This article has been updated with comment from Centrelink. Some changes have been made from the original article uploaded.
What is it about Centrelink that drives people absolutely bonkers?
Earlier this week, an out-of-control man was filmed having violent outburst at the Salisbury Centrelink office in Adelaide. The 44-year-old became increasingly abusive towards staff and other members of the public in the office. Centrelink spokesperson Hank Jongen explained to Starts at 60 that the incident was not related to a complaint about service delivery or a problem accessing Centrelink services. “The department deals with almost all Australians and each day our staff have hundreds of thousands of contacts with customers,” he said. “The vast majority of these interactions are cooperative, friendly, and respectful.”
Jongen added that Centrelink has a zero tolerance for anti-social behaviour and consider one incident of customer aggression as one too many. “The safety and well-being of our customers and staff is our most important priority. We have a comprehensive program to equip staff to manage customer aggression. This includes the review of incident management, staff debriefing, staff training, service centre security measures, and security assessments. Staff and customers are also offered counselling support following any incident.”
While not everyone expresses their anger and frustration in this way, the way Centrelink deals with its customers has been increasingly criticised in recent years. The government is now proposing tougher penalties for those who are abusive towards staff, but many are asking if the focus needs to be shifted to Centrelink itself and how it treats benefits recipients.
An article by the ABC published on Thursday questioned what it was about the Centrelink process that caused frustration for so many people.
The report noted the rise of online and automated services within the Centrelink structure, long call-wait times, the Centrelink debt debacle and the confusion felt by Centrelink staff themselves as big factors for the rage the service induced in some of its users. Added to that was what the ABC said was the Liberal government’s systematic demonisation of benefits recipients.
Given the fact that hat many benefits recipients are already struggling with the impact of unemployment or financial hardship, it’s easy to understand why an alleged less-than-efficient service puts people on edge.
So what exactly is going wrong? A look at the issues all seem to come back to one core issue – getting a call to Centrelink answered, or having the opportunity to speak to an actual person, takes more time than most people feel is reasonable.
One of the biggest issues cited by regular Centrelink users is the issue of long wait times. A recent Senate inquiry found that 33,257,230 calls to Centrelink went unanswered last year – half a million more from the previous year.
People typically ring the Department of Human Services for an array of reasons including queries relating to disability, carer and sickness payments. Many young people also ring the employment hotline. Jongen said that last financial year, call times had actually reduced. “Last financial year average call wait times were 15 minutes 44 seconds, which falls below the target of 16 minutes or less,” he said. “The department is undertaking a range of initiatives to reduce call wait times.”
No one likes when people cheat the system. but the introduction of Centrelink’s automated debt recovery program caused an array of problems last year when about 20,000 Australians were wrongly sent letters claiming they were once overpaid and owed the government money. In some cases, people were told to repay thousands of dollars to Centrelink.
Although Centrelink later admitted that the letters were incorrect and either scrapped or reduced the debts, the blunder fuelled ill-will toward the service because sorting out a Centrelink error can involve lengthy waits on the phone or in an office. Jongen explained the debt recovery system to Starts at 60 in more detail. “The online compliance system is designed to facilitate a customer explaining the differences between Australian Taxation Office and Centrelink payment records,” he said.
“We give those who receive a request for information an opportunity to review, confirm or change these details in the online system. Last year, in response to community feedback, the department made enhancements to the online portal to make it easier for people to review and update their income information.”
He added that the Commonwealth Ombudsman found the online system accurately calculates debts when the required information is entered, meets all legislative requirements, and debts raised are consistent with the previous manual debt investigation process. “The Ombudsman also noted refinements to the online system in the last 12 months have improved its usability,” he said.
Centrelink has made the shift to the internet, with welfare recipients encouraged to use the MyGov website or app to lodge and report statements, calculate estimates, make claims and update information. It’s said to be faster and easier, freeing up staff to assist others who need help they can’t find online.
While the site and app are usually relatively easy to navigate for the tech-savvy, and there are online guides available to help users make their transaction, regular users complain that the website is often out of action, meaning people are forced to ring or visit a branch in person (again, see above!). This is a particularly problem for people who have to lodge information by a certain time to receive payment.
Jongen said the department is making it easier for people to interact with them in a range of ways, reducing their need to call in the first place. “Our website and phone apps give people the option to carry out simple business at a time and place that suits them, while also removing the need to call,” he said. “Furthermore, the department has engaged an Australian-based call centre for three years to provide additional call centre capacity, and enlisted international expertise to help devise long-term solutions for our unique challenges. We are already seeing the benefits of this work, for example more callers are getting through the first time they call and there has been a substantial reduction in busy signals.”
He added that in 2016–17, myGov was available 99.8 per cent of the year and that more than a quarter of a million people used myGov every day. “Seniors are leading the way, showing a strong preference for the Department of Human Services’ online and social media options to apply for the Age Pension and find out about payments and services.”
While some people on benefits are no doubt rorting the system, most are genuine people who are entitled to their payment. So when the government announced plans last year for mandatory drug testing in “crisis” areas around Australia, promising to test thousands of welfare recipients in high-risk areas, it was accused by some of unfairly demonising the vast majority of law-abiding benefits recipients.
“They’ve never seen a welfare recipient who they don’t want to sort of demonise and we’re not just going to join in the baiting of the unemployed,” Labor leader Bill Shorten said of the Liberal government when the drug-testing policy was announced last May.
On this point, however, he is unlikely to find a lot of support from voters, who told a Newspoll last October that they overwhelmingly supported the drug-testing policy. Even half of all Greens voters and almost 70 per cent of Labor voters were in favour of the two-year trial of mandatory drug-testing.
Despite many issues people have with Centrelink, Jongen said there were vast improvements across the board. He noted that Busy signals are down 57 per cent in February 2018 from one year ago. This is about 2.6 million fewer engaged tones. There was also a 38 per cent drop in busy signals between October 2017 and February 2018, resulting in nine million fewer engaged signals. “The fall in busy signals between October 2017 and February 2018 was 38 per cent, equalling about nine million fewer engaged signals. This indicates we are on track for an overall reduction this financial year,” he said.
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