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 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.
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.