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Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade - Annual Report 2000-2001
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OUTPUT 2.1

Consular and passport services
 

Output 2.1 Effectiveness indicators

2.1.1: 24-hour consular services

Effectiveness indicators

2.1.2: Passport services

Effectiveness indicators

Overview

The department provides consular and passport services to Australians travelling and living overseas, and to their families in Australia. Consular services Click to view related information - opens in new window include assisting Australians who are hospitalised or imprisoned, helping families when Australians die, are injured or go missing and, when required, coordinating evacuations from trouble spots. Under the authority of the Passports Act 1938, the department provides passport services to Australians through passports offices in State and Territory capital cities, and more than 100 diplomatic and consular missions overseas. Access to passport information Click to view external web site - opens in new window is provided through the Australian Passport Information Service and the passports website. Interview services are also provided through Australia Post outlets. The department is continually looking at ways to develop and improve these services.

In the 2000–01 year, an estimated 3.5 million Australians travelled overseas, a 6 per cent increase from 1999–2000. We provided consular assistance to 21,000 Australians in difficulty (or 0.62 per cent of those travelling overseas) and notarial services to a further 43,000. The department issued 1.088 million passports.

The Government allocated $1.1 million in additional funding to the consular function at the beginning of the financial year. This enabled us to strengthen our ability to provide high-quality advice and support to Australians overseas and their families in the face of steadily increasing demand for these services.

The department was able to develop and test a new Consular Management Information System that will help us to assist Australians overseas faster, better and more cost-effectively. The department also delivered an expanded public information program designed to alert Australians to potential difficulties overseas, including an upgraded travel advisory system Click to view related information - opens in new window. With Mr Downer’s agreement, three new positions were added to Australia’s Honorary Consul network, bringing the total of Honorary Consul positions to 45. We were able to intensify very significantly our training support for staff overseas, including our Honorary Consuls, through a series of regional training seminars.

A performance audit conducted during the year by the Australian National Audit Office (Click to view) confirmed the priority the department gives to high-quality services, and made a number of suggestions for further improved management that coincided with our own objectives. These objectives had largely been met by the conclusion of the financial year.

International benchmarking confirmed that the department’s passports operation meets best practice in terms of its use of technology, online validation, integrity process and business management. Customer feedback throughout the year indicated that the great majority of clients were pleased with the standard of passport services provided by the department. It is clear, however, that customers are looking for quicker response times and increased accessibility to passport services. The challenge will be to find effective ways to meet these expectations at acceptable cost.

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24-hour consular services

Accessibility of consular services, including through improved technology

The department improved the accessibility of its consular services through the expansion of the consular network Click to view related information - opens in new window and the introduction of new technology in support of the 24-hour consular service Click to view related information - opens in new window.

The addition of three new Australian Honorary Consuls, with Mr Downer’s approval, brought the total number of approved Honorary Consul positions to 45. Australia thus has 159 points of consular service around the globe, including 79 consular posts managed by the department, 17 Austrade posts and 18 Canadian posts that provide assistance to Australians under a formal consular agreement.

Improved technology

Public access to the Canberra-based 24-hour Consular Operations Centre improved this year with the introduction of a phone manager system involving a queuing and messaging facility. This will ensure that no public calls are missed during peak activity, a risk under the previous system in situations such as the September 2000 sinking of a Greek ferry near Paros, which involved 14 Australians. In the first three days after this disaster, the Centre received 2,800 calls from concerned friends and relatives.

We continued to expand the number of posts providing an after-hours free call or reverse-charge connection to the Consular Operations Centre for Australians in difficulty overseas. By the end of 2000–01, the number of overseas posts connected to the Centre by this service was 60, up from 54 the previous year.

A total of 89,000 consular-related telephone calls were received on the department’s public lines during the year.

We also established a ‘faxback’ system for the delivery of travel advice to those Australians who do not have access to the Internet. This system was being tested by the end of 2000–01, and is to become operational early in the new financial year.

Significant progress was made towards the development of a global, online Consular Management Information System (CMIS). The system should be rolled out with the Government’s new diplomatic communications system commencing in 2001–02.

