Labor claims DHS telephone and IT systems ‘collapsing’


news Labor has released a statement over what it calls a “collapse” in the standards of telecoms and IT services at Centrelink and Medicare.

The Opposition cited a number of issues at the Department of Human Services (DHS) to back up the claim.

It said that the number of calls answered by Centrelink (initially by its Interactive Voice Response system) has dropped by 3 million in one year (11.1%) and that only 64.3% of calls from customers are answered – down from 75.43% in 2013-14.

Further issues at Centrelink saw 906,657 customers (13.22% of users) being overpaid, sometimes multiple times, while 37% of people using the Medicare mobile app have experienced problems using it.

The DHS Annual Report also indicates that complaints are up 18.8% on last year, and customer satisfaction is down by 8%, according to the Labor statement.

Also included was a list of other issues at the DHS:

  • The Australian National Audit Office’s Management of Smart Centre’s Centrelink Telephone Services Report showed that approximately 40% of all incoming calls result from failed online or self-services, and the growth of digital transactions has not reduced demand for call centre services as was anticipated.
  • A New Year’s Day glitch caused 70,000 people to be told they owed up to $800 to the government.
  • An Audit Office and Ombudsman report notes service delivery failures in customer identity protection, call wait times, online and face to face services.
  • The Commonwealth Ombudsman’s follow-up review of service delivery complaints at Centrelink revealed that problems persisted for more than 18 months after his initial report was published in April 2014.

Labor claimed Centrelink has responded to criticism of call-answering delays, not by improving customer service, but by simply “turning off the wait time message”.

“The situation just gets more farcical. Faced with massive blowouts in waiting times, the Government’s response is to simply make it harder for people to know how long they’re waiting,” said Senator Cameron, Shadow Minister For Human Services.

“One of the key recommendations of the Ombudsman’s report was to let people know how long they’ll be on the phone for,” he said, “and yet people can’t even find that out when they call – assuming they even get through.”

“The Government has only itself to blame. Staff say that many of the problems are due to cuts,” said Cameron.

“While the government plans to spend up to $1bn on the welfare infrastructure payment transformation program to fix these problems, “details are very scant, and it isn’t due to be completed until 2022,” he concluded.

In the statement, Labor also criticised the timing of a recently announced campaign to spend $28 million on ads that ‘embrace innovation’.

Image credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting


  1. Centrelink have been reducing call centre staff numbers nationally and closing call centres. They can’t even calculate the true percentage of unsuccessful calls because the queue overloads in the morning and subsequent calls just get an engaged tone – you can’t gather data on calls that aren’t even put through.

    Centrelink’s problems are massive and numerous. Yes, they have severe funding issues. But they also have terrible management – the higher up you go the more incompetent they are. Promotions are based on nepotism and favouritism. Women are actively held back unless they’re already beyond childbearing years. Pregnant women are actively encouraged (by which I mean a combination of coaching and bullying to make their day so horrible they just don’t want to be there) to drop their hours prior to maternity leave (so they’re paid a whole lot less), or outright pushed to quit. They’ve got rid of huge numbers of senior, experienced call centre staff to replace them with level 1’s, because they don’t value the skills and knowledge of experienced staff, and level 1’s get paid less than half as much (so you can double the number of phones answered for the same money). What they don’t consider is that inexperienced staff take longer to process each call, can’t solve complicated issues, and they make mistakes.

    You also don’t hear anything about this from inside Centrelink because staff sign a strict confidentiality contract, saying they won’t talk to anyone outside the company or the media about anything that happens there. While the original idea would have been to protect the privacy of ‘customers’ (what a nasty little capitalist joke, calling welfare recipients ‘customers’, as though they have any choice in the matter), it has morphed into a particularly nasty system of control – seriously, staff are properly scared to talk about work, even years after they’ve left.

    Their IT systems are managed by Telstra and are poorly provisioned (very slow) badly designed (difficult to navigate) based on decades old architecture (they just update the front end every five years or so, presumably to annoy staff when they change the way they access everything) and unstable (entire system downtime is a regular occurance). Sure, a big part of that is budgetary, but it’s also a result of engaging a profit gouging company to design and provide your systems – Telstra would be far more focused on their 30% profit margin than project outcomes. They also don’t care how well it performs as they’re paid an annual contract to support it regardless of performance.

    From the LNP perspective, the whole fiasco is a net win – they don’t want people on welfare anyway, so having centrelink falling apart making their lives hell is merely ‘encouragement’ to go and get a job. And the disabled should get jobs too. Unless they’re incapacitated. In which case, the quicker they run out of money and go and die in poverty the better for the whole country.

    • “What they don’t consider is that inexperienced staff take longer to process each call, can’t solve complicated issues, and they make mistakes. ”

      Even worse simply lack any knowledge that isn’t in a script file/FAQ and even then struggle.

      I’ve had to deal with them for aged care/pension/nursing home stuff for 94yr old I am a guardian for which is a fairly (hideously) complex area and pretty much I ended up having to take leave to visit a damn office because of the phone issues!

    • “But they also have terrible management – the higher up you go the more incompetent they are.”

      There are severe structural failings within smart centre management, a case in point – knowledge specialists for call centre staff are required to assist other staff in between calls from clients, this provides the situation where your call centre agent (with you on hold too) is on hold for 15+ minutes waiting for a specialist!
      And management wonder why there are queue delays!

