2020–21 Annual Review

Board Chair messageJohn Pollaers

AFCA received 70,510 complaints about financial firms in 2020–21 and it worked hard to achieve a fair outcome for all the parties involved. These outcomes included more than $240.5 million in compensation and refunds, along with fee waivers, debt forgiveness and changes to financial product design.

AFCA plays a unique role in the financial services sector and the important services it provides to consumers and industry, reflected in these outcomes, are one of the many reasons that I was delighted to be appointed as the new Independent Chair in May 2021.

With my background in both Chairing and leading organisations in a range of multi-dimensional and complex industries, including consumer products and advanced manufacturing, I am committed to ensuring that AFCA continues to focus on efficiency and customer service and that it provides clear member and community value. Reflecting on my first few months as Chair of the AFCA Board, I have been impressed with the work that has been done to establish the organisation and with the calibre and commitment of its people.

The most complained about product in 2020–21 was credit cards, accounting for 14% of all complaints, followed by home loans (9%) and personal transaction accounts (8%). Significantly, complaints involving financial difficulty were down nearly 40% from the numbers AFCA saw the previous year. That’s a great outcome and reflects the positive response from government and industry to the impact of the pandemic.

In 2020–21, there were 8,303 COVID-19 related complaints, up from 5,013 in just four months at the end of 2019–20 after the pandemic was officially declared.

In its first two years of operation, AFCA has established itself as an effective external dispute resolution scheme for financial services. This includes the provision of systemic issues investigations and reporting, and code monitoring administration services to the financial services sector.

While proud of what has been achieved so far, AFCA recognises there is more to be done to enhance the scheme’s operations and improve the experience for all users.

Independent Review

The legislation establishing AFCA required an Independent Review after 18 months to consider whether it had been effective in resolving complaints in a fair, efficient, timely and independent way. In 2021, the Federal Treasury conducted the Independent Review into AFCA’s first two years of operations.

As the new Chair of AFCA this could not have come at a better time as it enables an independent assessment of AFCA’s first few years of operations, and I am sure it will demonstrate where things are going well and where more focus should be given.

Implementing the recommendations from the Independent Review will be a key focus of the AFCA Board and management.

The next few years will be a critical time for AFCA, as it does this, as well as use data and technology to transform how it delivers its service. AFCA has several key strategic initiatives already underway, which are driving its transformation into a world-class ombudsman service.

AFCA Strategic Plan 2021–2024

AFCA’s Strategic Plan 2021–2024 provides the blueprint for AFCA’s work over the next three-years.

AFCA will focus on five strategic themes:

  1. Customer service
  2. Efficiency
  3. External engagement
  4. Data and technology
  5. People experience

 

These strategic themes give direction beyond AFCA’s short-term objectives. It is important that AFCA has the technology, systems, processes and people, so it can continue to meet the ever-increasing expectations of its stakeholders, withstand challenges – and at all times remain fair and independent.

Timeliness

We know that timeliness is a key aspect of a fair process. Delay leads to a negative experience for the parties. AFCA is engaging in a series of efficiency and procedural initiatives to deliver greater timeliness in our work.

AFCA currently resolves 50% of complaints within an average of 31 days. Seventy per cent of AFCA’s complaints are resolved within 90 days, and 90% are handled within 180 days. The average time to finalise a complaint is 88 days.

The management team have a clear focus though not just on average times to resolve disputes, but on the cases that are taking longer than these averages. We all recognise the stress to the parties, and cost to business, of long drawn out matters. This will be a priority in the 2021–22 financial year and beyond.

Stakeholder engagement

It is vitally important that AFCA engages openly and constructively with all its members and stakeholders. I have been very encouraged by the meetings that I have already held with industry and have a range of future meetings planned with consumer organisations and other parts of the financial services sector. The AFCA Board is looking at ways in which we can hear the voices of stakeholders and their issues regularly throughout the year.

Data and analytics

AFCA is already doing great things with data. One example is the AFCA Datacube, a freely available set of data that allows anyone to see how insurers, banks, financial advisers, superannuation funds, or other financial firms, handle consumer complaints that are escalated to external dispute resolution.

