The Victorian ombudsman has announced that 12,000 businesses across the state might now be eligible to receive retrospective covid-19 grants of up to $10,0000 after it was discovered that there were flaws in the grant applicant process that unfairly penalised human error.
As a result of the probe, the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions has said that it would now reopen the Business Support Fund for eligible businesses owners who were denied the $10,000 grant.
Some of the businesses had their applications get stuck in draft mode beyond the deadline, some businesses were rejected due to minor typos in their application. This led to 1,100 complaints which prompted Victorian ombudsman’s investigation.
Although the fund had good intentions, the ombudsman’s investigation discovered that the government had failed to deliver and irrationally denied some of the applications, refusing to reconsider their decisions even after the ombudsman ordered them to do so.
The purpose of the fund was admirable and the way it was intended to support a large number of vulnerable businesses that had been impacted by lockdowns and covid-19 restrictions. However, administering it with inflexibly undermined its very purpose. Consequently, the people were forgotten in the process.
The outcome of the investigation discovered that the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions failed to empathise with the addition stressed imposed upon business owners during the covid-19 pandemic, and neglected to take into consideration the varying levels of language and computer proficiency.
The Victorian ombudsman also discovered that a tight deadline and cumbersome application process also contributed to a large amount of frustration felt among business owners.
It was also revealed that the jobs department call centre was staffed by just five people, leaving them unable to attend to the significant number of inquiries.
Although the Victorian Government should be applauded for setting up what was viewed as a lifeline for some businesses who were struggling to stay alive, its execution and how it was managed left much to be desired.
The covid-19 lockdowns fell like a hammer blow on small businesses across Victoria. There was desperation in people’s voices, they were counting on a grant to pay bills, rent, wages to simply survive.
Despite the anxiety and stress which was caused by the challenges of the covid-19 pandemic, in an environment where their businesses were being destroyed, it was unfair that Victorians were being penalised for their honest mistakes.
The system was set up in only nine days, it therefore lacked a robust complaints or internal review process.
A high-quality internal review and complaints process should be a priority for any system of public administration, even more so when it is set up quickly. Complaints will quickly identify the pressure points, the things that must be fixed.
There was no information on the Business Victoria website about how to challenge a decision or lodge a complaint when the fund opened, she added.
Business Victoria has recommended 479 business applications be reassessed during her investigation, of which 297 have already been approved.
The Business Support Fund has supported 134,000 businesses, totalling $2.6 billion.
The Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions has committed to inviting eligible businesses owners who were denied the $10,000 grant to reapply.
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