Address by Professor John Pollaers OAM, and Chief Ombudsman and CEO David Locke – AFCA Annual General Meeting, 12 November 2021
A recording of this speech can be found here. This speech should be read in conjunction with the recording.
On behalf of AFCA, I want to thank you for attending our 2021 Annual General Meeting. I am pleased to share with you today the good work AFCA has done over the past year. AFCA plays a unique role in the financial services sector, and the important services that AFCA provides to consumers and industry are one of the many reasons I was delighted to be appointed as the new Independent Chair in May 2021, 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 have Chaired and led many organisations which operate in multi-dimensional and complex industries - including consumer products and advanced manufacturing. And as Chair of AFCA, I am committed to ensuring that AFCA continues to focus on efficiency and customer service and that it provides clear member and community value.
Members will be pleased to know that in its first few years of operation, it is clear that AFCA has indeed 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.
On behalf of the Board and Management, I am pleased to say that we are proud of what has been achieved so far. But we recognise there is more to be done to enhance the scheme’s operations and improve the experience for all users.
Overview of complaints
In the 2021 financial year, AFCA received 70,510 complaints. In handling these complaints, we have worked hard to achieve a fair outcome for all the parties involved.
Most of our members do not have complaints made against them. In fact, only 16% of our members had a complaint made about them in 2020–21. This is a slight decrease from the previous reporting period where 19% of our members received a complaint. A further move in a positive direction.
The most complained about product in 2020–21 was credit cards, accounting for 14% of all complaints. This was followed by home loans at 9% and personal transaction accounts at 8%.
Significantly, we saw that complaints involving financial difficulty were down nearly 40% from the numbers we were seeing in the previous year.
That’s a great outcome and it reflects the positive response from government and industry to the impact of the pandemic.
In terms of the pandemic, there were 8,303 COVID-19 related complaints in the 2021 financial year. This was on top of the 5,013 complaints that came to AFCA in just four months at the end of 2019–20 after the pandemic was officially declared.
As you may be aware, the legislation that established AFCA required an Independent Review to be carried out after 18 months of operations. This was to consider whether AFCA had been effective in resolving complaints in a fair, efficient, timely and independent way as it is required to.
In 2021, the Federal Treasury was tasked with conducting this Independent Review into AFCA’s first two years of operations. The final report for the Review was handed to the Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and the Digital Economy, Minister for Women's Economic Security on 26 August 2021. As required by legislation, the final report will be tabled in Parliament within 15 sitting days.
As the new Chair of AFCA this Review could not have come at a better time. We appreciate the opportunity afforded to us by the Review to look at our current outcomes, practices and processes. The Review process has enabled an independent assessment of AFCA’s first few years of operations, and we will closely examine the Report and its recommendations when released, to understand and 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. After the Report is released and we have reviewed it, we will share more about our response with our members. As always, AFCA will consider any potential impacts on the costs for industry and the timely resolution of complaints when implementing any of the recommendations made by the Report.
The next few years will be a critical time for AFCA, and we are absolutely committed to continuously improving this scheme for all participants. We know there are areas where we can improve as we move out of our establishment phase. Some of these opportunities have been identified in submissions to the review, and we already have a number of important projects under way to look at how we can advance in a number of areas.
This includes investments in technology and process improvement, along with a review that is looking at ways to modernise our interim funding arrangements. We will use the insights and analysis from the Review to further inform this work
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:
- Customer service
- External engagement
- Data and technology
- 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 – while always being fair and independent.
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.
In 2021, AFCA resolved 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.
Be assured though that the management team have a clear focus 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 our members’ businesses, of long drawn out matters. This will be a priority in the 2021–22 financial year and beyond.
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 other stakeholders 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
And 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 enhancing its internal processes and systems to increase efficiency.
And at next week’s Member Forum, we are showcasing our new Member Benchmarking Dashboard - a key milestone in AFCA’s work to improve the membership experience and develop new resources and technology to help financial firms minimise disputes, improve practices and have better visibility of their performance at EDR. AFCA members will have access to this new platform, with the ability to analyse and interrogate data about the complaints received and compare their performance against an anonymised set of similar sized firms. This exciting dashboard is set to go live on the Member Portal in the weeks following the November Member Forum.
IT digital transformation
AFCA is also implementing a range of 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 under it’s legislation and regulatory guidance to be accessible to members of the community and ensure they are aware of Australia’s financial ombudsman and can access its service easily, and in a way that meets their needs.
We are currently trialling new ways to raise awareness of our service. The aim of the trial is to communicate what AFCA does and when it is appropriate to lodge a complaint, so that complainants know to contact their financial firm first before coming to AFCA.
And 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. 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 and will give members and other stakeholders the 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.
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.
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 would also like to thank my Board who provide great support and advice to AFCA’s management. 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.
I am delighted as the Chair to support AFCA to deliver on its core purpose of providing fair and independent solutions for financial disputes
Chief Ombudsman and CEO’s Address
Good morning all, I am David Locke, CEO and Chief Ombudsman of AFCA. Thank you for joining us today.
I also like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we all meet today, and I pay my respect to their Elders past, present and emerging, and to any First Nations peoples joining us today.