Over the next three years, AFCA will focus on using deeper, data-driven analytics and insights. This will enable better experiences for members, consumers and small businesses and proactively engage with industry to positively influence practices. AFCA will do this while addressing long-term challenges and inefficiencies in its internal processes and systems.

IT digital transformation

AFCA is implementing technology changes to transform the consumer and member experience.

By the end of the project, AFCA will have digitally integrated systems and applications that are fit for purpose and agile. Processes will be streamlined with triaging, robotics and artificial intelligence enabling faster, more effective, and higher-quality outcomes.

There will also be a self-service capability with live dashboards and analytics to help members review emerging trends and proactively address issues.

Awareness and accessibility

Over the coming three years, AFCA will work to increase awareness of its services.

Awareness and accessibility are fundamental to AFCA as an organisation. AFCA has an obligation to members of the community to ensure they are aware of Australia’s financial ombudsman and can access its service easily, and in a way that meets their needs.

During 2021–22, AFCA will develop a three-year awareness strategy and roadmap that builds awareness through a data-led multichannel approach, which targets consumers at their point of need. AFCA will also consult with internal and external stakeholders to develop an accessibility framework, reinforced by existing customer experience principles, to embed accessibility in everything it does.

AFCA will champion its Reflect Reconciliation Action Plan to ensure strong support, awareness and commitment across the organisation to deliver a culturally appropriate service for First Nations peoples.

Fees and the AFCA funding model

We are currently undertaking a review of AFCA’s funding model to ensure it is cost-effective, fit-for-purpose and sustainable.

Since AFCA commenced handling complaints on 1 November 2018, it has been operating under an interim funding model. This is a hybrid model based on aspects of the Credit and Investments Ombudsman (CIO) and the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) schemes funding arrangements and the APRA (Australian Prudential Regulation Authority) levy model for superannuation trustees.

The interim funding model was intended to remain in place for the first three years of AFCA’s operations, while it established an evidence base of complaint volumes and complexity in an expanded jurisdiction.

AFCA’s interim funding model and fee structure have served the scheme well during its establishment phase. However, it is timely that the funding model and fee structure are reviewed now to ensure they are fit for purpose.

In reviewing this work, AFCA has developed a set of principles to guide any future funding model design. These principles will ensure that the long-term funding model addresses the recommendations of the Ramsay Review, the amendments to the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) and any recommendations coming out of the Treasury led Independent Review of AFCA.

Over the past 12 months, AFCA has received feedback about the current design from members. AFCA will ensure the funding model it develops is commercial, proportionate, and equitable across the member base. We will ensure that it provides AFCA with the investment that it needs to implement recommendations coming out of the Independent Review and to achieve its strategy.

AFCA intends to release information about any changes to its funding model early in the next calendar year, giving members and other stakeholders an opportunity to provide feedback.

Board renewal strategy

As part of our Board Governance processes, we have had an external Board evaluation conducted to ensure that our Board is strategically placed to enable AFCA to continue the journey as a world-class ombudsman service.

We have focused on the appropriate number of directors for the Board, the balance of skills and experience required, as well as tenure and succession planning.

Two of our directors, Johanna Turner and Alan Wein, have their terms come to an end at the close of this calendar year and we are currently in the process of recruitment to fill those vacancies.

Thank you

I want to thank AFCA’s people for their excellent work over the past year, which has been particularly challenging because of COVID-19. I am impressed by the calibre, commitment and professionalism of its people.

I would also like to thank my Board who provide great support and advice to AFCA’s management, and their welcome to me as AFCA’s new independent Chair. I would like to thank Johanna Turner and Alan Wein for their contribution to AFCA and wish them all the best for their next stage.

I thank AFCA’s Chief Ombudsman and CEO David Locke and the management team for their dedication and leadership.

Finally, I thank the outgoing Chair, the Hon Helen Coonan, for her excellent work establishing AFCA as an important national body. It is clear that under Helen’s stewardship sound foundations have been built, anchored in AFCA’s values.

I am delighted as the Chair to support AFCA to deliver on its core purpose of providing fair and independent solutions for financial disputes.

Professor John Pollaers OAM
Chair of the AFCA Board

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