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We live in a racist culture

In my continuing series of articles looking at the human rights aspects of the increasing Partner Visa fees, pipeline (backlog) and refusal rates, today I publish an interview with a past employee of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. My contact agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity, as I am sure readers will understand. I have verified the past employment to my satisfaction.

It is worth noting this employee was an onshore decision maker and has little knowledge of offshore training or other offshore staffing arrangements such as training and debriefing.

The series so far:

Interview:

What formal qualifications do decision makers hold?

When I left the Department, there was no requirement for any qualification to be held for staff to be employed in any role, with the exception of the Case Management staff, who were generally social workers.  Case Management in this instance refers to individuals who have applications before the Department, or who are in detention awaiting removal, and for whom there is some degree of concern (self harm, suicide attempts, illness, etc).  I didn’t have a lot of involvement with this area of the Department, and so I was never 100% sure of their roles.

I was a decision maker, and I obtained a Diploma of Business while I was working.  Decision making starts at the APS3 (almost entry level for Immigration these days) level, and goes to the EL1 level.  Generally new staff in the Department have Bachelor degrees in various fields because that is what people get to be employed today.

The appropriate grading of staff depends on the level of complexity of visa being assessed.  There is a matrix which determines what level staff has which delegation power of the Minister for various sections of the Act, and various regulations.

Generally there is in-house training and on-the-job training – with new decision makers shadowing experienced officers, and having their decisions reviewed before finalisation.  This happens at all levels.  When I first started on the counter, I sat with experienced officers for a couple of weeks to both learn the IT (editor: computer) system I was going to use, as well as the methods of assessment against the regulations for the various visa subclasses I was going to be able to grant on the spot.  Even after I was promoted to being on the counter myself, I still had a senior decision maker to be able to approach any time I needed advice on a certain visa application.

When I was trained to be a Protection Visa decision maker, I had a weeks worth of training on the UNHCR Convention for Refugees, Australian Case Law concerning Immigration, interviewing techniques and how to work with interpreters.  When I started the job I was guided by my manager and an experienced decision maker, and given straight-forward cases to assess.  Over the years, the complexity of cases that I assessed increased, as did my knowledge of in-country situations and global politics.

Is continuing professional development provided and if so, what type of training?

I can’t really speak for the current training for Partner Visas, as I only know about them from experience many, many years ago.  There was little flexibility in the regulations for Partner Visas when it came to cultural or social context (ie civil ceremonies and religious ceremonies being some time apart, and/or couples not cohabiting between ceremonies or for other reasons unrelated to them being in different countries (and even then…)).

When I left the Department, the other human rights conventions were assessed at the final stage of an applicant’s unsuccessful journey through the Department.  So when it came to ICCPR, CAT, CRC, etc, these were looked at when it came to remove the applicant – though they could be flagged by decision makers along the way.

Training was focused on understanding the regulations, on ensuring that the right information was inputted into the system, understanding country information, and on case law.

As an ex-employee of the department, do you feel the risk of decision makers giving compliance precedence over human rights provisions was adequately mitigated?

Editor’s note for reference: For example, the Minter Ellison report found :

DIAC might consider communicating, to other participants in the process, that there is management of the impact on decision makers of what they are hearing. It was submitted that:

‘It is a common professional practice for social workers, members of the judiciary, members of the police force etc to be provided with supervision and/or debriefing. It is unclear whether decision makers are able to access properly trained mental health professionals to ensure vicarious trauma doesn’t manifest in appearances of arrogance and/or disengagement.’

There was not any formal debriefing process in place when I was a decision maker for Protection Visas.  It was requested by one decision maker, and management organised a briefing for everyone from the Victorian Foundation of Torture and Trauma (I think that’s it), as well as reminding us that we could access the Employee Assistance Program at any time we needed it.

It was not necessarily encouraged to do so regularly.

That said, I do not believe that any of my colleagues were arrogant or disengaged when it came to assessing Protection Visa applications.  We were all quite traumatised, a fact I realised after I left Immigration, but we were all driven to seek the correct outcome for each case we assessed.  We would often debrief amongst each other, and there was a degree of self selection of decision makers (for Protection Visas) as those who did not want to manage the trauma of the role would often relocate to other positions in the Department.

