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Secretary's year in review

Image of Simon Lewis, Secretary.

Simon Lewis, Secretary

Throughout 2016–17, the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA), the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission worked to deliver positive outcomes for veterans and their families. This work was underpinned by the principles in DVA's strategic plan, DVA Towards 2020, of being client focused, responsive and connected. I am therefore pleased to present their annual reports, which outline the achievements and challenges of 2016–17.

Putting veterans at the centre of everything we do

2016–17 marked the start of a significant period of transformation for DVA. The Transformation Taskforce, which was established in May 2016, developed a successful proposal for the Australian Government to fund the first year of a significant reform program, Veteran Centric Reform (VCR). Through VCR, and the first year of funding provided in the 2017–18 Budget, DVA will modernise its outdated ICT systems and redesign business processes to better support the needs of veterans and their families.

The need for this transformation was highlighted in the results of the 2016 Client Satisfaction Survey. More than 3,000 DVA clients were surveyed in late 2016 about their interactions with DVA over the previous 12 months. The results showed that clients over 65 years were much more satisfied (92 per cent) than their younger counterparts, with only around half of those under the age of 45 (49 per cent) indicating a positive result. The overall satisfaction rating was 83 per cent.

The results also showed that clients were generally happy with the service they received, with 73 per cent of clients agreeing that DVA is client focused and thinks about clients' individual circumstances. Importantly, 83 per cent agreed that DVA is honest and ethical in its interactions and 60 per cent of claimants rated the time taken for DVA to process their claim or application as having met or exceeded their expectations.

The results emphasise what we already know: DVA needs to continue adapting and working to address the specific needs and concerns of members of the less satisfied younger veteran cohort, especially during their transition from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to civilian life.

Improving the claims process

Improving the time taken to process rehabilitation and compensation (R&C) claims has been a key priority for DVA. One of the reasons for the extended processing times is that DVA staff use multiple systems, most of which are outdated and very manual in nature. A 2013 ICT risk report identified the age and instability of a number of DVA systems as being at a critical risk level.

The Government provided $23.9 million in the 2016–17 Budget to enable DVA to build a single, modern system over two years, designed to provide a more robust, supported and automated approach for R&C claims processing.

In July 2016, DVA launched the Improving Processing Systems Program to redesign and rebuild DVA's R&C processing systems, based upon improved business processes. The program delivered two major releases in 2016–17 and will deliver two more before completion. We have already seen processing times for the delivery of non-liability health care reduced from around 20 days to a few days and we expect to achieve further improvements to both claims processing times and the consistency of decision-making through the remaining releases.

DVA also undertook a joint project with the Department of Human Services to develop MyService, an online tool that greatly streamlines the claims application process for eligible clients. Through MyService, the initial liability processing time for some claims has reduced from the key performance indicator of 120 days to only four days.

Other initiatives within DVA, such as the implementation of digitised mail and an increase in the rate of digitised client files, are also contributing to simpler processes for staff and improved outcomes for clients.

Health and wellbeing

Improving the health and wellbeing of veterans and their families is DVA's primary function.

Tragically, suicide is an issue that affects all Australians. It is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 15 to 44, with around 3,000 people dying by suicide every year. Current and former members of the ADF, and their families, are not immune.

For this reason, DVA worked with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the Department of Defence (Defence) on the study Estimation of incidence of suicide in ex-serving Australian Defence Force personnel. The purpose of the study was to achieve a more definitive understanding of the incidence of suicide among former serving members of the ADF and to investigate whether suicide mortality in that group is different from that in the general Australian population.

DVA also participated in the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel. The committee held five public hearings and, to date, has received more than 420 written submissions. DVA appeared before the committee on 6 February.

The inquiry is an important opportunity for us to identify areas where our services can be improved and gain further insight into the experiences of our clients, to inform us as we undertake our transformation program. It is expected that the committee will report its findings in mid to late 2017.

In August 2016, the Government tasked the National Mental Health Commission (NMHC) to specifically look at the issue of suicide in relation to current and former members of the ADF, and produce the report Review into the suicide and self-harm prevention services available to current and former serving ADF members and their families. DVA, together with Defence and the Department of Health, worked closely with the NMHC to provide the necessary information about our programs and services and to maximise opportunities for interested ADF members and their families, health providers and organisations to participate in the review.

The NMHC found that suicide prevention is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted service response to ensure that current and ex-serving members have access to the support they need, at the right time. In its response, the Government committed to action in four key areas to ensure that efforts are effective in preventing suicide among Australia's current and former serving personnel and their families.

The areas are:

  • improving suicide prevention and mental health support for current serving ADF members and veterans and their families
  • improving the transition process for ADF members moving from military life into post-service civilian life, and providing targeted support to families
  • improving family support through engagement of families and family-sensitive practice
  • transforming DVA's systems, processes and organisational culture to better respond to the needs of Australia's veterans and their families.

DVA will focus on these areas for future programs and initiatives designed to prevent suicide.

Additionally, the Australian Kookaburra Kids Foundation launched a pilot program for the children of current and former ADF members who have been affected by mental illness. Kookaburra Kids has been running programs for the general community in New South Wales since 2002. The new, tailored program is using $2.1 million of government funding to support the families of our clients by helping children to develop coping skills and resilience, and allowing them to bond with peers who are facing similar challenges.

