Hold the line: the battle to get Centrelink calls back on track

More than 184,000 times every day last year, a call to Centrelink was met with an engaged signal.

Those who did get through settled in for a long wait, sometimes up to hours, although the department's average wait time sat at 16 minutes.

The number of unanswered calls for the year, 48 million, represents a 7 million drop on the year before, but it's still a 65 per cent increase from two years ago, when it was 29 million.

A total of 48 million calls to Centrelink were unanswered last year. Photo: Shutterstock

A total of 48 million calls to Centrelink were unanswered last year. Photo: Shutterstock

The reasons for the surge in people trying and failing to contact the government's biggest service delivery department are contested, just as the way forward represents opposing solutions from both the government and the opposition.

Unlike the stereotype, people calling Centrelink aren't just job seekers, the elderly or disabled on a pension. They are now joined by people claiming childcare rebates, farmers seeking drought assistance and others.

In an environment where trust in government is falling, both sides of politics know they need a plan to make it easier to deal with the agency, not just for efficiency's sake, but for their reputations as well.

But the argument over how to do that is set to be an election issue. The main public sector union has signalled it will be a focus of its campaign efforts, with starkly different plans to get people off hold from the Coalition and Labor.

Human Services Minister Michael Keenan has promised an extra 2750 people will be taking Centrelink calls. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Human Services Minister Michael Keenan has promised an extra 2750 people will be taking Centrelink calls. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The call centres

The obvious answer to reducing the number of people who can't get through is to have more people answering the phones.

In a string of announcements over the past year, Human Services Minister Michael Keenan has promised an extra 2750 people will be taking Centrelink calls.

The extra numbers come from a series of contracts with private providers across the country - Stellar Asia Pacific in Perth, Concentrix Services in Brisbane, DataCom Connect in Adelaide and Serco in Melbourne.

In a series of launch events as the call centres have opened around the country, Mr Keenan said under a trial of 250 call centre workers employed through Serco, an extra 3.2 million calls had been answered in 12 months.

Why is the work outsourced?

The government says the decision to outsource the work is backed by a report from consultants KPMG on the Serco trial that showed contractors answered more calls, had less waiting time between calls and ranked equally for customer satisfaction.

"The reality is that the public do not care who answers their call. What they care about is getting it answered quickly by someone who can resolve their issue efficiently," the minister said.

"The KPMG report backed our use of contractors, showing the new workforce was just as efficient as our regular workforce and just as cost effective."

The report won't be seen by the public though, with the government claiming it must remain confidential as it has been presented to cabinet.

While Labor has attacked the use of private companies to run the call centres, the government says it is only following the example set when Labor was in government, when the tax office's call centres were outsourced to some of the same companies now at Centrelink.

Labor's promises

Shadow Human Services minister Ed Husic has promised 1200 extra public servants would be working for the department if Labor were to win government next year. According to their calculations, that number would both help drive down waiting times, and still be financially responsible, he said.

The fate of the 2750 contractors under Labor isn't clear. Mr Husic didn't commit to keeping the contracts or scrapping them.

Shadow Human Services minister Ed Husic. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Shadow Human Services minister Ed Husic. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

"Obviously we'd need to do the homework and look at how those contracts are being set up," Mr Husic said.

"I'm not going to leap to any announcement that will just see the end of those contractors with a click of the fingers. We have to work through that but we are sending a very strong signal that we don't think the contracting agenda of the government should continue and we'll work through that process."

Mr Husic also committed to looking for ways to move staff at the outsourced call centres to become departmental staff.

He denied that it was hypocritical to oppose the use of contractors in Centrelink call centres when Labor introduced them at the tax office, saying that in a wider environment of underemployment, a more casualised workforce and stagnant wage growth, governments should be committing to on-going employees.

Does it matter who answers the phone?

Minister Keenan has claimed many times that Australians don't care who employs the people who answer their phones, as long as their issue is resolved quickly.

It's a claim that hasn't been received well by staff in the department, but the minister believes they shouldn't be offended.

"Those findings [from the KPMG report] are real, but they should not be taken as a slight on the thousands of hard-working and committed public servants within my department who do an incredible job under what are often difficult circumstances," Mr Keenan said.

The Community and Public Sector Union says a survey of its members shows contracted call centre workers are more likely to transfer callers multiple times before the issue is dealt with, and that public servants are spending more time cleaning up mistakes made, or incorrect advice given, by the contractors.

While the government maintains contractors are only working in specific areas, and that they have the same training as departmental staff, the union is stridently opposed to work being contracted out.

"One of the things that is very clear from our members, but also from what we all know about how the social security system works, is that simple things can have very serious consequences," the union's deputy secretary Melissa Donnelly said.

"For example updating your address might seem like a simple thing to process and without significant complications, but it can have, in terms of your eligibility for other benefits, or for a potential over or under payment, in terms of communication with you."

The disappearing Human Services staff

The debate around who should be answering Centrelink calls, and how many people should be doing it, comes after years of staff cuts at the department and the government-imposed average staffing level cap, introduced in the 2015-16 budget and designed to keep every agency's staffing level the same as, or below, 2006-07 levels.

In this year's budget the government announced 1200 jobs would be lost at the department, but it isn't the biggest cut to happen at Human Services in recent years.

In 2010-11, the department's average staffing level was 34,973. It dropped to 32,592 in 2011-12, a reduction of 2381 under the former Labor government.

In 2012-13, the staffing level dropped to 31,795, a drop of 797, before falling again under the new Abbott government in 2013-14 to 30,089.

In 2014-15, the department dipped below 30,000, with 29,711 staff before increasing to 30,197 in 2014-15. In 2016-17 staff at the department dropped again to 29,837 and again in 2017-18 to 28,587.

This year the department will have just 27,307 staff - a drop of 7666 in almost 10 years.

Those numbers don't include the increasing number of labour hire workers brought into the department to work in areas other than the call centres. Debt management and even front of house services at the department now have contracted workers providing services.

The department's secretary explained it most concisely at Senate estimates when asked why contractors were being used, saying the department didn't want service levels to drop.

"If we were just to allow our staffing levels to drop to the ASL cap then there would be an impact on service," Renèe Leon said.

"We are engaging staff by other means so that we can continue to provide the service that customers want."

This story Hold the line: the battle to get Centrelink calls back on track first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.