Is the risk of moral panic adequately mitigated?

The question is more about profiling then, does Immigration profile certain nationalities, age groups, etc and the answer is yes.

Why does Immigration profile? Because generally there is a risk profile, which has been built up over time by either fraud, high rate of overstaying, false declarations, etc – it’ll be interesting to see how the risk profiles change once DIPB puts better analytical software in place (to my knowledge they have none, and are not planning any), to actually fully assess risk profiles of different groups.  I suspect some groups which may have a risk profile now, will lose theirs and some others may gain one.

Now, as to your quote from the South African residing decision makers, most staff working on Immigration matters in Australian Embassies and Consulates are locally engaged. I do not know what training is provided to locally engaged staff outside Australia.  This matter is completely out of my experience.

In relation to your second comment, I would not be at all surprised that some women are suspected to be sex workers. particularly if they were born in one place, and then last residing in another place known for sexual servitude or the sex industry.  Does this invalidate a relationship?  Generally no, it’d just mean that Immigration would test it harder.  This will differ between Australia and overseas posts though.

Some Immigration staff  will be prejudiced against one group or another, as every other person in the world is – DIBP is staffed by humans after all.  In my experience though (and I can only speak of the Australian decision makers), everyone did their best to put aside their own individual prejudices when assessing visa applications and to work on the matter at hand.

Do decision makers only decide Partner Visas or do they decide visas from a range of immigration streams? What impact do you think this has on their decision making and why?

I can only speak for Australian based staff, and my understanding when I left the Department is that they only assessed Partner Visas.

As for impact, it meant that they were fully conversant with the policy and law for the visas, and can process visas efficiently.

I have no idea what visa subclasses overseas officers assess.

What sort of key performance indicators (KPIs) are in place for decision makers (or the department) and how do you believe these drive behaviours?

Generally a certain number of finalised cases are expected each year.  Decisions are not divided into approvals or rejections, but finalised cases.  In relation to Protection Visas, there is also a legislative expectation that cases will be decided (but not finalised) within 90 days.

As the focus is on finalised cases, I don’t see this driving inappropriate or compliance focussed behaviours.

I do not know what the KPIs are for overseas posts.

In your opinion why is there such a difference between onshore and offshore appeal results at the Migration Review Tribunal (MRT)?

I have no idea

Do you think there is any impact is the number of Australians with long term relationships (that can’t really be refused) returning to Australia having on the refusal rate increase of applications where the relationships are of less than three years?

As I said earlier, to my knowledge there is not a refusal rate versus an approval rate – in anything other than the number of places made available by the Government – and this does not mean that once the overall quota is met that visas are refused, they are put aside to be granted once the new financial year commences.

In your experience, do decision makers tend to stereotype applicants from various locations?

Just like everyone people hold their own internal prejudices and biases and it is hard to know what someone’s is unless you specifically ask them.  The Department has various risk profiles (as I’ve mentioned), which are used in some visas assessments (generally visitor visas and other short-term stay visas).

Applicants who come from countries with a high level of document fraud, as an example, are more likely to have their documentation tested, than someone coming from a country without a high level of fraud.

When I was assessing Protection Visas, there were countries where some groups of applicants were generally not found to be refugees, but some others were – and it was fairly easy to identify these applicants based on their ethnicity, religion, political opinion, etc.  This did not mean that those cases where the applicant on the surface would not appear to be a refugee were not assessed thoroughly, because there were still some cases where someone who was a member of a group that would not meet the refugee convention typically, met it due to another attribute.

Is there any other information or experience you can share that would illustrate the state of the decision making processes?

My experience of Immigration is a department full of left-leaning (typically), passionate and kind individuals.  This may hold true more for the Melbourne office than other states, as I am not aware of other state office’s culture.  Even National Office, when I was employed by DIBP, was more left-leaning than the Government they were serving.

Although there is a risk that DIBP would be full of those who hold negative racial views (ie racists), they were few and far between.  The Government policies that DIBP has to implement are generally more racist than the staff working in the office, but it does rub off to a tiny degree.  We (all Australians) live in a racist culture, and regardless of how non-racist we try to be, there will be values or attitudes we hold that stem from our culture that may harm others, unknowingly.

