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Centrelink drops everything to answer phones

Centrelink has ordered hundreds of public servants around the country to drop everything for two days and answer phones in a desperate bid to make its performance look better.

Centrelink on hold

Here's a soothing picture and a sample of Centrelink's automated call-answering service and hold music. Our reporter hung on the line for four minutes, can you last one?

The extraordinary reaction, understood to have mobilised as many as 500 public servants, came as the political heat was turned up on the welfare agency's customer service efforts as Labor and the Greens demanded better responses.

The scathing Auditor-General's report found more than 26 million phone calls were going unanswered in one year and the average waiting time for those who did get through was nearly 17 minutes.

Centrelink employees face a range of issues when answering speaking on the phone with customers.
Centrelink employees face a range of issues when answering speaking on the phone with customers. 

Human Services Minister Marise Payne refused on Thursday to say how quickly calls should be answered.

She said that hopes for improved Centrelink customer services lay with the internet.

Reacting to media coverage of the audit report, bosses at the Department of Human Services, which runs Centrelink, told their officials to put every available public servant on phone duty.

Team meetings, training and other "off-phone" activities were cancelled for at least two days as the agency scrambled to react to the coverage of the report's revelations.

One manager's email, seen by Fairfax Media, ordered his teams to drop everything and do nothing but answer phones for the next two days.

"There is currently significant media attention surrounding our wait times for customers," the Department of Human Services line manager wrote.

"As a result, a number of strategies are being put into place to assist with maximising customer access the next two days

"Off-phone activities are generally required to be removed.

"If you are scheduled for any off-phone activities, please remain in open time and serve customers."

Australians spent 143 years waiting in vain to speak to Centrelink in 2013-14 before hanging up, the auditors calculated in their report on the agency's telephone service.

About 13.7 million calls did not even make it to the point of being put on hold after they were blocked or received a "busy signal".

Another 13 million calls that managed to get into the system were "abandoned" after the callers tired of waiting, the audit of the Department of Human Services' SmartCentre system found.

Average waiting times blew out dramatically from just over three minutes and five seconds in 2010-11 to nearly 17 minutes in 2013-14.

The auditors blamed a dwindling number of public servants answering telephones, the "performance and reliability" of other customer service channels and a much lower proportion of calls being blocked before they entered the system.

Centrelink said it would need another 500 public servants – at an annual cost of $100 million – to significantly cut waiting times.

The minister said on Thursday it would be better to fight the cause of the wait times, rather than the symptoms.

She said progress was being made in getting more people to contact Centrelink via the internet.

"Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to address the symptoms and not the cause of Centrelink telephone wait times is not a responsible use of taxpayer money," Senator Payne said.

Labor's human services spokesman, Doug Cameron, said the minister's priorities were wrong.

"That is a totally inadequate response," Senator Cameron said.

"This is a minister who has been concentrating on attacking the wages and conditions of her public service employees and has lost the plot on the core objectives of her department and her portfolio."

Greens senator Rachel Siewert said departmental bosses were not taking the problem seriously enough.

"During estimates in February, the Department of Human Services played down my questions about unanswered calls and busy signals," Senator Siewert said.

"I hope the department does not continue to downplay the issue following these overwhelming statistics."

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