CMIS will significantly boost our capacity to maintain high-quality consular services in the face of increasing demand. It will boost the efficiency of our notarial services by enabling electronic verification and processing of notarial requests, and also provide posts and Canberra with accurate consular statistical information for accountability and planning purposes.

The department developed a prototype for an Internet-based registration system that will allow Australian nationals and permanent residents to register their travel plans and contact details online, at any location in Australia or overseas. This system was expected to be fully operational in 2001–02.

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Table 6. Consular services provided to Australian travellers

1997–98

1998–99

1999–00

2000–01

Australian travellers*

3,031,900

3,188,700

3,292,200

3,532,200

Australians given general welfare and guidance

19,000

15,551

16,085

16,975

Hospitalised Australians given general welfare and guidance

774

681

656

766

Australians evacuated to another location for medical purposes

108

107

103

138

Next of kin guided or assisted with disposal of remains in relation to overseas deaths

590

548

604

547

Australians having difficulty arranging their own return to Australia given guidance and assistance

95

57

60

71

Inquiries made about Australians overseas who could not be contacted by their next of kin

1,210

1,659

1,850

1,712

Australians arrested overseas

420

476

453

568

Australians in prison overseas (as at 30 June)

168

158

155

208

Australians in financial difficulty who were lent public funds to cover immediate needs (travellers’ emergency loans)

1,091

896

775

738

Total number of cases involving Australians in difficulty

23,456

20,133

20,741

21,723

Overseas notarial acts

34,250

40,285

45,420

43,510

Total number of Australians provided with consular assistance

57,706

60,418

66,161

65,233

* -The 2000–01 figure is an estimate based on Tourism Forecasting Council projections. Previous year’s figure draws on Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data.

Keeping Australians informed

The department continued to provide the Australian travelling public and the travel industry with timely advice about potential trouble spots or issues overseas. We issued 406 consular travel advices Click to view related information - opens in new window during 2000–01—an 80 per cent increase on the previous year’s number of 225. These advices were widely disseminated to travel industry representatives, the Australian media and other organisations through an automated subscription service. There are currently over 1,000 subscribers to this system, a tenfold increase since last year, its first year of operation. The advices are also available on the department’s website. Travel insurance companies continued to take careful note of the Government’s travel advice.

The department instituted formal contact arrangements with major airlines, travel and tour operators, business and insurance representatives and the media to ensure that clients had the opportunity to provide feedback on our travel advice. As a result of feedback, we overhauled the presentation of our travel advice to make core messages clearer and easier to follow.

The content of the department’s travel advice and website received increased coverage in the Australian media during 2000–01. This followed the implementation of a formal consular public information strategy to provide key consular and safe travel messages to the Australian travelling public. The strategy involved closer engagement with the travel media and travel industry, including the travel insurance sector, improvements to the consular web pages Click to view related information - opens in new window and broadening of the range and accessibility of our consular publications Click to view related information - opens in new window.

As a result, we were able to communicate more effectively to the Australian travelling public the range, scope and natural limitations of our consular services, and the ways in which Australian travellers can avoid or minimise difficulty overseas. Since the strategy was formulated in September 2000, an average of two articles a week have appeared in the Australian mainstream travel media, referring to the range of available consular services, our travel advice and website.

In 2000–01, the number of registered ‘hits’ on the consular pages of the website (www.dfat.gov.au/travel) increased to more than 1,500,000, up from 1,190,000 in 1999–2000. This represents a moderation of previous rates of growth, and may be the result of lower usage by the travel industry because they now obtain information from the department’s travel advice subscription service. Under this system, travel agents can automatically receive e-mailed travel advice during the course of their daily activities, without having to access the department’s website.