When our Government is becoming increasingly racist, installing more and more racist policies, it is likely that those who object within DIBP will quit, particularly if they feel that they cannot make decisions as an unfettered decision maker.

One of the reasons I left DIBP was because the organisation was becoming increasingly risk adverse, I felt that I was no longer trusted to make the right decision on cases and was beginning to be constrained.  I suspect this has only worsened since I left – though far more for Protection Visas (as they are increasingly politicised), than for Partner visas.

Again, for Protection Visas there have been times when I was told to make certain decisions on the cases I was allocated to assess.  Some of that was logical – for example if the situation in the country of origin had completely changed.  Sometimes though, when a particular case in a cohort* did meet the criteria to be granted, we had to push and argue to have that decision of ours allowed.

After a period of time though, you do begin to become an expert at your job.  I became the go-to person for what was happening in a set of countries for which I was often allocated cases from.  Specialisation in Protection Visas is necessary given the wide number of countries and groups within those countries that applicants come from.  Work to approve or reject a Protection Visa is roughly equal as you need to write up your reasons and include supporting country information, references and case law.

Work to approve a Partner Visa is significantly less than to reject one, as the criteria a much more straight forward.

ASIO is also a pain, but that’s all through the media and I really don’t need to comment on it more.

You mentioned the Department is generally left leaning. There are rumours Howard tried to change the culture of the Department. Was this your experience?

I think Howard did his best to change the leaning of the Department during his time, but he really could only affect the senior management structures – Departmental Secretary and the First Assistance Secretaries.

Changing the culture of the rest of the Department is really hard, particularly as you cannot fire staff who are performing.  Yes, there were a lot of redundancies when Howard first came to power, but that didn’t change the overall culture of the organisation.I noticed more right-leaning people join the Department after Howard was elected, but still not in significant numbers to actually change the overall culture of the organisation.  That requires a lot more, and one thing DIBP is really really bad at is change management, so it was never really going to happen.

End of Interview

The points I would like to draw to the attention of readers are:

… we could access the Employee Assistance Program at any time we needed it.

It was not necessarily encouraged to do so regularly.

That said, I do not believe that any of my colleagues were arrogant or disengaged when it came to assessing Protection Visa applications.  We were all quite traumatised, a fact I realised after I left Immigration, but we were all driven to seek the correct outcome for each case we assessed.  We would often debrief amongst each other,

To me this doesn’t meet the suggestion of the Minter Ellison report (mentioned above for context in italics), but the situation may have changed as a result of the Minter Ellison report. It is interesting to note this past employee did not realise how traumatised they were until AFTER they had left the Department. I would like a psychologist’s opinion of debriefing amongst each other. The interviewee has provided additional information that proper debriefing is now available to staff. Whether this is available at offshore locations is unknown.

… interesting to see how the risk profiles change once DIPB puts better analytical software in place (to my knowledge they have none, and are not planning any)

I specifically raised this in an earlier article as implementation of such was a recommendation of the Capability Report. “On a day-to-day basis, managers report that evidence-based business decision-making is impeded by a lack of timely and reliable data. In some cases data that is captured (for example, complaints and compliments data) is reported statistically but not evaluated to inform policy development. The outcomes of complaints are not centrally tracked to identify trends that might influence policy decisions and business strategies.

One of the reasons I left DIBP was because the organisation was becoming increasingly risk adverse, …

What impact is increased risk aversion having on decision makers overall? Risk aversion does filter down through an organisation.

Again, for Protection Visas there have been times when I was told to make certain decisions on the cases I was allocated to assess.  Some of that was logical – for example if the situation in the country of origin had completely changed.  Sometimes though, when a particular case in a cohort did meet the criteria to be granted, we had to push and argue to have that decision of ours allowed.

It is reasonable to suggest that together with an increase in risk aversion, being told, or risking being told, to make particular decisions could demoralise highly motivated staff.

I was pleased to see that at least onshore KPIs were around cases finalised, not around meeting a given number or approvals or refusals, however meeting a specific finalised target could theoretically impede comprehensive assessment.

