DFAT audit: travel advisories too wordy, Smartraveller registration low

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Government travel warnings are too long and boring for Australians heading overseas, the National Audit Office says.

The ANAO has also found the Department of Foreign Affairs' Smartraveller registration scheme has been a flop, with few travellers signing up and the scheme encouraging a "sense of dependency" among those who do.

The performance audit of the nation's overseas consular operations generally gave DFAT good marks for its efforts in a difficult and complex area, but the auditors were worried that travel advisories were so long and rambling that few travellers managed to get all the way to the end.

The team from the audit office also found inconsistency in decision-making between different consular posts meaning the level of help given to an Australian in distress overseas might depend on the attitude of the DFAT officer looking at their case.


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Wordy warnings emerged as a key concern for the auditors, with the ANAO worried that many travellers simply could not be bothered to spend nearly 40 minutes wading through the travel advisory for Thailand, for example.

"This commentary is often lengthier than that of international counterparts; the United Kingdom's terrorism warnings for low risk countries were, on average, 50 per cent shorter than those issued by DFAT," the audit team wrote.

"The ANAO's analysis suggests that travellers are unwilling to invest the time needed to read the lengthy travel advisories.

"The average visitor to DFAT's travel advice pages spends less than a third of the time required to read an advisory in its entirety."

Noting that only 8 per cent of respondents to a DFAT survey reported changing their behaviour overseas on the department's advice, the auditors suggested Foreign Affairs might like to shorten its warnings and write them in plain English.

"Reducing the length of advisories, improving the conciseness of messages and using simpler language would also make advisories more accessible to those with limited English language backgrounds," the ANAO team wrote.

The Smartraveller scheme, which raises awareness of potential pitfalls of overseas travel and encourages insurance and registration, received mixed reviews.

The overall program was judged to be working well, but the auditors found it hard to tell because proper key performance indicators were not in place.

But the Smartraveller registration scheme was found to be performing poorly with very few travellers registering their details, again because of the long and boring online process.

"The ANAO's analysis of Smartraveller website data ... suggests that travellers become disengaged during the registration process as only 20 per cent of those who visit the starting page complete the registration process," the auditors noted.

There were also worries that travellers who did register their details and plans with DFAT went away with the impression the Australian government would accept responsibility for anything that went wrong on the trip.

"The research also indicated that registration could encourage a mindset of dependency that the department seeks to avoid," they noted.

"The research found that encouraging registration created a perception that the Government would provide a 'safety net' in the event of an emergency, and that this perception may conflict with the attempts by DFAT to encourage self‐sufficiency."

In its response the audit report, DFAT agreed to make some changes to way it manages Australia's network of consular stations.

Bu the department noted that many of the points raised by the ANAO had already been dealt with in the department's Consular Strategy 2014-16, launched in November 2014.