We expanded the number of consular publications to 13, adding a publication on health, Travelling Well, and one targeting elderly travellers, For the Travelling Senior. In addition to a copy of Hints for Australian Travellers provided with each of the 1.088 million new Australian passports issued in 2000–01, the department distributed 273,269 brochures directly to the public. We expect this figure to increase by 50,000 copies following an agreement with the Youth Hostels Association (YHA) to include copies of Hints for Australian Travellers in their new membership packs. The number of editions per year of the Consular Newsletter Click to view related information - opens in new window, which is provided to the travel media and almost 4,000 members of the travel industry, increased from four to six. This was a response to positive feedback from the public, travel industry and media.

The encouragement of public feedback on the department’s consular services and publications remains an important priority. Through the introduction of a travel advice hotlink on our website, and the inclusion of special items and advice in our various publications, opportunities to provide feedback have been increased.

Responsiveness to consular crises

The department reviewed arrangements for managing crises overseas and introduced new emergency management instructions for all our overseas posts. These instructions update guidance on preparing streamlined contingency plans and responding to crises, and provide detailed guidelines on evacuation procedures. Together with the Department of Defence, we conducted joint contingency planning visits to a number of posts in the Asia-Pacific region regarded as being of high risk from a contingency planning perspective. A formal training program for Canberra-based staff dealing with overseas crises was established.

The department coordinated government responses to civil unrest and hostilities affecting Australians in the Middle East, Indonesia, Nepal, Philippines, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Bolivia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). We also helped support Australians affected by the earthquakes in India, central Japan, PNG, southern Peru and the north west of the United States.

Other resource-intensive cases dealt with by the department included the sinking of a Greek ferry in September 2000, two kidnap cases and the case of several elderly Australians afflicted with a serious respiratory illness aboard a cruise ship in the South Pacific. Next of kin were contacted and kept abreast of developments during the Swissotel hostage incident involving 11 Australians in Istanbul in April 2001, and consular staff were quickly at the scene following the Singapore Airlines accident in Taipei, in which two Australians were involved.

The protracted and high-profile case of Kerry and Kay Danes, detained in Laos since December 2000, required careful management by the department in support of Mr Downer’s direct concern and involvement. As in all consular cases, we provided close support to their families. In almost all such cases, we received positive feedback from the families for sensitive handling and support.

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Performance audit of Consular Services

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) conducted a performance audit of the department’s administration of consular services from May 2000 until 29 March 2001. The audit report was tabled in Parliament on 29 March 2001.

The audit took place when further enhancements of the department’s delivery of consular services had been made possible by the Government’s allocation, in July 2000, of additional funding to the consular function. This additional allocation of $1.1 million a year underpinned a significant and independent program of reform during the course of the year. In implementing these reforms, the department was able to draw on valuable input from the ANAO team.

The report acknowledged clearly that, in recognition of the priority attached by the Government to assisting Australians overseas and their families, the department had made substantial improvements to the range and quality of consular services in recent years. The report noted in particular the improved accessibility of the consular service following the establishment of a 24-hour Consular Operations Centre, new public information activity aimed at preventing Australians from experiencing difficulty overseas, greater senior-level attention to consular services, and growth in the resources dedicated by the department to this important function.

The department welcomed and accepted the report’s various recommendations. Indeed, each of the areas highlighted for improvement by the audit team had separately been identified by the department for reform before the audit began, and had largely been dealt with by the time it finished. In line with the report’s recommendations, travel advice is now underpinned by a fully-funded public communication strategy introduced in 2000. Significant progress has been made in testing a Consular Management Information System, which will enable the department to collect valuable information on its performance in delivering consular services. Well before the conclusion of the audit, the department’s approach to contingency planning had been overhauled, and is now focused more squarely on protecting Australians overseas.

The ANAO also commented on the implementation of the recommendations of the 1997 Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee’s report on consular services. The department subsequently confirmed in writing to the Committee that all recommendations had been fully implemented.

 

Passport services

Client access and services

Arrangements that allow clients to lodge passport applications at most Australia Post outlets continued to be popular, and we have renewed this contract for another five years. A total of 82 per cent of clients elected to lodge applications through Australia Post outlets, compared with 84 per cent last year. Australia Post’s extensive network (over 1,600 outlets) ensures that most Australians continue to enjoy ready access to passport services, and guarantees the retention of existing service levels to rural and regional areas.

