Thursday, December 12, 2013

Development of a new Consular Strategy 2014-16

With the number of Australians travelling and living overseas at record levels, there is increasing demand for the Government to deliver extensive consular support and assistance.

There is no “right” to consular services, nor is there any legislative requirement for the Government to provide those services. It is accepted practice that governments help their citizens abroad in certain situations. If Australian officials overseas, in consultation with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra, provide assistance to an Australian – for example if they have been in an accident, have been victim of crime, or if their friends or family in Australia are concerned about their whereabouts – this is a consular “case”. The number of such cases varies each year, but at any given time, the Department is managing around 1,300 active cases, some of them highly complex and protracted. Consular officials also provide advice and assistance to many thousands of Australians for less complex matters that are more quickly resolved and provide notarial services for Australians and for others requiring documents for Australian purposes.

DFAT officers around the world are generally recognised as delivering a professional standard of service, which is efficient, responsive and available to Australian citizens globally 24 hours a day. But with demand for consular services rising and government budgets under pressure, it is timely to consider trends and discuss their implications.

The key questions to be covered in the Consular Strategy include:
  • What are the public expectations for consular services? Are expectations and services mismatched?
  • Is there scope to improve the delivery of services, for example through greater use of digital services?
  • Is there scope to deliver travel advice in more effective ways, for example through online and social media?

Issues for consideration
Scope and availability of consular services
Who should be able to access consular assistance?
At present, Australia is among the most generous providers of consular services, especially in comparison to our closest consular partner countries (Canada, UK, NZ and US). For example, Australia offers full consular assistance to permanent residents and to dual nationals, even when they are in the country of their other citizenship. In some cases, we have provided significant consular assistance to Australians who have not lived in Australia for many years.

What consular services should continue to be delivered and what services could be reduced or withdrawn?
When Australians are involved in criminal proceedings abroad, helping them and their families is a critical but time-consuming aspect of the consular role. In 2012, these cases represented ten per cent of all consular work but absorbed more than 50 per cent of the time spent on consular matters by our overseas posts.

Such cases are by nature complex, but changing current policies and practices could allow resources to be directed to cases where help is needed most. This might include reducing the frequency of prison visits or attendance at trials and other court processes. In both cases, consular officers would need to be equipped to exercise judgement to enable service levels to be tailored to the most vulnerable clients.

Should consular services be varied according to local circumstances and according to the capacity of the individual to cope?
At present, consular assistance levels are uniform across the world. For example, individuals in North America and Europe receive the same assistance as individuals in Africa, even though local service standards may be very different. Should we shift resources so that more assistance can be provided to clients who need it most: those who are most at risk because of who or where they are? This will mean asking clients elsewhere to be more self-reliant as we focus our resources on places where standards are lower and where Australians need more assistance.

Are there specific areas and/or demographic groups in which there is a mismatch between client expectations and services?
Young travellers are significant users of consular services: the “25 and under” age group has the highest number of cases. This could indicate that younger travellers (or their parents) are more likely to seek out consular assistance in circumstances that could often be described as non-critical. For example, during the closure of the Bangkok’s international airport in November 2008 due to political unrest, many Australian travellers were inconvenienced by travel disruption, but younger Australians were the most demanding and most likely to make unreasonable requests of consular officers. Many younger travellers have commented to consular officers that they have a “right” to consular assistance, regardless of the circumstances. A key question is whether this reflects the attitude of this particular demographic group alone or poorly targeted public messaging more generally.

Is there scope for DFAT to improve the consular services it provides so that clients can get help when they really need it and receive the right kind of service?
Australians often look for advice and help from the Department when they are going to travel or live overseas. There may be value in giving Australians more choice in how they contact us, for example by telephone or digital means, or by better signposting services to other government services. A wider virtual presence, through increased use of social media and digital tools such as Twitter and Facebook, could improve clients’ access to information and services. This might also include a Smartraveller app for Android phones to increase access to travel advice or Twitter accounts with hash tag specialisation for high-traffic regions (i.e. “SmartravellerBali”). The key issue is whether such initiatives would profoundly increase the public’s use of travel advice or understanding of the consular role.

Is there scope for DFAT to improve its crisis response?
Since the Bali bombing in 2002 the Department has continually improved the way we respond to crises involving Australians. We have more robust and flexible crisis response structures; better crisis IT tools; enhanced training and exercising; and improved whole of government arrangements and industry cooperation.