I am proud of all that AFCA achieved as an organisation in 2020–21, as we continued to deliver on our strategy in the face of a challenging environment. COVID-19 had a big impact on all Australians, affecting consumers, small businesses, members and AFCA’s own people.
During this time, we maintained our full range of services and as our Annual Review shows, we resolved just under 74,000 cases at this time of stress and uncertainty for so many.
AFCA is independent and impartial, and this underpins everything that we do.
We seek to achieve outcomes that are fair to all the parties, and a big part of this involves ensuring that each side is properly heard, and all the facts are independently investigated and analysed.
At AFCA, we believe that our role should not just be to resolve complaints that are escalated to us, but that we should also have a preventative role sharing best practice and supporting internal dispute resolution practices.
To this end, we work proactively with members to seek to reduce the issues that are likely to give rise to complaints. We see this as very much a partnership based on shared objectives.
We engage with our members every single day in one-to-one meetings as well as through our complaint handing processes, our systemic issues team, code monitoring functions, industry forums and liaison meetings.
AFCA is very focused on doing what we can to support better outcomes for our members, consumers and small businesses.
In 2020–21, we launched a series of initiatives to better improve our processes and the customer experience.
AFCA’s fairness jurisdiction
AFCA’s fairness jurisdiction is mandated by statute and supported by regulatory guidance. It reflects long-standing and familiar principles of the law and equity, and the jurisdiction of AFCA’s predecessor schemes and other domestic and international ombudsman schemes.
We are very much guided by the law in our assessment of complaints at AFCA. Fairness is found everywhere in the law – from unfair contract terms to utmost good faith; from best interest duty obligations to fiduciary duties; from misleading and deceptive and unconscionable conduct obligations to the obligation of licensees to be efficient, honest and fair.
We know that consistency of our decision-making is important, and we spent the past year strengthening our framework for delivering on AFCA’s fairness jurisdiction. This work is now being embedded into our ‘business as usual’ activities.
Over the last year, AFCA has developed an Engagement Charter to outline the service standards and values that stakeholders can expect of AFCA and, in turn, AFCA’s expectations for the conduct and engagement of all users of our service in the resolution of complaints.
Key to the Charter is our expectation that all parties should cooperate reasonably to bring finality to a complaint.
We want all parties to engage with each other in a way that is transparent and honest, respectful and fair, and in good faith. Procedural fairness is undermined by behaviour that causes inefficiency and delay.
The Charter also sets out how we will respond to financial firms and complainants that fail to comply with these expectations. As stated in our Rules, we can, at our discretion, stop engaging with a party in exceptional circumstances.
The Charter is a living document and is available on our website. It will also be part of our member onboarding experience.
We thank all those members who have consulted with us on this project over the last 12 months, and who took the time to provide a written submission during our public consultation period earlier in the year. It has helped us to build a stronger and more meaningful document.
As the Chair has said, the AFCA Management team are very focused on the time that some cases are taking, particularly those that are taking over a year.
Some of these cases are extremely complex due to factors out of AFCA’s control – for example, complainants with significant mental and/or physical health challenges and delaying behaviours from financial firms or complainants and their paid representatives.
However, as we know, timeliness is a key part of fairness. We have introduced a series of initiatives to reduce delays in complaint handling.
These initiatives include
- the development of specialist teams,
- strengthened workflow management and triage mechanisms,
- the introduction of enhanced exception reporting,
- reiterating aged file prioritisation,
- implementing timeliness KPIs
- and enhancing our communication strategies to ensure the parties are kept informed about progress.
We expect these initiatives, along with the broader strategic initiatives to have a positive impact on the time it takes to handle complaints.
Complaints lacking merit
We received feedback from a number of members, particularly those running small- and medium-size businesses that, at times, they are faced with complaints lodged against them that, on the surface, appear to lack merit.
We have listened to this feedback and taken action. We recently ran a pilot to measure and test a different approach to dealing with complaints, particularly those in our Fast Track stream. Using our existing Rules, we established a new process to better scrutinise complaints at the very early stages of our process.
This pilot saw both the time taken to resolve the complaint reduced, along with the cost associated.
We believe this has demonstrated the process is faster, cheaper and fair to all parties involved. We are making this change a permanent feature of our scheme.
Finally, I want to discuss our Systemic Issues function.
AFCA doesn’t just handle individual complaints. It plays a critical role in the broader consumer protection framework through the identification, remediation and reporting of systemic issues and possible serious misconduct to three regulators. These regulators are the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) and the Australian Taxation Office (ATO).
AFCA commissioned an independent review of this function in early 2021. This was to confirm it was fit for purpose, aligned to the regulatory priorities of the regulators to whom AFCA reports, and to recommend ways it could be enhanced and clarified, including the development of a risk-based framework, and digital and data transformation.
As a result of this transformation process, financial firms can expect a more interactive and proactive systemic issues investigation process, instead of the formal paper-based approach we have adopted in the past.
We will also work with our stakeholders to share information in a transparent manner around the role and function of the systemic issues and remediation team, so the process is clearly understood by all. We will clearly explain our particular role, as distinct from that of the regulators and will develop better guidance for financial firms about our team’s approach.
Finally, I would like to thank AFCA’s Board for their diligent and professional governance and to all of AFCA’s staff for their hard work and resilience over the last year.
I look forward to continuing our work with you in 2021–22.