The department made passport information more accessible by creating a separate website domain name (www.passports.gov.au). The site does not yet offer the facility to download passport application forms, but clients can request a renewal form Click to view external web site - opens in new window online. During 2000–01, online requests for passport renewal application forms averaged 3,986 per month, representing a 569.4 per cent increase over the previous financial year.

To meet initiatives under the Government Online scheme, and customer expectations of a rapid and increasingly convenient delivery of passport services, the department began work to introduce a greater range of online passport services. We have adopted a phased approach to this project with the intention of providing full online interactive services (including the ability to renew passports online) in 2002.

In June 2001, our largest overseas passport issuing post (London) began issuing passports using the latest scanning, handwriting recognition and electronic workflow technology. This new technology mirrors that already in place in Australia and substantially increases the efficiency and integrity of the passport services provided by the High Commission in London. As a result, London, which issues over 15,000 passports a year, is now our first overseas office to produce passports that carry digitised photographs.

Figure 16: Number of travel documents issued, 1996–97 to 2000–01

Click for a larger version. This information is available as an image only - a paper copy is available by phoning (02) 6261 3114 or from Ausinfo bookshops or by visiting www.ausaid.gov.au/publications

Source: Compiled by DFAT from departmental data

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Security features of Australian travel documents

The department has begun work on the design of the next generation passport. The new passport will incorporate enhanced security features to ensure the continued integrity of the Australian passport and its international reputation as a secure travel document.

The department took steps to improve passport identity verification procedures and fraud detection capability by:

These measures will enable the department to reduce the instances of passport fraud.

Client services provided within the parameters of the Client Service Charter

The department commissioned an independent customer satisfaction survey. The findings of the survey showed that 88 per cent rated the service as either ‘good’ or ‘very good’, 10 per cent found the service acceptable and 2 per cent rated the process as less than acceptable (see boxed text below). Although very high levels of satisfaction were recorded, detailed findings will be fed into continuing improvement of the service.

The passport turnaround time in Australia was eight days for applications lodged at a passport office and 13 days for passports lodged at an Australia Post outlet. This translated into an average turnaround time of 12 days. This is outside the 10 days promised in the Charter where the applicant meets all the requirements for the issue of a passport. The 12-day turnaround time covers all applications including those delayed in production because the form had been incorrectly completed, or all the necessary information had not been provided and client follow-up was required. It also includes children’s applications requiring further investigation because full parental consent has not been provided (see also ‘Turnaround time for passport issue’).

The department is implementing measures to improve the turnaround time including further refinement of the application form and improved training for interviewing officers.

Customer satisfaction with Passport Services

The department commissioned an independent customer satisfaction survey in all Australian States and Territories during February and March 2001 to:

  • ensure we are meeting our Passport Client Service Charter Click to view external web site - opens in new window obligations;
  • understand causes of dissatisfaction and complaints; and
  • compare results with other public sector organisations and private sector organisations in the delivery of services.

A total of 1,350 people who had recently applied for a passport were interviewed. The sample contained a high proportion of women (85 per cent), reflecting the large number of passport applications or renewals made on behalf of children (60 per cent). Most respondents (88 per cent) lodged their application at a post office.

Of those interviewed, 94 per cent found the passport application form easy to complete, and only 8 per cent had not submitted correct documentation (such as full Australian birth certificate or another form of identification). Other issues raised included quality of the passport, fees and payment process, and delivery of the passport. The majority of respondents (82 per cent) rated the quality of the passport as either ‘very good’ or ‘good’; 91 per cent were happy with the payment process. Only two per cent of those surveyed described the service as less than satisfactory and the department has already taken action in areas identified as needing improvement (see ‘Passport services’).

Australia Post also rated very highly with customers, as did the service provided by the Australian Passport Information Service call centre, which handled more than 1.3 million calls.

The results of this survey compare very favourably with similar surveys conducted for other public and private sector clients and validated the high priority the department places on the provision of efficient passport services to Australia citizens.

 

The financial and staffing resources summary for outcome 2 is at Appendix 2.

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