News : Centrelink Faces Customer Service Crisis
Oct 17, 2013 -- Australia's welfare system is facing a customer service crisis with Centrelink call centres taking up to 16 minutes to answer phones and tens of thousands of cases waiting months to be reviewed.
Some routine case reviews are being kept waiting for nine months while Centrelink's parent department has axed 800 call centre jobs, with another 400 to go before the end of the year.
Welfare advocates say that six month waits for reviews are "commonplace" and a major pressure point is the Disability Support Pension, with tougher eligibility rules leading to more refusals and a greater number of review requests.
But departmental sources say that it is the increasing complexity of Australia's welfare system and the bewildering array of payments administered through Centrelink that is a straining the system to breaking point.
One bright result for DHS this year is the number of complaints to the Commonwealth Ombudsman has fallen, with 5093 Centrelink complaints in the 2012-2013 financial year compared to 6133 in the wake of a withering critique in 2012 by the watchdog of the agency's review system.
A spokeswoman for the Ombudsman's office said the reduction was attributed to a new telephone queuing system that refers complaints straight back to Centrelink in the first instance.
A DHS spokesman said Centrelink's average time to answer a phone call in the first months of the 2013-2014 financial year was 12 minutes against its "key performance indicator" of 16 minutes.
But the traditional peak demand season of January to March is expected to blow those waiting times out to 16 minutes and more.
In a statement, the spokesman defended his agency's performance in finalising reviews. "In August, around two thirds of reviews were finalised within 35 days which is comparable with normal activity," he said. "We also prioritise reviews for vulnerable customers and over 90 per cent of these are finalised within fourteen days."
Centrelink also said that the vast majority of cases are handled without the need for a review.
But the National Welfare Rights Network president Maree O'Halloran said her organisation held little hope of Centrelink meeting its customer service targets without making major changes. "The Centrelink review and appeals system is under considerable strain," Ms O'Halloran said.
"The Department of Human Services is taking steps to address these delays, but we do not expect the Department to meet its performance indicators from its customer Charter anytime soon."
Ms O'Halloran said the "unacceptable" backlog in reviews was leading to "review fatigue", where the claimant simply gives up.
"Without a doubt, excessive delays are undermining people's right to have questionable Centrelink decisions reviewed," she said.
"It is not uncommon to hear of delays of six months, or more. "This is an unacceptable situation.
"The huge volume of appeals waiting to be finalised raises questions about the impact of possible job cuts in the Department of Human Services.
"There is a clear need to boost staffing numbers at Centrelink to cope with the backlog."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Centrelink is a government agency delivering a range of Commonwealth services to the Australian community. Centrelink is a statutory authority responsible, through its Board, to the Minister for Family and Community Services. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, has responsibility for Centrelink’’s day-to-day operations. Centrelink operates under the Commonwealth Services Delivery Agency Act 1997 which formally came into effect on 1 July 1997.
Published: Friday, October 18, 2013