Ombudsman's Update | Autumn 2021

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Ombudsman's Update | Autumn 2021

The complaints we receive every day do not only tell a story of people’s individual problems. Sometimes they tell us something may be very wrong with an agency or system. So when we started getting a flood of complaints from small business owners about the way Government grants to support them over lockdown were being administered, we knew we needed to look into the wider issues.

Our investigation into the administration of the Business Support Fund was, in effect, hundreds of investigations, as every complaint was considered on its merits, and many hundreds of complaints were raised individually with the Department responsible for the fund.

Some of these complaints were relatively easy to resolve. If the Department had made a mistake in its handling of a grant application, it was quick to acknowledge this and to rectify the problem. Many people received their grants while the investigation was ongoing and $3 million was paid out to 300 businesses. .

But others were not so straightforward. We were increasingly concerned about cases of individuals who had made small mistakes – like a typo in an email address – whose applications were rejected because of those mistakes. The Department’s initial view was that it wasn’t their mistake, so they didn’t need to rectify it.

On one hand, this view was understandable. But it failed to recognise the stresses people were under, factors like lack of familiarity with computers, language, and other difficulties. If the Government’s policy objective was to help small businesses, surely those people who genuinely met the eligibility criteria for a grant shouldn’t be penalised for their honest mistakes.

We refused to accept that it was too late or the Department’s claim that if it changed the way grants now work it would set a precedent. This was about fairness. After seeing a draft of the final report, the Department agreed – and 12,000 small business owners have been invited to reapply to the fund as a result.

It’s good to see public servants acknowledging what’s fair. Payments, potentially over $100 million, to so many thousands of hardworking people affected by lockdown is our biggest outcome yet.

Deborah Glass

  • COVID-19
  • Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions
  • Grants and funding