Are decision makers adequately resourced?

In earlier articles I looked at the fee structure, international obligations and the growing pipeline of Partner Visa applications.

The current Minister – Liberal Scott Morrison

Today I ask questions about the decision makers themselves. As the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) do not respond to questions from other than working journalists, my questions have not been answered. Consequently I have plenty of questions, but few answers. Do you have answers?

There are a host of questions worthy of consideration.

  • What formal qualifications do decision makers hold?
  • Is continuing professional development provided?
  • Is the risk of decision makers giving compliance precedence over human rights provisions adequately mitigated?
  • Is the risk of moral panic adequately mitigated?
  • Are decision makers required to undergo debriefing at regular intervals?
  • Do decision makers only decide Partner Visas or do they decide visas from a range of immigration streams?
  • Are key performance indicators (KPIs) driving appropriate behaviours?
  • Why is there a difference between onshore and offshore appeals at the Migration Review Tribunal (MRT)?
  • What impact is the number of Australians with long term relationships returning to Australia having on the applications of those with relationships of less than three years?

A Labor Minister – Chris Bowen

As previously discussed, 51% of DIBP staff hold bachelor or master degrees so think it is reasonable to predict that staff as senior as decision makers would hold a degree. In what fields, I do not know. I’m not sure a fine arts degree would be of much relevance, but a psychology degree very well could be.

I would think that some form of continuing professional development would be provided, but I am unable to find details. As regulations change from time to time, training would be needed. I am concerned that such training may be designed with the emphasis on compliance:

  • Are there a minimum of X photos supporting the application?
  • Do the Form 888’s specify the type of relationship in accordance with the regulations?
  • Have the couple been together for twelve months (de facto partner visa)?
  • Did the applicant know the brand of the sponsor’s camera when interviewed?

Is equal emphasis given to the human rights obligations? Not everyone sees Partner Visas as either a human right or a civil right. I was recently told:

I don’t consider a partner visa to be a human right.I think of it as a charitable courtesy of entry by a sovereign people.

The same person went on to say “Don’t be surprized (sic) when a swathe of “Internation law” (sic) is pushed back over the horizon by the Abbott govt.in the next 10 years.”  This attitude astounds me on two counts. First, I wasn’t aware there was any policy announced before the recent election to withdraw Australia from international instruments. Secondly, both the UDHR and the ICCPR are quite specific in their provisions.

What interests me is how many people hold this view and more importantly how many decision makers, if any, within DIBP hold this view? I’ve raised the question before of the degree of control over the decision: with student visas or skilled migrant visas the decision makers have total control. The application either meets the criteria or not. Partner Visas are different, there is definitely a humanitarian element to be considered. The Australian citizen has usually already made the decision and the role of DIBP should be merely to ratify the decision of the citizen, not negate the decision unless there are clear grounds for doing so, such as a criminal history or severe health considerations.

If the prevailing culture within the decision maker fraternity is not one of ratification but of a primary decision to effectively replace the decision of the Australian citizen, then I suggest we have a problem.

We have a situation where the number of applications is growing. As the Australian economy is strong relative to many other western economies there are a lot of Australians who have been living overseas for years returning to Australia. These people are often in very long term relationships that would clearly be impossible to refuse. Faced with a growing category of irrefutable applications, are the shorter term relationships being preemptively refused in an attempt to meet individual or departmental KPIs?

When the decision makers are all gathered for a post-conference glass of wine, I just don’t see them exclaiming, “Oh, James, you should have seen the application I approved the other day. Such an absolutely darling couple with such a romantic story!” Instead, I envisage a conversation more along the lines of, “You know, James, if I see one more application from [insert country of choice] I am going to scream. Everyone knows what they are like, I just can’t face reading the crap”. I freely acknowledge my personal perception is coloured by my own experience but I also know from conversations with migration agents that they face situations on a regular basis where, for example, women from a certain region seem to be automatically classified as ladies of the night.

I consider the question of whether decision makers make decisions on a range of different applications or if they rotate through streams important, based on the Minter Ellison assessment previously discussed.

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.’

While that related to decision makers assessing claims for refugee status, I suggest a similar risk of arrogance and/or disengagement can creep in to ANY field. Years ago I held a managerial position in an insurance company. I know for a fact staff processing claims did become less “humane” over time unless management took appropriate steps. Black humour is a trait of many professions and I still recall the jokes thrown around the tea room about various claims for freezer contents (“there is ALWAYS a crayfish”) and TVs that “fell” out of ninth floor apartments. No I am not totally naive. Of course people try to rip off insurance companies. Very annoying as they never take into consideration it is this pilfering that sends up insurance premiums for everyone, but it is what it is. Over time, though, claims officers can start seeing a falsified claim in every claim they review.

The DIAC Capability Review mentioned earlier in this series had the following to say about the development of people within DIBP.

Develop people

  • The department would benefit from encouraging SES officers to seek broader APS exposure as part of their development and at the same time seek to attract external applicants able to provide the department with fresh perspectives and broader management experience.
  • The department has a broad agenda (social, economic, and national security) which provides opportunities for broad skill development and mobility; however, the department’s workforce planning needs development.
  • Strategic workforce planning is primarily managed using manual processes and is heavily reliant on individuals’ knowledge rather than a more systematic process.
  • Individual performance management is patchy at all levels and requires urgent action to gain the benefits good performance management processes can yield.

When assessing the capability of evidence-based choices, the Review found:

As it performs this work the department collects and stores considerable information within various department systems. However, DIAC currently has only limited capability to utilise this rich information resource for research, evaluation and longer term planning purposes. Enhancing this capability would not only provide strategic insight to assist policy development, but would also contribute to service delivery strategies, business process design, improved client management, and enhanced management of risks.

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. Similarly, a range of finance data is available but not always provided to managers until specifically requested. Even then, some managers lack the financial literacy and related training to interpret financial reports. Managers also advise that HR-related reporting is neither integrated nor regular and that it has limited value for them in workforce planning and individual performance management. In short, decision-making across the department would benefit if decision-makers had access to more user-friendly and timely information from corporate and business systems.

In other words, room for improvement.

I have no doubt the staff of the department are, as the report states, highly motivated and committed (Staff surveys show consistently high levels of employee commitment and staff members are observed to be intrinsically motivated by the national interest and humanitarian aspects of their work. – Capability Review) they are also working in an extremely stressful field and may very well, through no fault of their own, become arrogant or disengaged in their decision making. Is there adequate mitigation of this risk?

The fees, the international obligations, the increasing numbers, the pressures on the DIBP staff are all different aspects of a human rights issue. In an age of a mobile population, allowing Australians to bring home their life partners is not “a charitable courtesy of entry by a sovereign people”. It is the right of any Australian to bring home their partner. Not in three years time and after horrendous expense. Today.

This is the third in a series of articles investigating the issue of the price of justice for love. Links to previous articles are in the opening paragraph. The next article looks at the changes to humanitarian partner reconciliations. There is also an interview with a past employee of the department.

7 comments on “Are decision makers adequately resourced?

  1. You say: “As the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) do not respond to questions from other than working journalists, my questions have not been answered.”
    Presumably ‘working journalists’ could ask these questions and publish them with the given answers, or not?


    • Yes, that is correct. Or should I say, working journalists have a better chance of getting an answer, although they may be blocked with a “we don’t comment on operational matters”! 🙂


      • Yes, I understand this. Even journalists have a hard time getting an answer. “Operational matters cannot be disclosed.”.
        Why the secrecy? It just doesn’t make sense, does it?


  2. […] This is the second in a series of articles investigating the issue of the price of justice for love. The next article looks at staffing considerations. […]


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