Centrelink savings have shifted costs to community services: report
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Centrelink savings have shifted costs to community services: report

Centrelink's push to automate services and find savings has shifted costs onto stretched community services and welfare recipients trying to navigate a system that is growing harder to access, a new report says.

Declining service standards at the government agency had created a "ripple effect" where problems accessing it grew demand for support services funded by state and territory governments, community service provider Anglicare found after surveying staff.

Its report, released on Monday, found delays and reductions to payments for welfare recipients had forced community services to pay for clients' food vouchers, rent arrears and other bills.

Anglicare staff said their workloads and the amount of support clients needed had grown as they dealt with Centrelink, the report said.

The Department of Human Services overseeing the agency has begun overhauling the national welfare system and searched for cost savings blamed for falling service standards - including a blow-out in busy signals for callers - and the controversial "robo-debt" system.

Anglicare said the changes had heaped pressure back onto clients and community services. 

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"Instead of complementing other reform agendas, welfare reforms appear to be directly undermining them," the Anglicare report said.

"It demonstrates an ongoing leakage of time and resources out of Anglicare and directly linked to the operation of Centrelink.

"Reform of the income support system may be generating cost savings for the Department of Human Services, but it is also transferring many of these costs to community-based support programs and services so that they and the clients they support are paying the price of welfare reform."

The department said there was "always room for improvement", but that its overhaul of Australia's welfare system would improve services for clients of the $174 billion program.

Spokesman Hank Jongen denied it had reduced face-to-face support for clients by increasing its digital services.

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"We recognise that not everyone wishes to, or can access digital solutions," he said.

"By providing a digital solution and encouraging those who can to use it, our staff are able to provide more personalised services for those with greater need in our community."

The report, based on surveys and interviews with 218 Anglicare staff, disagreed and described "a large complex system transitioning through a major reform process without taking into account the full consequences to customers of delays, errors, access difficulties and changes to eligibility criteria".

It found surveyed Anglicare staff, who were based in Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia, had spent 500 hours over a fortnight or the equivalent of 6.6 full time equivalent positions dealing with Centrelink issues.

"Given that the survey did not cover all community services staff with direct contact with clients, this is likely to be a considerable underestimate across Anglicare services as a whole," the report said.

Most (57 per cent) described this as an average fortnight, while another 19 per cent said they had spent less time than usual dealing with Centrelink problems.

It called for the Human Services department to improve efforts to support vulnerable clients and establish an interface that met their needs.

Mr Jongen said Centrelink's staff were "specially trained to recognise their unique needs and to ensure they receive priority access to services".

The department, which will cut another 1300 jobs in 2018-19, announced earlier this year it would use 1000 more contractors to answer busy phone lines after a blow-out in busy signals for customers.

Satisfaction with Centrelink services was nearly 69.5 per cent for clients who had recently dealt with the agency in 2016-17, up from 68.1 per cent the previous year, Human Services figures show.

A survey measuring general views of the department found satisfaction with Centrelink had dropped from 51 per cent to 50 per cent in that period.

Doug Dingwall is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service and politics.