Citizenship applications too slow and too expensive: audit office

The government's failed citizenship crackdown introduced in 2017 caused a backlog of 83,000 unprocessed citizenship applications, making waiting times 10 times longer than previously experienced, an audit report has found.

Home Affairs' handling of citizenship applications has been labelled neither time or cost efficient, and the impact of both the failed reforms and the increased integrity screening has been found to have blown out the time taken to assess applications.

When then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announced new tougher measures for those applying for Australian citizenship in April 2017, the number of applications increased immediately, but weren't processed as the department expected they were to be subject to the new laws that were yet to pass parliament.

Around 83,000 applications for citizenship were received between the announcement in April and the concession from the government in October of that year that the reforms wouldn't pass parliament. Applications received the week before the announcement generally took 30 days to be invited for a citizenship test, while applicants in the week afterwards took 290 days on average to be invited for a test.

The department has failed to keep up with an increase in applications in recent years, an audit report has found.

Just 15 per cent of applications for citizenship by conferral were within the government's target time-frame of 80 days in 2017-18, and the target itself has since been removed.

While the number of applications has been steadily increasing, the rate of decisions has been declining, and hasn't kept pace with the increase, the report found. The number of citizenship tests administered each year has also been going down.

The audit office found "increased integrity measures" introduced in 2017 were a significant driver in the increase in processing times from June 2017. The measures involved an increased checking process from "a national security and risk perspective".

"While it was not the sole cause, the integrity screening process was a significant driver of the decrease in approvals throughout 2017–18 and consequently of the increased processing times and backlog of applications on hand," the report said.

"There were 101,422 applications decided in 2017–18; the fewest since 2010–11."

An internal review undertaken by Home Affairs late last year has identified more efficient ways to conduct the integrity screening.

Applications from people categorised as former illegal maritime arrivals also stalled from 2014-15 onwards, reaching a low in 2015-16, when just 137 applications for citizenship were approved and 5949 received.

Around 92 per cent of the citizenship applications lodged in 2017-18 were for citizenship by conferral, while other applications were by descent, adoption or resumption.

The audit office found that the overall complexity of applications had decreased, with the growth in demand for citizenship coming from skilled migrants with good documentation, although there has been an increase in the number of complex application.

Home Affairs disagreed with a recommendation that externally reported key performance indicators be introduced and agreed in principle to address periods of inactivity in processing applications.

This story Citizenship applications too slow and too expensive: audit office first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.