Monday, March 20, 2017

After the robo-debt debacle, here's how Centrelink can win back Australians' trust

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
    Image 20170316 10925 14mlbmd

        Australia’s social security policy and service delivery system is not designed to put customer needs first.
        AAP/Julian Smith

Paul Henman, The University of Queensland

  The ongoing furore over Centrelink’s automated debt recovery program has highlighted a perfect storm of poor and worsening service delivery in the federal government’s premier service delivery agency.  The Conversation

The extent of Centrelink’s customer service delivery problems is legendary, and it has been getting worse over the last decade. There are several reasons for this, including policy changes and funding cuts. But while the situation may look dire, there are ways Centrelink can win over dissatisfied Australians.

Worsening wait times and customer experiences

Since its creation in 1997, Centrelink has always had to deal with a troubled public perception of the quality of its service delivery. Challenges of long queues in crowded impersonal offices, and incomprehensible form letters, are well-known.

Even before the robo-debt crisis (which started this financial year), Centrelink’s wait times have been on a pretty much consistent upward trajectory since the early 2000s.

It would appear – contrary to expectations – that with the growth of new technology, problems have got worse, not better, as can be seen in the graphic below.


              The Conversation, CC BY-ND

See our full infographic on Centrelink waiting times here.

Ten years ago, the Centrelink officer that was dealing with you would almost certainly have been a permanent officer (97% of all staff), and therefore well-versed in the policies. Today, the numbers of casual staff have significantly grown: they now make up 14% of Department of Human Services staff, many of whom seem to be Centrelink call centre workers.

So, it is unsurprising that staff may not be well-trained in policy or how to deal with stressful customer situations, and face pressure to shift people online, ignoring the very difficult circumstances Centrelink customers may be in.

Centrelink’s reputation has taken a beating in the last decade. Complaints have more than doubled from around 53,000 in 2007 to almost 114,000 in 2015-16, the bulk of the increase being in the last two years. The top three complaints relate to telephone, internet and processing wait times.

Only half of all customers have satisfactory perceptions of Centrelink. So when we are told Centrelink needs to release personal information to ensure public confidence in it is not undermined, the horse has already bolted.

It is also troubling that more than 20% of customers do not think they get accurate or consistent information from Centrelink, or that their individual circumstances are taken into account when communicating with it.

However, on the positive side, customers believe they are treated with respect by Centrelink officers (though this is down from 96% in 2007 to 90%), and the queues in Centrelink offices have declined from almost 17 minutes in 2013-14 to just under 11 minutes last year.

What’s behind all this?

So what could Centrelink do to improve its service delivery and perilous reputation?

Annual reports show that there has been a long-term cut in the Department of Human Services’ financial resourcing in real terms. This has been driven by the government’s blunt instrument of efficiency dividends. So, with fewer staff, fewer phone calls can be answered.

There have also been continual changes in policy, which has resulted in complexity and uncertainty. With each policy change and associated benefit payment change, customers contact Centrelink in droves to understand the changes and ensure they are doing the right thing to maintain their often-precarious financial state.

There has been a continual cultural demeaning of Centrelink customers by influential politicians, which reinforces a view that they do not deserve good service.

When Centrelink customers are perceived as leaners or bludgers that do not contribute to society and have a lot of free time, why should we care if they have to wait on the phone for long periods?

As a result, Australia’s social security policy and service delivery system is not designed to put customer needs first.

To improve its service delivery standards, Centrelink could immediately introduce a call-back feature so customers can request a call back when the queue is long. This is done is many businesses, and also by the ATO. It would be particularly welcome for people who only have mobile phones or who have to call during work breaks.

Centrelink could make its online and letter communication easier to understand and less threatening, and provide an accurate and complete explanation for the basis of its decision-making.

Centrelink could make better use of its social media platforms to engage with and respond to customers. It could provide dedicated hotlines for particular short-term issues. And the government should also ensure Centrelink is properly resourced to provide good service delivery.

Finally, the politically constructed public perception of Centrelink customers as bludgers, leaners and fraudsters must end. Many customers are working as well as receiving welfare, or have had a lifetime of work (age pensioners), or are saving government money by caring for people with disabilities or young children.