Transition from the ADF

Improving the transition to civilian life for ADF personnel is a high priority for DVA.

In order to progress the Government's 2016 election commitment to create a better veterans' transition process, DVA, Defence and the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation established the Transition Taskforce.

The taskforce will report back to portfolio ministers on the barriers to effective transition and will provide suggested actions to address those barriers.

The work of the taskforce is in addition to the Discharge (Separation) with Documentation policy being implemented by Defence, which has mandated individual transition plans and separation checklists for all separating ADF members.

Ensuring that ADF members are aware of the available services and support will help to reduce the time between an event occurring and a claim being made. Defence and DVA are also working on technical solutions to further improve the way information is shared between the departments to assist in reducing the time taken to make a determination.

DVA and Defence are also implementing the early engagement model, which registers ADF members as DVA clients on enlistment, even if they have not made a claim. When fully developed, the model will allow us to establish a relationship with ADF members from the day they join, to ensure that they are aware of the services and support available through DVA. It also aims to reduce the time between an incident and when a member seeks support, and to reduce the time taken to process claims.

The Minister for Veterans' Affairs joined the Prime Minister for a high-profile event at Kirribilli House on 17 November 2016, to announce the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Program. The program includes a range of initiatives aimed at raising awareness among employers of the enormous value and unique experience that our ex-service personnel have to offer the civilian workforce. The Minister outlined how DVA, in partnership with Defence and ex-service organisations, will work to provide support for separating ADF members to transition from military service to civilian life.

Broader engagement

Understanding the unique circumstances of veterans and their families will be crucial to DVA as it undertakes its transformation. Engaging with a broader range of veterans was therefore a key focus for us in 2016–17.

The inaugural Female Veterans and Families Forums were both held in Canberra on 5–6 December 2016, and attended by female veterans and representatives from veteran and family groups respectively. The forums were established to provide a platform through which female veterans and veteran family members could raise issues directly with the Government and DVA, and to create new channels of communication between DVA and the veteran community. The forum gave participants the opportunity to discuss the unique experience of female veterans and the impact of service on them and their families.

The inaugural Indigenous Veterans Forum was held in Canberra on 24 March 2017. Fifteen representatives of the Indigenous community, from all parts of Australia, attended the forum. The forum provided an opportunity to recognise the important contribution that Indigenous Australians have made, and continue to make, as former and current serving members of the ADF, ex-service organisation representatives, husbands, wives, parents, community members and mates.

This forum was a key deliverable of DVA's Indigenous Veterans' Strategy 2015–2020. It provided an opportunity for DVA to hear from Indigenous men and women on how we can improve what we do, so that DVA can engage and support Indigenous veterans effectively; and provided attendees with opportunities to discuss issues particular to Indigenous serving and ex-serving ADF members and co-design solutions with DVA.

On 25 May, during Reconciliation Week, DVA launched its Reconciliation Action Plan. The plan is named Galumbany, which is a Ngunnawal word for 'me, you, we, together'. At the launch, Aunty Caroline Hughes, a Ngunnawal elder, welcomed DVA staff to country and explained the role that reconciliation action plans have in supporting increased opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities. The plans lay the foundations for building unity and respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Commemorations

As the Anzac Centenary commemorative period entered its penultimate year, DVA delivered a number of services in Australia and overseas to commemorate a century of service. They included services in France and Turkey on Anzac Day and services at Fromelles and Pozieres marking the 100th anniversaries of battles in those locations.

I attended the veterans' commemorative mission to South Korea to commemorate the 65th anniversaries of the battles of Kapyong and Maryang San and the service and sacrifice of Australians in the Korean War. A small number of DVA staff, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and eight veterans attended the commemorations. It was a privilege to be able to hear the stories of the veterans and share the experience of this special event with them.

The increasing age of the Second World War and Korean War veterans means that the risk of adverse events while travelling increases significantly. Due to these concerns, the then Minister for Veterans' Affairs agreed in 2013 that the commemorative mission to Korea in 2016 would be the final commemorative mission of its kind.

On 15 February, the national service to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore was held in Ballarat. The service was an opportunity to honour a group of Australian veterans of the Fall of Singapore, who attended the ceremony along with veterans of the Second World War and former prisoners of war. It was an honour to meet this extraordinary group of men aged in their nineties—and a personal reminder of the importance of keeping veteran wellbeing at the centre of all that we do at DVA.

The Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience travelling exhibition, the flagship community event of the Anzac Centenary national program, concluded its 23-location tour in Sydney in April 2017. Since its launch in Wodonga in September 2015, more than 368,000 people, including nearly 50,000 school students, have visited the exhibition.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Jennifer Collins, former Deputy Commissioner NSW/ACT, and Jan Hyde, former Deputy Commissioner Tasmania, who retired after many years—12 and eight, respectively—of service to DVA and the veteran community. Their contributions were invaluable and I wish them both well in their retirement.

As always, my sincere thanks go to the staff of DVA for their dedication to supporting veterans and their families. I am especially grateful for their resilience and positivity during a period of significant change for the Department.

Simon Lewis
Secretary, Department of Veterans' Affairs
President, Repatriation Commission
Chair, Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission

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