of undermining the important work of the community sector, its relationships with clients, and its ability to strengthen communities and help people overcome poverty and disadvantage.
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