The Coalition government says a secret report shows contractors answer more calls to Centrelink than public servants, as the agency uses more private workers in a bid to reverse falling service standards.
Human Services Minister Michael Keenan, overseeing the national welfare delivery program, said an independent review by consultants revealed the workers performed as well as or better than full-time public servants did on many measures.
Mr Keenan's defence of his agency's growing contractor use was met with scepticism as the main public sector union and Labor questioned the number of customer queries resolved by private workers. As the Coalition is refusing to release the report for public viewing, any other findings remain confidential as Mr Keenan draws on details to argue for its spending on contractors.
"They answered more calls each day, had less down time between calls, were cost effective and ranked equally for customer satisfaction," Mr Keenan said.
"This dispels many of the myths perpetuated by Labor that outsourcing leads to higher costs and reduced standards of service."
Details of the report given to News Corp show KPMG found contractors took 44 per cent more calls than Centrelink staff, had 28 per cent less downtime after taking a call, took 3.5 per cent less unscheduled leave and were 13.5 per cent more efficient.
While Mr Keenan has used the findings to promote a decision to outsource Centrelink call centre jobs, the main public sector union has said the KPMG figures are misleading.
Community and Public Sector Union deputy secretary Melissa Donnelly said contractors took more calls because staff simply transferred customers straight to a permanent Centrelink staff member.
"They're transferring everything from simple change of address queries right up to the most complex cases," she said.
"It's telling that the government is providing no data on how many calls these private call centres actually resolve."
Labor's human services spokesman Ed Husic said the report should be treated as a joke.
"Paid consultants reviewed Centrelink contractors and found that Centrelink contractors were OK," he said.
"Now they won’t release the report so we can see if the claims stack up in reality. If the government is fair dinkum, they’ll release the report.
"The government is playing with the figures in an attempt to mask the reality again. They have chopped and changed how they measure phone calls to try and make it look like phone call numbers have dropped; people aren’t buying it."
In a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday, Human Services Department secretary Renée Leon said Centrelink was transferring fewer calls between staff in resolving queries from customers, a reform that would reduce call numbers. An increase in this figure could reflect private contractors were forwarding queries after answering calls.
At least 800 of the contractors will be based in Brisbane and about half of those positions have been filled. Other call centre workers will be based in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, where contract winners are recruiting. The Human Services Department expects most private workers will be hired by April.
Ms Leon revealed her department's average staff numbers fell for a second consecutive year in 2017-18 to 28,521, a cut of 1300 compared with the previous year. She rejected claims from Labor the government was privatising Centrelink and defended its contracts with Serco, DataCom Connect, Concentrix Services and Stellar Asia Pacific for call centre workers.
Nearly 48 million calls to Centrelink went unanswered last year, fewer than in 2016-17 but far above levels the year before. The welfare agency failed again to meet its customer satisfaction targets, although it edged closer, and complaints rose.