It is impossible to predict every eventuality. But we do follow a set of principles when assisting Australians in a crisis. There may be scope to improve public understanding of the Government’s role and manage public expectations during a crisis, particularly regarding evacuation – the sorts of expectations that have led some clients to ask if they can accrue frequent flyer points from a government-led evacuation. We may also be able to use social media better to disseminate information before and during a crisis.

Is the current registration system effective?
Improving our IT systems to deliver reliable data about Australians who need help in a crisis is a major challenge for the Department. There may be scope to change our current egistration process and replace it with a new approach that is easy for clients to use and provides a more accurate set of data on those believed or known to be affected by a crisis.
Public knowledge of the consular role and effectiveness of Smartraveller campaign
How effective is DFAT’s current safe travel messaging (‘register, insure, subscribe’)? 
Tested against its stated objectives, the Smartraveller campaign has been quite successful. Successive evaluations have shown that registration and subscription rates have risen in the wake of the campaigns. More travellers are taking out travel insurance. Approximately 70 per cent of Australian consular clients have medical insurance when travelling, although difficulties continue to arise when insurance policies are not comprehensive and do not cover particular circumstances, such as motorcycle accidents or extreme sports.

But has Smartraveller messaging become too detailed and complicated? Is there a risk of “alert fatigue”? Does “register and subscribe” lead some members of the public to assume that there is an unconditional safety net for travellers? There may be value in fine-tuning our key public message to stress self-reliance, such as “Plan, Prepare, Prevent”.

What can be done to improve the understanding of the consular role among the Australian travelling public?
The Department’s Consular Services Charter was introduced over a decade ago and is available electronically on the Smartraveller site and in brochure format through Australian missions abroad, travel agencies and at travel expos. Despite this, feedback suggests the Charter is not well known by the Australian travelling public. Most Australians have little understanding of the consular role until they come into contact with consular officers overseas. This can mean that they have unrealistic expectations of the role the Government can play and the services it can deliver in their particular circumstances, which can lead to frustration and disappointment.

Media reports and the experiences of other travellers contribute directly to public perceptions of the consular role. The Government’s actions to assist travellers in high-profile crises or consular cases (such as the Lebanon evacuation in 2006 or individual cases in Bali) tend to create public expectations that the Government will be able, and is in fact obliged, to assist them if they run into difficulty overseas. High levels of service provided to some clients and their families can also lead to recriminations from other clients about inconsistencies in service levels.

The Consular Services Charter was refreshed and relaunched in 2011 to address some of these concerns, but there is little evidence that it has succeeded in lifting public understanding of the consular role. Some clients say the Charter is “ambiguous” and “legalistic” and argue that it should provide clear, plain-language guidance on how the Department conducts its business and outline the limitations on consular services. It may be timely to review the Charter, to make it more accessible and to expand efforts to disseminate the new version, including by highlighting it more prominently on the Smartraveller website.

What role is played by the media, including social media, in shaping public views and expectations on the consular role?
Stories of Australians caught up in difficult or tragic circumstances overseas provide sensational headlines and easy copy to fuel a 24/7 news cycle. The 2013 Lowy Institute report 'Consular Conundrum: The Rising Demands and Diminishing Means for Assisting Australians Overseas' commented on the impact: “Media attention on prominent cases tempts politicians to override departmental protocols and consular service charters to provide higher levels of attention and service, bidding up the level of service Australians expect when they encounter trouble overseas.” This is reflected in increased numbers of FOI requests on individual cases from the media and public.

Social media is a further stimulus, providing a platform for the public – including “citizen journalists” and family and close supporters of high-profile consular clients – to raise the profile of a consular case. The open nature of the Internet and social media can enable dissemination of misinformation about individual cases, which can exacerbate unrealistic expectations.

On the other hand, social media plays an increasingly important role in gathering information and pushing out key public messages during a crisis or emergency. Greater use of social media tools could enable us to reach a wider audience and provide a trusted source of accurate information; allow consular officers on the ground to correct misinformation quickly; assist Canberra, particularly the crisis centre, to monitor conversations about a particular crisis; and encourage online sharing and agency/country cooperation of information.

How effective are DFAT’s systems for dealing with feedback on consular assistance?
Many government service sectors have established methods to track customer satisfaction and concerns, including passports, immigration and visas. DFAT collects feedback through a number of channels, but there may be a case to expand options or develop a mechanism to measure client/subscriber satisfaction and gauge public experiences of consular service delivery, for example via a questionnaire on Smartraveller.

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