It was interesting to read that Services Australia are hiring 3000 more staff to attempt to resolve the long wait times on hold for clients, extended claim processing times and the administrative errors that have plagued clients trying to make ends week.
My first response was, "this is brilliant!" I thought having to set aside an entire day to call Centrelink because you don't know how long you'll be waiting for, if you'll be disconnected, if you find yourself handballed around for ages between department, or even if you will be able to get through at all, is just absolutely bonkers. We all know that Centrelink desperately needs to address these issues.
But when I really thought about it, I started to worry. Is this the entire strategy? Are Services Australia throwing money at the problem ($228 million to be precise) and hoping it will go away?
Bill Shorten's office has said that Services Australia has fewer public servants per capita than at any other time, attributing the issue to the former Liberal government "gutting 3800 staff". While that's strictly true, unsurprisingly, it's not the whole story.
The pandemic has complicated matters, as the service need grew so significantly, required an inflation of staff for claim processing, customer service, ICT (maintenance and infrastructure), etc.
This led to a number of projects being instigated and staff numbers growing by just under 3000, and with 2000 non-APS staff transitioning to APS employment between September 2020 and September 2021.
Labor's contractor cull included 1000 lost jobs (mostly in ICT) just before Christmas, as many structural systemic core system projects came to an end, and furthermore, in May of this year, it was announced that Services Australia would lose 1800 staff to "get back to normal" following the pandemic-era boost.
I think there's a bigger issue at play than party politics playing one side off against the other in an attempt to paint themselves as paragons and the opposition as pariahs.
Last week, at the Senate estimates meeting, the staff satisfaction survey for Services Australia was discussed. It was revealed that up to 180 workers are leaving Services Australia every month, with almost 20 per cent of the remaining staff reporting that they plan to leave in the next year. The Guardian journalists, Amy Remeikis and Sarah Basford Canales, fittingly contextualised this issue amidst the "massive blow out in waiting times for Centrelink Services."
Furthermore, the deputy CEO of Services Australia, Jarrod Howard, admitted almost 20 per cent of the service delivery group did not recommend the agency as a good place to work. Howard explained the staff exodus as personnel retiring or chasing promotions in other agencies, and vastly oversold the current state of affairs in comparison to 2022, with a focus on cherry picking the highlights to discuss.
Alarmingly, neither Howard, nor the other officials present at the hearing could provide any information on the spot regarding staff retention or morale strategies. Their response was limited to "sort of seeing" if there's any support they can give a team particularly under the pump, seemingly without any sense of organisation, policy underpinning or clear, repeatable and consistent plans for addressing these issues when they arise.
Now, add in an influx of 3000 new staff into this work environment. What could possibly go wrong?
Minister Bill Shorten stated that 800 Australians have already accepted jobs as part of that 3000 planned hiring frenzy; 800 new staff already being onboarded and poured into a workplace with deeper seated issues that seem to be swept under the carpet by the executive leadership team of the agency.
Services Australia need to focus on fixing their workplace culture to resolve the revolving door of staff, or the percentage of lost employees is just going to rise with the influx of new personnel.
A review of staff feedback on Seek for Services Australia from across the country indicate a raft of solvable problems that could be addressed: micromanaging staff, undervaluing personnel, poor communication, and "[a]n atmosphere of toxic positivism" were all key issues reported, with the agency being characterised as top heavy, and branch structure and resourcing is considered inappropriate for the ambitious projects expected to be delivered.
Perhaps throwing 3000 more people at the issue isn't the right approach. Or at least not yet. Stop sweeping the issues under the carpet and cherry-picking the media talking-points - peoples lives literally depend on you getting this right.
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