As a result of the probe, the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions said it would now reopen the Business Support Fund for eligible businesses owners who were denied the $10,000 grant.
The Business Support Fund had been set up during the height of the pandemic last year after metropolitan Melbourne was forced to enter into lockdown.
Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass said her investigation found grant applications had been denied as a result of a flawed application process that penalised human error.
Some fund applicants saw their applications stuck in draft mode beyond deadline, and others rejected for minor typos, leading to the 1,100 complaints which triggered the Victorian ombudsman’s investigation.
While the fund was well-intentioned, Ms Glass said, the ombudsman’s investigation found that the government failed to deliver and unreasonably denied some applications, refusing to reconsider their decisions even after the ombudsman prompted them to do so.
“Good intentions got lost in translation,” she said. “The aim of the fund was laudable, to support a hugely vulnerable cohort affected by lockdown.”
“But administering it inflexibly undermined its very purpose. The people were forgotten in the process,” she said. “Sometimes, it takes the nudge of the ombudsman’s elbow to encourage public servants to do the right thing. In the end, that they do the right thing is what matters.”
The investigation found that the department failed to empathise with the added stresses imposed upon business owners throughout the pandemic, and neglected to consider varying levels of language and computer proficiency.
The ombudsman also found that a tight deadline and cumbersome application process also contributed to considerable frustration among business owners.
It also found that the jobs department call centre was staffed by just five people, leaving them unable to handle the volume of queries.
Ms Glass said while the Victorian Government should be commended for setting up what was viewed as a lifeline for some businesses fighting 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,” Ms Glass said. “There was desperation in people’s voices, they were counting on a grant to pay bills, rent, wages -- to survive.
“Despite the stress and anxiety caused by COVID-19, in an environment where their businesses were being destroyed, people were being penalised for their honest mistakes.”