Waiting on hold for Centrelink

adminSocial security rights review

The release of the report from the Australian National Audit Office, Management of Smart Centres’ Centrelink Telephone Services, has focussed national attention on the vexed problem of telephone waiting times, its impacts, the costs for individuals and what level and quality of service vulnerable people should expect.

A new report by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) has found that around one-in-four calls to Centrelink went unanswered last year.  But the problem isn’t just being stuck in a queue, it’s about running a telephone service for many low income and vulnerable people that falls short of the standards of other major government departments.

Average wait times for a call to be answered in May 2015 was 19 minutes and 11 seconds up from 16 minutes and 53 seconds in the previous year with people waiting an average of 9 minutes and 43 seconds before they abandoned their calls. Frustrations are exacerbated by high call costs, which are of growing concern, as people move increasingly from fixed lines to mobile phones, which can result in high call costs.

People trying to report a change in their circumstances, or to provide other relevant and essential details to progress their claim for income support are often confronted by long wait times, high call costs, and excessive levels of call blocking (could not get through to Centrelink) and call abandonment.

The key findings from the recent Audit Report relating to 2013-14 include the following:

  • Centrelink received 800,000 calls per week, with 56.8 million calls made to dedicated Centrelink numbers;
  • of 43 million calls that entered the network, about 45 per cent were answered by a Customer Service Officer, while about a quarter were resolved with the Interactive Voice Response Unit;
  • people spent 143 years  waiting to speak to a Centrelink officer;
  • wait times have increased from an average of 3 minutes and 5 seconds in 2010-11 to an average of 16 minutes and 53 seconds;
  • 13 million, or around 30 per cent of calls that entered the network were abandoned, that is, people hung up before resolving the reason for their call, and a further 13.7 million calls were ‘blocked’;
  • the average wait times  provides an inaccurate and distorted picture of the actual client experience, as on the major 13 and 1800 numbers 30 per cent of people are waiting for more than 30 minutes; and
  • Department of Human Services advises that it would need an additional 1000 staff at a cost of $100 million per year to reduce wait times to an average speed of answer of five minutes.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the largest single area of complaints regarding Centrelink over each of the past three years has been call waiting times, with client satisfaction falling to just 66.6 per cent. The Centrelink phone system is also a significant area of complaint from people who contact a Welfare Rights service for assistance. The high levels of call abandonment noted in the Audit report is unfortunately an all too common experience.

The National Welfare Rights Network has been consistently raising concerns over telephone waiting times with the Department under successive administrations. Excessive call wait times are a major problem for people seeking assistance from DHS and initial frustrations about a Centrelink decision can be exacerbated by lengthy wait times. When unable to access by telephone many will go to a Centrelink outlet to transact their business. This can result in a flow on effect with increased demand for face to face services and serious consequences for both DHS staff and clients, in terms of increased aggression, stress and anxiety.  

It is rare for any of our clients to tell us of a positive experience when commenting on trying to contact DHS by phone.  Unfortunately long telephone waiting times are now “business as usual” at Centrelink, and there is no clear proposal to reduce waiting times.

According to some estimates, staffing levels at Centrelink have fallen by around 5,000 over the past five years, while over the same period call demand has increased by an extra 3 million calls per year. Savings from ongoing “efficiency dividends” have left the nation’s primary service delivery agency underfunded; and the response of Centrelink management has been to accelerate the push to migrate their clients to do their business with Centrelink online and by self-service channels.

The DHS telephone services compare poorly to other Government agencies and departments. At the Australian Taxation Office, 80 per cent of calls are answered within five minutes within the peak taxation processing period. Even at those times the call volume is significantly lower than Centrelink.  

NWRN recently wrote to the Minister for Human Services, Senator Marise Payne about this issue.  We welcomed recently announced service delivery improvements with the initial $60.5 million investment in the Welfare Payment Infrastructure Transformation (WPIT) project that is to replace the existing welfare payment IT system and modernise service delivery arrangements. However, we note that this project is in its early stages and it will be a number of years before its benefits are delivered.

The Department of Human Service intends to expedite plans to migrate significant numbers of people onto cheaper, and quicker (for some) ‘self-service’ channels.  It is not, however clear whether greater migration to self-service options will lead to the anticipated decline in calls via the telephone. While the demand and use of self-service channels is increasing, calls to Centrelink remain high and this is likely to continue into the future.

While Government Ministers are looking to the Internet to address Centrelink’s inadequate telephone service, new telephony and digital services are unlikely to solve the thorny problems of access. Around 40 per cent of those with incomes under $40,000 do not have access to the Internet at home. Investing more on telephone services to meet unmet need among vulnerable people should be the priority of government. 

Centrelink provides assistance to over 7.3 million Australians. Access to affordable, convenient services and information, including a choice of face-to-face and responsive telephone services, should be guaranteed as a right.

The current situation is unacceptable, and we urge the Government to work with the agency to provide a reasonable and accessible standard of telephone service. The issues of access to Centrelink services are not given the high priority that they should in Australia. We may end up paying a high price as we wait for things to get better.