Those who face the considerable disadvantages of mental illness or poor education can find it very challenging to engage with bureaucratic processes while feeling under threat that the fine thread between survival and destitution could be cut at any wrong move.

Paul Henman, Associate Professor, Sociology and Social Policy, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Contacting Centrelink

Various news outlets reported on the 11/1/17 that the human services minister, Alan Tudge, said “…I know that the call wait time for Centrelink can be long, the average call wait time at present is about 12 minutes…” and “People can also go to a Centrelink office and typically they’ll be able to see a person, in person, within 10 minutes.”

Now this is a significantly different to that reported by Centrelink staff and that which has been presented at Senate enquiries. The Australian National Audit Office reported that in 2013-14 13.7 million callers hung up after waiting for as much as 1 hour. From all reports the current situation is now far worse; especially since the average age pension claim processing times have gone from an average 6 weeks to 4-5 months!

Now let’s test those ‘access’ times. It’s unlikely to be statistically significant, but it may give an idea of how a ‘typical’ Centerlink recipient needs to handle the situation. We are going to work with an age pensioner and log their attempts to contact Centrelink over a week period. We will attempt to contact Centrelink via the phone and then attend a Centrelink office.

Let’s consider an age pensioner who is working and needs to report wages. They get 30min for lunch so we will attempt to contact Centrelink during that break and if no answer then we will hang up after 30 minutes.

Note: the age pensioner is lucky enough to have a mobile phone – but not a smart phone - and to save costs cancelled their fixed line some time ago. Hence a 30-minute call to Centrelink’s ‘Older Australians’ 13 23 00 number will cost approx. $30.

Also for this trial we will visit a Centrelink office after that midday call. Now in practice this would also need to be done during a lunch time as Centrelink offices are only open between 8:30 am to 4:30 pm and the age pensioner works during these hours. It is likely that the lunch time queues would be longer than what we will experience; but it’s enough for this ‘trial’. Again the pensioner will wait 30 minutes – in practice they would have less than 30 minutes as travel time would need to be allowed for.

Day 1
Call: commenced at 12:03 – No answer, hung up at 12:37.

Visit: visited Centrelink at 3:42pm and told there are too many in the queue to be ‘serviced’ today, so “please come back tomorrow”.

Day 2
Call: commenced at 12:07 – No answer, hung up at 12:31.

Visit: visited Centrelink at 1:16pm, registered at the kiosk, and waited…After 30 minutes left without being served.

Day 3 
Call: tried 4 times to connect and eventually connected at 12:13 – hung up after 30 minutes wait. 

Visit: was told at Centrelink kiosk that there was a 2hr wait, so left.

Let's hope next week is better.

Day 4
Call: tried 8 times, connected at 12:20 - hung up after 40 minutes.
Visit: minimum staff - "holiday and sick" - "can't be seen within the hours". Left.

Tomorrow will start work late and go to a Centrelink office first things  @ 8:30am.

Day 5
Visit: Success! Only waited 20 minutes and was able to submit income earnings for the previous fortnight. 

It is clear that:
1. The process of reporting to Centrelink is cumbersome and time consuming. The above process could be repeated each and every fortnight.
2. It is clear that Centrelink are pushing clients towards on-line systems. However, even the Governments own IT advisory body (DTO) does not recommend its use. The apps and web services are not compatible with all platforms and cause confusion with respect to what information Centrelink can request and retain.
3. It is also clear that it is in Centrelinks interest - or it certainly appears that way - that barriers are built for the efficient reporting of circumstances. Claims are delayed or rejected, debt notices are issued for non-reporting etc. all assisting Centrelinks bottom line.
4. More and more people are 'moving' to use 3rd party organisations - such as - to avoid problems, reducing the chance of debt notices and 'get on with life'. However, Centrelink do not provide IT support for nominees; "its coming" Centrelink have been saying for more than 10 years. Centrelinks suggestion? "Just log on as the client". This not only conflicts the nominee agreement but it is an offence!

Note: Now we have attempted to replicate a typical attempt to contact Centrelink. Of course it is possible that some recipients have the opportunity to contact Centrelink more than once per day. However, as can be demonstrated in the above, unless that person has more than 30 minutes break then it is nigh impossible.