SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — MARCH 21: A Medicare and Centrelink office sign is seen at Bondi Junction on March 21, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. Federal public sector workers are expected to strike around Australia over a long-running pay dispute. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — MARCH 21: A Medicare and Centrelink office sign is seen at Bondi Junction on March 21, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. Federal public sector workers are expected to strike around Australia over a long-running pay dispute. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Minister: how we will improve Centrelink

AS THE minister responsible for Centrelink, I'm reminded daily about how important my department's work is to the community.

One of those reminders came recently in the form of an email from a family who wanted to thank my staff for the support they were receiving at a heartbreakingly difficult time in their lives.

They had just brought a new baby home from hospital, while one of them continues to battle a serious illness.

Centrelink helps thousands of families just like this every day, but you never hear those stories in the news.

Instead, what makes headlines are the small number of cases where things can and sometimes do go wrong in a busy agency with more than 32,000 staff who are processing $175 billion worth of claims every year.

Age pension applicants say they have been forced to wait for payments because there are not enough Centrelink staff to process applications. Picture: Matt King/Getty Images
Age pension applicants say they have been forced to wait for payments because there are not enough Centrelink staff to process applications. Picture: Matt King/Getty Images

As the minister in charge, I am not trying to make excuses for any stuff-ups.

Instead, I am determined to improve our performance to ensure negative experiences remain the exception rather than the rule.

That is why I recently instructed my department to set up a taskforce to help reduce wait times for those applying for the age pension.

More than 100 extra staff have since been moved into the pension processing team and I am pleased to say that the backlog of claims is rapidly reducing.

The Coalition Government is also determined to improve the overall customer experience at Centrelink, which is why we are hiring an additional 2750 staff to help reduce the pressure on our busy phone lines.

Although we currently meet our target of answering calls in an average of 16 minutes, we know that the reality for some customers has been much longer wait times, particularly at periods of high demand.

We don't believe that experience has been good enough and that is why we are doing something about it through this major injection of additional staff.

 

Human Services Minister Michael Keenan says Centrelink will be adding 2750 staff. Picture: Valeriu Campan
Human Services Minister Michael Keenan says Centrelink will be adding 2750 staff. Picture: Valeriu Campan

 

More than 800 of the new jobs are being created in Brisbane alone and I am delighted to say that we have already engaged about half of that number. Many are still being trained, but some are already helping to answer hundreds of additional calls each day.

Once the full 2750 are on-board, I can say with confidence that those who rely on Centrelink will notice a significant improvement in our performance.

That confidence is based on what my department has already been able to achieve with the help of an extra 250 staff who were engaged through a pilot program with call centre operator Serco last year.

Those workers have answered more than 3.2 million calls in just 12 months, which has helped to cut the number of busy signals that customers can experience at peak times by 40 per cent.

If 250 staff can achieve results like that, imagine what 2750 will enable us to do.

All of these staff are being engaged through contract arrangements with private companies that are experts in call centre management.

However, Bill Shorten and his Labor team have made no secret of the fact that they do not support this initiative and will scrap the use of contract workers if they win government.

That would see 2750 jobs cut overnight from my department alone. And what is Labor's solution to these massive job losses? They want to hire 1200 new public servants.

 

Michael Keenan says the Coalition Government are working hard to improve Centrelink’s service. Picture: AAP Image/Joel Carrett
Michael Keenan says the Coalition Government are working hard to improve Centrelink’s service. Picture: AAP Image/Joel Carrett

 

Bill Shorten is clearly not good at maths because his plan represents a net loss of 1550 jobs.

Mr Shorten also seems to have forgotten that it was Labor that first introduced the use of private call centre workers at the Australian Taxation Office in 2008.

Those arrangements at the ATO have proved enormously successful and it beggars belief that Labor would now want to deny these hardworking Australians a job simply because they work in the private sector.

Labor also likes to claim that contract workers are not as good as public servants.

But an independent review of Serco's contract with my department found they performed just as well, or better than public servants.

They answered more calls each day, had less downtime between calls, were more cost effective and rated just as well for customer satisfaction.

I believe that those who rely on Centrelink do not really care who answers their call. What they care about is getting it answered as quickly as possible by someone who is capable of helping them with their inquiry.

That is why the Coalition is taking this positive action to help make Centrelink better.

Michael Keenan is the Minister for Human Services and Digital Transformation