Advocates say the Centrelink system is frustrating for those who use it. (AAP: Tracey Nearmy (file photo))
As the Federal Government announces it will review penalties for people who abuse staff at Centrelink — those representing people on welfare say the system is causing increasing frustrations for those accessing the service.
- The CEO of the SACOSS said interactions were “increasingly anonymous”
- In the last financial year, wait times ballooned
- Centrelink said it was working on initiatives to reduce wait times
Earlier this week footage of a man yelling at workers and other Centrelink recipients went viral.
The man involved has apologised, but it has also prompted a conversation around why people are getting increasingly frustrated with the system.
CEO of the South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS), Ross Womersley, said interactions were “increasingly anonymous”.
“In many of our government services people are being directed to interact with them online as a way of more easily getting their business done and of course, sometimes that’s more easy for the government and the government bureaucracy than it is for the people themselves,” Mr Womersley said.
“Even competent people can find themselves working through [government social services] websites and can find themselves enormously frustrated because the website doesn’t work intuitively or it crashes.
“Those things actually act as really, really big barriers to people confidently embracing that system and competently being able to use it.”
He said some people might not have high IT literacy, while others struggled to afford an internet connection.
“Our governments at both federal and state levels need to be doing much more to ensure that the systems that we set up for people actually facilitate their participation — not make it more difficult,” he said.
“In addition to any frustration that they might have experienced in trying to get their needs met, this is probably a group of people who have lost their job, they probably have limited or no money, they’re really anxious about the wellbeing of themselves or their family going forward, many of them may experience depression and a real sense of hopelessness.
“And anything that acts as a barrier to getting some of those basics sorted in their lives will build a feeling inside of them that they’re being punished and rejected.”
Recipe for ‘deep frustration’
Mr Womersley said it was a “perfect recipe for deep frustration”.
“The rhetoric, the language that has emerged from our political leaders, particularly over the last few years, has been one of punishment and the treatment of people who are unemployed as being unworthy…” he said.
“And so again, where people then come to seek support from the system, they will arrive with that as a part of their backstory, knowing that the system doesn’t really think that they’re all that important and assuming that the system won’t be there to assist them; it will be there to try and keep them out.
Anti-Poverty Network SA state coordinator Pas Forgione said agreed that the system was “incredibly stressful and frustrating to navigate”.
“They say it’s a mountain of obligations that they have to meet in order to continue receiving payments,” Mr Forgione said.
“It’s an extraordinarily stressful and time consuming and demoralising thing.
“Stories that we often hear about are people who spend a month’s worth of phone credit on the line to Centrelink and their credit runs out before they get through.”
Mr Forgione people were finding it more and more difficult to deal with the system.
“There’s a lot of anger because people on Centrelink payments are sick of being made to feel that it’s their fault if they can’t find a job or … they can’t make ends meet [on the NewStart allowance],” he said.
“Centrelink workers are under the pump in similar ways to Centrelink clients — they’re dealing with a system that is not getting enough resources and which is buckling under the strain.
“People on Centrelink payments actually face an incredibly complex, frustrating and unpleasant system.”
Dealing with Centrelink ‘frustrating as all hell’
Tracy Atkins-Strain, who receives a disability pension, said she has waited up to an hour-and-a-half on the phone to speak to someone.
“They [Centrelink staff] never give you a straight answer,” she said.
“You speak to one person and the next time you ring ‘oh no, no, that was wrong’ … it’s frustrating as all hell.”
“Sometimes you get on the phone and you’d be halfway through the phone call waiting and sometimes that’d just click out.
“You’d have to start again, so sometimes they would just automatically cut phones out or it would be engaged for hours on end. That’s another frustrating thing.”
Ms Atkins-Strain said it was understandable that people would be frustrated.
“They [Centrelink] want everything now, but when they have to give you something, they take so so long and this is why people get so frustrated,” she said.
“They need to understand that not everyone is fluent with computers or mobile phones … people find it better to actually talk to someone face-to-face.
“They reckon they’ve tried to make it better for everyone, they’ve actually made it worse for everyone.”
Ms Atkins-Strain said using Centrelink was easier before services went online.
“It used to be alright, you used to be able to go in and talk to people,” she said.
“I’ve actually seen it change from when you used to be able to take your form in, talk to people and have human conversations, to it going to the way it is now, and I can tell you, it was much better the old way.”
Department says online services are meant to allow easier access
A Department of Human Services spokesperson said online and self-service options were available to make it easier for people to “manage their interactions with us at a time and place that suits them”.
“We note that the man at the centre of Monday’s incident has appeared in the media to apologise for and explain his behaviour, and hope he is receiving all necessary support,” the spokesperson said.
“Since 2014 the department’s resourcing levels have been maintained, with capability significantly increased this financial year due to the additional surge capacity for call centres and compliance activities.”
The spokesperson said online and self-service was one of the ways it was “making it easier for Australians to access our services” as it freed up staff to look after other, more complex cases.
Interactions with Centrelink are “increasingly anonymous”, says the SACOSS CEO. (ABC News: Michael Janda (file photo))
The spokesperson said Centrelink staff handled more than 52 million calls in the past year alone, the majority of which were cooperative, friendly, and respectful, and they were doing more to address call wait times.
“The department is undertaking a range of initiatives to reduce call wait times, including engaging an Australian-based call centre for three years to provide additional call centre capacity, and enlisting international expertise to help devise long-term solutions for our very unique challenges,” the spokesperson said.
“We are already seeing the benefits of this work, for example more callers are getting through the first time they call and there has been a substantial reduction in busy signals.”