Report of Australian National Audit Office (ANAO)
Published: 11 February 2019
Report number: 25 of 2018-2019
Portfolio: Home Affairs
Entity: Department of Home Affairs
Summary and recommendations
1. The concept of Australian citizenship has been enshrined in legislation since 1949. A person may become an Australian citizen automatically (generally persons born in Australia to one or more parents who are citizens or permanent residents) or by application.
2. Persons can apply for one of four types of citizenship by application: descent; adoption; resumption; and conferral. Citizenship by conferral is the largest component. Of the 259, 815 applications for citizenship lodged in 2017–18, 92 per cent sought citizenship by conferral.
3. The Department of Home Affairs (Home Affairs or the department) administers the citizenship program and the citizenship legislation. Home Affairs will have previously assessed citizenship applicants against the identity and character requirements set out in the Migration Act 1958 as part of their visa application and have determined them to be of good character. Further checking is undertaken as part of their citizenship application. Under the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 the Minister must be satisfied that the person is of good character, and be satisfied of the identity of the person, ‘at the time of the Minister’s decision on the application’.
Rationale for undertaking the audit
4. The Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Refugee Council of Australia, Members of Parliament and others have publicly expressed interest in the length of time being taken to process applications.1 Reasons include a reported increase in processing times, an increase in complaints received from applicants about delays and the Federal Court of Australia judgement of December 2016 that there had been an unreasonable delay in deciding two plaintiffs’ applications for citizenship by conferral.2 In May 2017, the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit identified ‘citizenship function administration’ as an audit priority of the Parliament.
Audit objective and criteria
5. The objective of the audit was to examine the efficiency of the processing of applications for citizenship by conferral by the Department of Home Affairs.
6. To form a conclusion against the audit objective, the ANAO adopted the following high-level criteria:
Have applications for citizenship by conferral been processed in a time-efficient manner?
Have applications for citizenship by conferral been processed in a resource-efficient manner?
7. Applications for citizenship by conferral have not been processed efficiently by the Department of Home Affairs.
8. Applications have not been processed in a time-efficient manner. Processing times have increased and long delays are evident between applications being lodged and decisions being taken on whether or not to confer citizenship. Significant periods of inactivity are evident for both complex and non-complex applications accepted by the department for processing.
9. Applications have not been processed in a resource-efficient manner. The department has a suite of initiatives in train that are designed to improve efficiency but implementation has been slow. It has not set external key performance indicators to inform Parliament and other stakeholders of how efficient it has been in processing conferral applications. Further, the department is not checking the quality of the decisions being taken.
10. The rate of decisions taken has been declining and has not kept pace with application lodgements. Indicative of an underlying decline in processing performance, the number of citizenship tests administered each year has been decreasing.
11. Home Affairs had not been achieving its target timeframe for deciding applications (of making 80 per cent of decisions within 80 days of the application being lodged). Performance had declined since 2014–15 with only 15 per cent of decisions being taken within 80 days in 2017–18. The target has been removed and a replacement processing target has not been set. Instead, publication of times taken to acquire citizenship (from lodgement to ceremony) commenced in March 2017. Analysis of the times reported each month to September 2018 shows processing times have increased significantly since March 2017.
12. Overall, the relative complexity of the applications lodged has decreased. Growth in demand for citizenship in recent years was driven by people with good supporting documents who arrived in Australia on a skilled visa. There has been an increase in the number of more complex applications on hand.
13. The number of applications lodged per month between April 2017 and June 2018 correlated with the timing of proposed changes to the citizenship requirements, with the overall impact being an increase in lodgements in 2017–18. There was a long delay before substantive processing of the applications received from 20 April 2017 commenced (being the date the proposed reforms were announced) which negatively impacted processing times.
14. The introduction of increased integrity screening checking processes was a significant driver of the increase in processing times, and decrease in citizenship approval numbers, occurring from June 2017.
15. Home Affairs did not have processes in place to monitor and address periods of processing inactivity, including the length of time between an application being received and substantive processing work commencing.
16. Home Affairs has not optimised the efficiency of its processing staff. The department has a suite of initiatives in train that are designed to enhance efficiency but has been slow in implementing them. The number of decisions taken in the first quarter of 2018–19 increased significantly (by 81 per cent) compared with the number taken in the first quarter of 2017–18, but remains below the number of decisions being taken in earlier years (2014–15 to 2016–17).
