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Once Were Communists

Posted by Iain on Sept. 29, 2011, 2:10 p.m. in Allocations

 

I remember quite distinctly when I was ten years old, sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s old Austin 1100 being driven home from school having an in-depth discussion about the merits of communism with her. As you do when you are ten…… I simply couldn't comprehend a world in which people went hungry, where there were very rich and very poor people and I could not understand why everyone shouldn't receive the same advantages as everyone else.

My ten year old brain saw communism as the perfect solution to inequality in all its forms.

That of course was at the height of the Cold War and no doubt my mother was a little horrified at my left leaning tendencies given I was being raised in an otherwise upwardly mobile middle-class household. Knowing my mother she was probably also quietly proud of my caring, sharing attitude (which of course did not extend to offering to help with the dishes or mowing lawns…….).

But when I was ten I hadn’t yet heard of the Immigration Department and ‘public servants’ and the role they play in our lives.

Three decades on I confess I still wonder why there is reason for any child to go hungry on a planet with such abundance, but I can safely say I am no longer a Communist. Only because experience suggests that it doesn’t work. And I have the Immigration Department to ‘thank’ for that.

Before I go on I am the first to question unregulated total free market capitalism and concede it is far from ideal. But thus far nothing else has served us as well. It is arguably just less bad.

There is still nothing better than competition and the profit motive to drive efficiency, sensible decision making, innovation and growth – which of course creates, albeit unevenly at times, the means for all to partake in the advantages of everyone’s effort.

When you have no skin in the game and your salary rolls in each and every week regardless of performance, any incentive to improve output or the quality of your decisions evaporates.

In the 23 years I have been working as an Immigration Adviser one thing I have come to realize is that when there is no profit motive, the incentive for customer service and sensible outcomes flies out the window.

There are plenty of people who will advise would be migrants not to “waste their money” on Immigration Advisers or Lawyers to help them negotiate the complex bureaucracy that is moving from one country to another. The very fact that we are still in business after 23 years lends something of a lie to any belief that we don’t add value.

I could write a book about the stupidity and culture of paranoia we deal with all day with the Immigration Department and a second which might be titled ‘How many lives can I screw up today by not thinking too hard?’.

The Immigration Department likes to talk the talk but they can’t walk the walk and it takes a special kind of lunatic to continue working in this industry.

Although we deal with a handful of very good immigration officers and I believe that the majority do not set out to ruin lives, separate families, make inconsistent decisions and contradict themselves the lack of any profit motive and competition for the whole organisation diminishes their individual and collective need to think differently and no meaningful accountability does create the situation where the quality of decision making and service is poor.

Let me offer a couple of examples.

The first concerned an exchange that we were having with a senior officer inside the Immigration Department recently on a point of policy. The particular branch is known for exercising wide discretion i.e. ignoring the rules when it suits. Of course, sometimes this can work to a client’s advantage but equally it can also sometimes work to a client’s disadvantage. As a consequence we asked for clarification on where exactly this particular office was drawing the line in the sand over a particular criterion under the Skilled Migrant Category. The reply we got can best be summarised as follows:

We have no discretion in applying the policy, however, each case needs to be assessed on its merits as each is unique.

Now, is it just me, or is that somehow oxymoronic?

What they are saying is that they must follow the rules except when they don’t.

How is anyone meant to negotiate a process where an officer says we must strictly interpret and implement the rules yet it is each case on its merits?

The second recent example of what happens when you operate a monopoly without competition is revealed in a letter we received last week from INZ Shanghai. Many of you will be familiar with our dealings with that Branch, the problems they have had over the last 18 months with implementing consistent visa decision making outcomes, staff turnover and the resulting appalling level of knowledge of the rules by newly appointed and inexperienced case officers (compounded by employing staff who cannot adequately communicate in English).

We had filed the client’s residence application under the Skilled Migrant Category and the Department was writing to acknowledge receipt. This is what they said.

“Your application will be allocated to an Immigration Officer within seven months. Please note that as you are applying for residence without a skilled job offer from a New Zealand employer, it may be necessary to perform a settlement and contribution interview.

These can take time to plan and while we endeavour to complete these interviews and follow up assessment within our time frames, they can take longer to finalize and your application may take up to twelve months to complete from when it is allocated to an Immigration Officer”.

I did a double take because in the past three or four months it has taken between four and six weeks for clients’ Residence Visa applications to be allocated to a Case Officer following receipt; not seven months in this branch. Processing times thereafter to get to interview stage have generally been between two and four months with a final decision coming two to three weeks later - nothing at all like twelve months on top of seven.

The ‘time to plan’ an interview is in every other branch between a week or two.

I then wrote back to the Head of the Skilled Migrant Team asking if processing times had suddenly quadrupled and, if so, why?

The reply was dated 16 September:

“The good news is that our allocation today took us up to applications lodged on 5 August 2010. So right now the wait time is short.

We haven’t changed the acknowledgement letter ...... These acknowledgement letters are generic – applications for your clients wouldn’t usually take twelve months as they don’t tend to have the range of issues that some other applications have, for example, medical conditions where further tests are needed, and that then need to be considered for medical waivers”.

Someone help me to understand why they would do this?

Why would you write a letter to an Adviser talking about a nineteen month processing time when what you really meant was two to three months given the quality of the applications we present?

From where I am sitting any Government organization that has charged my client NZ$2,500.00 just to get to this point in processing fees owes it to its customers to not write generic letters, but to send something meaningful that won’t scare the bejesus out of the applicant or the Adviser.

Interesting also that the Senior Officer who penned this reply seems to feel that clients of IMMagine New Zealand are fitter and healthier than the norm. I strongly suspect this is not the case as many people come to us because they perceive their case is more complex specifically because of issues around health among other things (like the dangers of putting your lives in the hands of a jobs-for-life state functionary).

In my experience the Immigration Department mindlessly puts out letters saying processing times will be nineteen months so they can, with hand on heart, (and a degree of false pride) announce to anyone who wishes to listen that they meet 95% of their processing targets within the deadlines they lay down for themselves.

Which makes me wonder why they don’t say it is going to take ten years to process your Residence Visa and then they can say that they have a 100% success rate achieving their KPIs.

I strongly suspect if there was some competition for the work that they carry out then they might not adopt double speak in emails that would not be out of place in George Orwell’s novel 1984 and they might be a little less lazy and stop sending out generic letters and send out letters which correlate to processing reality.

Competition with some oversight inevitably brings efficiency and better service delivery. If only there was some competition for the Immigration Department.

Until next week...

Iain MacLeod - Southern Man

 


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