A week after the federal election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced "Services Australia" and a new focus on citizens-as-clients.
Is this a serious change of direction for our public services, or just an announcement? Let's look at our largest service agency, the Department of Human Services, now part of Services Australia, and what changes might be made.
In 2017-18, 48 million calls to DHS went unanswered. A further 5.3 million calls were abandoned as frustrated callers gave up.
Of the calls answered, the average wait was 16 minutes to have their call answered, worse on specialist lines:
- Disability, sickness and carers: 21 minutes
- Employment services: 34 minutes
- Families and parenting: 19 minutes
- Older Australians: 20 minutes
- Youth and students: 38 minutes
- Participation: 36 minutes
Between July 2017 and January 2018, 33 million calls to Centrelink were simply blocked with a busy signal. 330,000 people waited more than half an hour for their call to be answered - 167,000 were on hold for over an hour.
The median processing time for our aged pension is already 49 days and over 9935 claims have taken longer than this.
Unsurprisingly, complaints tripled from 2007 to 2016-17.
DHS staff, our members, see this in their daily work. More than 90 per cent of staff identified waiting times as a significant issue for clients and more than 93 per cent reported not having enough staff was a significant issue.
At some point in life everyone will interact with DHS: for childcare subsidies, paid parental leave, support while studying, the aged pension, access to aged care or other needs.
Many people who do not regularly have to navigate the system are shocked by how hard it is to get the help you need. As a mum of a three-week-old baby who hadn't properly slept, I struggled to complete paid parental leave applications and follow them up. My experience is far from unique.
On a daily if not hourly basis, DHS workers struggle. Ongoing staff levels across DHS have been slashed, with 5776 jobs cut since June 2013, a decline of 17.1 per cent. During this time our population grew by over two million people and our population aged, yet the staff we need are disappearing. There are fewer now than in 2007.
The government's Average Staffing Level (ASL) cap is largely responsible. The Department is prevented from hiring more staff even when it has the workload and budget, but can spend as much as it likes on contractors and consultants, so there are now thousands of labour hire workers in DHS and nearly 3000 private contract call centre providers like Serco doing DHS work. The government says this both saves taxpayer dollars and increases capacity. Neither is correct.
Under-trained, lower-paid private call centre staff in insecure work can't always provide correct information to citizens (despite their sincere commitment and hard work), and citizens often end up waiting longer to get the help they need. Eighty-four per cent of staff tell us that the current policies have resulted in double handling of matters.
Issues with DHS IT programs have been widely reported to also cause daily problems.
It is common for a DHS worker to have to access several different programs to deal with one query. Systems freeze and slow when workers are on the phone to citizens and are trying to process a routine call. In a recent survey, 90 per cent of staff reported they believed better IT systems would result in significant improvements to services.
To deliver better services, the government must invest in IT programs and in-house capacity to manage and deliver IT functions. Outsourcing has delivered for the bottom line of companies that pick up contracts, devastating public service IT capacity without producing better systems.
The model for the Morrison announcement, Services NSW, is a one-stop-shop for government transaction services provided by that state government.
It brought together several different NSW government services, the most significant of which was Roads and Maritime Services. The NSW government sought to increase digital interactions, aiming for 80 per cent of transactions being done online.
Public feedback has been positive, with more than 2.1 million users (out of 47.2 million) giving Services NSW a high customer satisfaction score.
But is Services NSW really a model for federal public services?
The interactions citizens have with Service NSW are transactional - registering a car, booking a driving test. People pay a fee and are provided with a good or service.
DHS is different. Our members assess someone against multiple eligibility criteria to determine access to our social safety net. It is inherently complicated - many government services and payments assess income, assets, family composition, age, employment status and working hours. Eligibility and level of benefit are complex and multi-faceted, and the consequences of getting it wrong are serious.
It is difficult to replicate or automate these processes, as they require an understanding of the legislative and policy frameworks as well as human judgement. This is being aptly demonstrated by "robodebt" - when the government removed staff checking debts and automated the process by generating speculative invoices and sending them. This has been, and continues to be, a devastating experience for many citizens and difficult for the staff involved.
Many of the people seeking DHS support are vulnerable - facing immediate danger or threats, major social dislocation or other barriers which impact their capacity to engage. A woman fleeing domestic violence with her children and seeking an urgent payment is different to getting a driver's licence renewed. The stakes are much higher.
It is entirely unclear at this stage if this is simply a hasty announcement in the aftermath of an election or if there is real commitment to actually improve services. DHS is a chronically understaffed agency that has had its IT capacity and systems stripped bare. Without providing more staff and addressing systems issues, this announcement can't make a difference for the people waiting on their call to be answered, application to be processed or question to be answered. Nor will it provide the secure jobs our public service - and our economy - needs.
- Melissa Donnelly is the new national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union.