17. Home Affairs has not checked the quality of the decisions taken to approve or refuse Australian citizenship in 2017–18. This was notwithstanding that its Quality Management Framework outlined that two per cent of the decisions should have been checked. As at August 2018 the department had not implemented an ANAO recommendation it agreed to in May 2015 relevant to assessing the quality of decisions taken, and had partially implemented another.
18. The administration of the citizenship activities has been largely consistent with the Australian Government cost recovery framework. However, analysis of the department’s processing timeframes indicates the actual cost may exceed the efficient cost.
19. The citizenship services funding model contains an incentive for Home Affairs to finalise applications efficiently. The assumptions on which the funding model was based are outdated.
Recommendation no. 1
The Department of Home Affairs:
re-introduce externally reported key performance indicators of the time taken to decide applications for citizenship by conferral; and
expand its published processing times to also report the time being taken to decide applications for citizenship by conferral per month, including decisions to refuse citizenship.
Department of Home Affairs’ response: Disagreed.
Recommendation no. 2
The Department of Home Affairs establish and monitor performance standards that address periods of processing inactivity, including the length of time between an application being received and substantive processing work commencing.
Department of Home Affairs’ response: Agreed in principle.
Recommendation no. 3
The Department of Home Affairs agree with the Department of Finance a revised funding model for citizenship activities that is based on updated activity levels and efficient costs.
Department of Home Affairs’ response: Agreed.
Summary of entity response
20. The proposed audit report was provided to the Department of Home Affairs, which provided a summary response that is set out below. Its full response is reproduced at Appendix 1.
There is no greater privilege than Australian Citizenship and the Department takes its responsibility to efficiently and effectively process applications within the law very seriously. The enhanced integrity measures adopted by the Department over the last three years to protect Australia’s national security and community safety are delivering results. We will always prioritise these efforts over speed.
The Department disagrees with the ANAO findings that the processing of citizenship applications has not been done efficiently.a The proportion of citizenship applications being refused has doubled, from 3.4 per cent in 2014–15 to 6.8 per cent in 2018–19 to 30 November 2018. This includes 144 individuals who were identified as having engaged in serious criminal conduct that was not declared on their citizenship application form and 1, 440 instances of potential identity fraud, where individuals have provided different identity information on their citizenship application to that previously provided to the Department between August 2016 and October 2018. Twenty-nine individuals had their Australian Citizenship revoked since December 2014 for criminal conduct or citizenship or migration fraud and 12 individuals ceased to be an Australian Citizen, either because they have engaged in terrorism-related conduct offshore, or been in the service of a declared terrorist organisation offshore.
The Department dedicates significant resources to addressing these national security, community safety and program integrity risks and notes that cases with adverse indicators take a disproportionate level of effort and time to resolve, often requiring the assistance of various other agencies and partners.
The Department also disagrees with the ANAO recommendation that we should publish further information, particularly around key performance indicators of processing times. Given that each application for citizenship is assessed upon its merits and individual circumstances, in our view this information would not be meaningful and may be misleading to our clients.b
The Department acknowledges that it must continue to evolve the way it operates to keep pace with increased lodgements and changing risk profiles. System-wide reforms to the way the citizenship program is delivered are well underway with a 97 per cent increase in citizenship finalisations this financial year to date (July to the end of November 2018), compared with the same period in the previous year (July to the end of November 2017)c and near record numbers of people are expected to become Australian Citizens on Australia Day 2019.
The Department continues to implement initiatives under its reform program, including measures that take account of issues identified by the ANAO in this audit, and expects these will result in further improvements to efficiency and processing times.
ANAO notes on Home Affairs’ summary response
a: Chapter 2 of this Auditor-General report outlines the evidence and analysis in support of the ANAO’s independent assessment of the department’s time efficiency, including that processing times have increased, long delays are evident between applications being lodged and decisions being taken on whether or not to confer citizenship, along with significant periods of inactivity being evident. Similarly, chapter 3 examines resource efficiency.
b: The lack of externally reported key performance indicators for processing time efficiency means transparent and meaningful information is not being provided to the Parliament and other stakeholders so as to hold Home Affairs accountable for its performance. Publishing service standards and targets, and performance against them, is an approach used in other countries (see paragraph 2.28).
c: Paragraphs 3.19 and 3.20 recognise that the number of decisions in the early part of 2018–19 was well above the equivalent period in 2017–18. The ANAO’s analysis, outlined in Figure 3.1, was that the number of decisions taken in the early part of 2018–19 nevertheless remained well below that being achieved prior to 2017–18.