Independent Review of Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman

The Final Report of the Independent Review of the TIO has been published, in conjunction with the response from the Ombudsman. The Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Services Standards) Act 1999 was amended three years ago to require the TIO to be regularly reviewed, and this is the first such review. 

The Executive Summary of the Final Report notes that the TIO is one of Australia’s best known and arguably most influential Ombudsman schemes. It has built a high level of awareness and credibility and contributed to better consumer outcomes in a critical sector that continues to grow in importance for all Australians. The reviewers made the following key findings and recommendations: 

Key findings: 

  1. A large scale, high volume complaints scheme with considerable accumulated skill inhandling the unique nature of consumer complaints in the telecommunications sector.
  2. High levels of support for the organisation from most stakeholder groups.
  3. Some criticism of TIO process – that is in part due to a lack of understanding of how anombudsman must operate, particularly in ahigh volume environment, in part because of a lack of visibility of how the TIO actually operates and in part, valid suggestions for improvement. 
  4. A fee structure that is generating quite some aggravation –in particular forsmall telecommunications providers – putting some pressure to relieve this aggravation on the funding review that is currently underway. 
  5. An organisation that has been put under some internal pressureas a result ofthe need to scale down in size over a few years – and scale back up again more recently. That period of downsizing coincided with pressure from industry for TIO to also scale back its activity regarded as ‘non-core’ (policy, awareness, consumer engagement, etc). 
  6. An organisation that has adjusted its operating stance in recent times – sometimes rethinkingan approach, sometimes a temporary adjustment, sometimes in response toexternal forces – which has triggered some concerns from key stakeholders. These concerns are not that the TIO is currently failing in some significant way. However, to the extent that these stakeholders see these directions as the TIO ‘withdrawing’ from its broader role, from active engagement with stakeholders, from contributing to the co-regulatory framework, from leveraging its knowledge for continuous improvement—they are not comfortable with the directions signalled by these adjustments and would be significantly more concerned if the direction is maintained. 
  7. While some stakeholders continue to argue for the TIO to ‘stick to complaints-handling’and keep focusing on lowering costs, many stakeholders are asking for moretransparency, better reporting, greater engagement, continuing contribution to coregulation and policy and a more proactive role in systemic improvement of outcomes in the sector. 

Summary of recommendations 

  1. Recognising that this is a matter of differing stakeholder views, a stronger public stanceby the TIO Board and Management of acceptance and championing of the broaderrole that the TIO is expected to play as compared with ombudsman schemes in other industries – along with fully resourcing these responsibilities. 
  2. Changes to both the Terms of Reference and, as necessary, the law to empower theTIO to effectively deal with multi-provider complaints.Also a refinement of a number of aspects of the Terms of Reference – mostly to clarify the intent and to close a few gaps in its application. 
  3. Improved assistance and guidance information for consumers and service providers tohelp them understand and work more effectively with the TIO.
  4. A number ofdetail changes to the TIO dispute resolution processes, including additional decision making powers, some delegation of decision making to senior staff, eliminating an unnecessary review step, permitting some ‘fast-tracking’ and working more closely with industry to reduce timeframes for dispute resolution. 
  5. A strengthening of quality assurance for telephone enquiries, for consumerreview/appeals and a process for quality assurance on outcomes for consumersreferred back to their service providers. 
  6. A more assertive approach to matters such as the speed and quality of internetservices.
  7. Strengthening of the TIO’s access to technical skills and experience for complaintsresolution.
  8. A significant expansion of the TIO’s systemic investigation capacity, a greater readinessto refer unresolved systemic issues to the relevant regulator and to focus immediateeffort on issues relating to the national broadband network. 
  9. A greater emphasis on value-adding public reporting of TIO insights into the sector, ofprovision of value-adding reporting to industry and of a willingness to consult with keystakeholders on its complaint classification process and reporting. 
  10. Enhancements to the TIO’s processes for complaints about its own performance.
  11. A progressive re-strengthening of TIO engagement with stakeholders includingtriallingan annual conference and establishing a consumer advisory group. 

The Ombudsman has released a public response to the Final Report, supporting or supporting-in-principle all of the recommendations. The Ombudsman has stated that it has already commenced the implementation of some of the recommendations, and will continue to incorporate the Report’s findings and recommendations in its priorities for the next financial year.  

The Ombudsman’s media release can be found here.