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Making a difference in the community

One of the most rewarding and fulfilling aspects of my role as Ombudsman is being actively involved in community outreach across NSW. 

Bringing our services to communities

Our February visit to Queanbeyan and Gundagai saw Julie and Alicia, staff from EWON’s Outreach and Investigations Teams and I host Bring Your Bills Days and attend a senior citizens forum.  Last week, it was to the south coast towns of Nowra and Batemans Bay. We always partner with local organisations as well as services from Sydney; a group of committed individuals all with the aim of extending holistic assistance to people in their community.   

Watching these dedicated teams setting up make-shift offices in parks, community halls or wherever it is convenient for residents to get to is quite inspiring. It’s a one team effort, with individuals troubleshooting if an extension cord is too short or Wi-Fi connections are dodgy. And of course, the set up ensures those seeking assistance can have a confidential chat.

Our Team does everything they can to sort out customers’ issues out on the day and provide individual support to as many people as possible.

At Nowra School of Arts last week, we were inundated with people looking for help as soon as we opened the doors in the morning. With my team busy talking to locals, I rolled up my sleeves and took on the role of concierge, directing people to EWON or to one or more of the services that joined us on the day. I really got my steps up that day!

As I watched Nowra residents receiving attentive, individualised support, I was really proud of what we’ve created – bringing EWON and other organisations into the community by providing a one-stop shop which offers everything from legal services to help with fines, emergency energy vouchers, disability support and financial counselling.

One couple’s story

Many people reluctantly begin to tell us their story, expecting little or no positive outcome or validation of their concern. One story from Queanbeyan that will stick with me for years to come involved an elderly couple, let’s call them Bill and Mary (not their real names of course), who had an unresolved issue with their electricity bill, dating back to November last year. They said they had paid the bill at the local Post Office, but their energy company kept adding the amount to their subsequent bills. Bill and Mary had spent hours at a time trying to resolve the problem over the phone and in person at the Post Office. 

They travelled for an hour to attend the Bring Your Bills Day, having first seen our advertisement about the event in the Canberra Times, and then in their local paper.  On arrival, Bill was not confident that the 80-kilometre drive would make a difference – Mary was hopeful.  They were so distressed about the issue they initially declined to speak with their energy provider, whose staff were at the event. EWON staff chatted with them first and acted as the go-between with the energy provider. 

The couple eventually agreed to speak with their provider directly and their relationship was restored. They were also given the direct phone number of one of the provider’s staff who was at the event to use if they have any other concerns in the future.

When the energy staff member recognised the stress that the ongoing issue had caused the couple, he asked if he could personally apologise.  Bill and Mary opened up to the discussion and as a result, the energy retailer, recognising its errors and their impact, agreed to waive both the disputed amount and their next electricity bill. 

With their energy troubles alleviated, they mentioned an ongoing problem they were having with their financial institution, and we referred them to the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA), whose staff were also attending the Bring Your Bills Day.   We understand those issues are still under review.

When I spoke to Bill and Mary on their way out, they told me they had not expected a resolution and had only come to our Bring Your Bills Day as a last resort. They said they had planned to change energy providers because of the unresolved issue, but now feel comfortable remaining with their current provider. 
They were very impressed with how their concerns were addressed by all the people they spoke to, especially the EWON team who make the conversations possible.  Bill and Mary left commenting that the drive home would be far more relaxed than the drive to the event had been.

Everyone benefits

It is not only inspiring for me to see customers walk away knowing that their visit has been worthwhile and that they have been heard, not just listened to. The EWON team and the staff from the other services take more away from these events than our customers could imagine. Face-to-face contact helps us connect and build trust with customers, giving us a stronger sense of the value and purpose of our work. We also increase our knowledge of customer concerns, local issues and build networks with other organisations. Getting out into the community is win-win for everyone. 

I encourage all members of EWON to partner with us on community events. Life across NSW’s regional, rural, and remote communities presents a range of challenges (and a wealth of opportunities) that we don’t see from the windows of our city-based offices.

Look for a Bring Your Bills Day near you.