I thank my interviewee very much for participating in my series of articles. I hope this gives readers a greater insight into one of the largest government departments.

*cohort in this context means a group of similar cases: examples would be grouped by nationality, ethnic group or political opinion.

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12 comments on “We live in a racist culture

  1. […] media to protect my sources from retribution, so just as I kept the Department of Immigration past employee anonymous, so I will keep this informant anonymous. I do not want to risk placing his wife and child in any […]

  2. I really like your interview questions Robyn and the manner in which they were framed. There is no doubt that staff within the Department are regularly dealing with very traumatised clients. Vicarious trauma is real. It is vastly different to normal workplace stress and burnout. It is caused by the day to day culmative effects of working with traumatised people. How it effects workers is often dependent on their own life experiences, resilience and skills to idenify and manage self care needs.

    Training on management of vicarious trauma is often missing from many workplaces. If undetected can lead to workers reacting to clients in a variety of ways including rudeness, disengagement, high absentism, workplace errors, higher levels of workplace satisfaction and eventually staff turnover. When staff have personal values and beliefs to those espoused by management, risks are higher.

    From your interview, it seems that many working within the Dept would not necessarily support government policy and practices. Another added stressor.

    • Betty, I appreciate your perspective on this so much. Vicarious trauma is something very real, I know from personal experience and professional advice at the time.

      While clearly these experiences are in the past, one can see a developing pattern.

      As this interview was underway before the Manus crisis, I did not ask about it. Also this person is no longer in the department and I felt questions related to current specific policies were not appropriate. The interviewee no doubt has personal opions (in fact I know that is the case), but these policies came later.

  3. It’s good to see interviews with government officials. You get an inside view of how these decisions are made.

    I like how you publish big slabs of the interview. The usual media approach is to cherry-pick passages to support their angle.

    I like reading your blog.

  4. A fascinating article, thank you Robyn. If the underlying culture within DIBP is as described I think it must becoming progressively tougher for the staff, particularly as policy drifts further and further from what maybe their individual identify with as core values. I hope the staff get the support they need as it seems they are professionals, and they are doing the job they are directed to do; but it must be getting hard for some.
    Some may suggest “don’t like your job, leave”. The problem with that suggestion is not all staff would have the ‘flexibility’ to leave paid employment because they don’t like it.
    While it is sad to read (or think for that matter) we live in a racist culture; perhaps that is the hard reality we need to acknowledge, accept, and work through. Tolerance breeds compassion, Intolerance breeds violence; I hope for a more tolerance and therefore compassionate Australia.

    • Thanks Paul. That is about where I was on it. Under resourced, inadequate systems, management focus not in alignment with staff values.

      People might want to leave, but not easy. Transferable skills? Maybe not at same salary.

      Kidscto feed, clothe and educate. Mortgage. Not so easy to just up and leave.
      Toughest department in current climate I think.

      Can we guarantee good decisions in suce a climate, even if majority of staff dedicated?

      • “Can we guarantee good decisions in such a climate, even if the majority of staff dedicated?”
        An interesting question: part of me wants to put faith in the professionalism of the staff involved, but I think fear: of the decisions you make (moral tensions), of loosing your job, of feeling stuck in a job because of a lack of other options, all may influence the objectivity of the decisions.
        The interviewee mentions having to argue for particular decisions to stand. I think that strength, to argue, can come from experience and ‘knowing your stuff’; it can also come for naivety in not knowing ‘yet’ who you can’t tick off. As the job losses grow in Canberra and elsewhere, as people in the APS walk around with continue ‘savings’ targets on their backs, I think ‘fear’ will start to play more a part in the decision making processes. A loss of jobs in the Car Industry, or Alcoa today, makes the headlines, but thousands of APS jobs have already gone and more are expected to follow: grist to the mill as the APS ‘aren’t real jobs’ in the minds of many.
        So despite the professionalism of staff, the environment, one of fear, is I think conspiring to create an environment where ‘good decisions’ may be harder to guarantee.

      • Could not agree more. Those who can leave do. The dept loses valuable skills. Staff perhaps less experienced, pick up the work. Decision quality drops through circumstance.

        My intuition tells me many staff don’t agree with Morrison. That causes emotional stress.

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