News : DHS's Telstra Deal Didn't Improve Centrelink Service
Canberra, Australia, May 27, 2015 -- It was the hi-tech deal between the Commonwealth and Telstra that senior public servants promised would deliver shorter waiting times for Centrelink's phone lines.
But two-and-half years later, the welfare agency is only answering half the calls it receives each year and its officially reported waiting times have blown out by 50 per cent.
Now, Centrelink's parent, the Department of Human Services, is to be given more money for a new computer system which promises to solve many of its problems.
On Tuesday, DHS defended the performance of the Telstra deal, saying the new technology had been deployed on its Medicare and Child Support Agency lines, but would not be put into service for Centrelink until later this year.
Telstra declined to comment.
DHS, which also runs Medicare and the Child Support Agency, has endured a torrid week after Centrelink's customer service was savaged in a report by the Auditor-General's office that found more than 26 million calls going unanswered each year.
Those who did manage to get through, were left waiting "on average" for just under 17 minutes by the auditors found the figures did not show the true experience of many callers, who had a one-in-three chance of waiting more than half-an-hour.
But in 2012, it all looked very different after Human Services signed the massive contract with Telstra, for 'Managed Telephony Services' and spruiked the benefit later that year to a Senate Estimates Committee.
With average wait times running at just under 12 minutes in 2011-2012, Department's Chief Information Officer Gary Sterrenberg was bullish about the prospects for improvement under the Telstra deal.
The senior executive, who was said to have driven a tough bargain with the telco, told a Senate Estimates committee in October 2012 that advances in call queue technology made possible by the Telstra deal would lead the way to a bright future for Centrelink clients.
"Under the new contract it is a lot easier to move skill tags around so that if a queue is getting full and people are waiting we are able to adjust that so that those queues run better," Mr Sterrenberg told the committee.
"We can distribute the workload in that way. "We believe that that will reduce those call-waiting times."
But even back then, Mr Sterrenberg said the "main focus" was moving callers away from phones answered by human operators and onto automated telephone lines which had a disappointing take-up rate.
The "big play", according to the department's tech chief, was the attempts to get people conducting their Centrelink business on their computers or mobile devices, identified by the recent audit as a driving force behind the poor waiting times.
Human Services spokesman Hank Jongen said this week that the technology associated with the Telstra deal had not yet been deployed on the Centrelink lines but that it was due to be put to work later in 2015.
"The Managed Telecommunications Service has not yet been rolled out to the Centrelink call network," Mr Jongen said.
"Medicare and Child Support are already operating on the new Telstra infrastructure.
"Rollout to the Centrelink call network is to follow."
Nearly three years after the Telstra deal was signed, the department is in the early stages of spending money on a new computerised payment system and some of the rhetoric around the project has a familiar ring.
"Once complete, customers will have the ability to access more of their information online and the department will have much improved data sharing capability, which will potentially reduce customers' reporting requirements," Human Service Minister Marise Payne said on Sunday.
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"This investment will address many of the underlying drivers of call centre demand and is a far better use of taxpayer money than spending $100 million each year to hire an extra 1000 staff to treat the symptoms that result from our out-dated system."
But not everyone is convinced, with Labor's Human Service Spokesman Doug Cameron saying the massive new IT project must not "repeat past mistakes".
Senator Cameron wants the business case for the new payments system to be made public so that it can be scrutinised before much of the spending goes ahead.
"Government and private sector IT replacement and upgrade projects have a notorious history of cost blow-outs and delay," he said.
"By releasing the evidence base for the project set out in the business case, the Government can provide confidence that this project will not be a disaster."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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