      “They’ve got rid of huge numbers of senior, experienced call centre staff to replace them with level 1’s”

      Even better they are now changing to casual staff, as these are easier to replace and are less likely to want things like, time off or a life!

      • Yes, they’ve always been big on temps, but that has shifted even further in recent years. The do have to be careful here, though, as temps cost more per hour, and at some point the whole system will fall over if there are no staff that know what they’re doing. So they will never go ‘Full temp’, but they’re pushing the limits of continuing operation with what they have now.

  2. I am not surprised to see this show up, I have experienced first hand the failures currently ongoing while I applied for Austudy. After 8 weeks of endless issues I finally got a resolution however it wasn’t until I contacted the Complaints and Feedback Line.

    The day they resolved the issue I was writing up a report to send to Renai and my local federal minister prior to going to the ombudsman.

    Issues that I witnessed:
    The Centrelink Web Portal spent more time in an Error or Maintenance Mode than it did online during the times I attempted to use it. It took 3 days of small windows of functionality to submit my claim
    My phone bill says I spent 11+ hours on the phone to them over the 8 weeks.
    The student phone line never worked, it would instantly drop to an engaged/terminated signal. I had to use the self-service portal to get assistance. (Give bad responses a few times and you get sent to the call centre :P)
    I have been hung up on twice after waiting in the queue for 2h the first time and 1h the next. Resulting in having to call again.
    Call duration’s on my bill are between 40m to 2h8m. Mostly due to wait times.
    Not all but some staff seemed to be misinformed about the procedures leading to unexpected results such as payment termination without warning after being told it would not occur.
    I was told that I shouldn’t call the call centre and that I had to wait to be called. (6th week)
    Taunted throughout the process with text messages telling me that my claim is progressing and that I will be contacted.

    The delay in processing my claim was a technical error according to the staff and a known issue. I was informed multiple known fixes had been attempted on my claim, each had failed. After escalation in the complaints section it took 1hr for a call back with a fix applied to my account.

    The stress alone from this ordeal while planning an interstate move for completion of my degree has left me exhausted and it made me question if I could even achieve my study plans. Without family support I would not have been apply to financially sustain this delay.

    • “The Centrelink Web Portal spent more time in an Error or Maintenance Mode than it did online during the times I attempted to use it. It took 3 days of small windows of functionality to submit my claim”

      yeah this and the MyGov stuff gave me platinum highlights early last year :/ Its improved slightly since 10years prior to that (other time I was unemployed) but only because they seemingly don’t still run that DOS based system(s).

  3. Dhs, Centrelink in particular, is appalling. No point waiting online. Need to request call back, which could be days. And even longer, if you miss the call. Just as bad for pensioners as it is for unemployed.
    Sometimes you have no choice but to go to local dhs office only to be told, you have to ring a number. !
    Absolute disgrace. The system is broken.

  4. It would appear that the problems identified by Labor, and those experienced by people in general, are caused by a bunch of different factors. Some of these factors are decades old – and Labor have to accept their share of blame accordingly.
    Part of the problem is that the services provided by DHS tend to be politicised. Social security and medicare are political footballs and subject to whimsical changes, ideological nonsense, point-scoring and political undermining (with accompanying financial undermining). How is any complex organisation meant to cope when its bosses change every few years and spend their time trying to trash the work done by the previous bosses?
    It is always a popular move for politicians to slash public service jobs, despite the lack of evidence for any need to do so (audits continually prove that the APS is leaner than it has ever been and already extraordinarily efficient – not the bloated behemoth that public sentiment believes it to be). Yet the visceral satisfaction that we, the public get when hearing of these cuts needs to be considered against the experience and service we want from the APS.
    The move towards providing more online services is obviously the correct strategy. Yet it hasn’t been handled anywhere near as well as it should. At the same time, online services tend to excel for simpler routine services. The complex needs still need to be met by experienced staff. This is in sharp conflict with the drive towards casualisation of the workforce and the incessant desire to cut or drive away experienced operators. A rapidly rotating workforce that DHS can hire and fire at the drop of a hat is best suited for the same types of task that the online services are – so it makes no sense to push towards having both.
    @UninvitedGuest – you talk about how staff are scared to talk about things due to confidentiality agreements – there are also constant reminders about being apolitical and not being too critical of the departments or the politicians (these are legally enforcable and punishable requirements). I often wonder, how is the APS meant to stay apolitical when politicians do everything they can to politicise the public service?
    I honestly think that so many of the problems in the APS, and in this example of the DHS, would be solved by the politicians resisting the urge to politicise everything.

  5. “how is the APS meant to stay apolitical when politicians do everything they can to politicise the public service?”

    Precisely. FTTP supporters are dismissed as ‘fanboys’ despite the facts bring overwhelmingly on the side of the fibre argument, both technically and economically, because it is politically inconvenient to admit that such an argument is solid.

    They will only stop politicising everything when there are consequences. As long as they are not held responsible and there are no disincentives (ie penalties) they have no reason to do the right thing. They spout rhetoric about being judged by the people, but they get around that by misinforming and lying to the people. For which there are no consequences. See what I’m getting at here?

    Unless there are strong rules (laws) set in place to which politicians can be held accountable, with severe penalties for deliberate misinformation, false representation, dishonesty, corruption and obfuscation (ie lack of transparency) then this situation is only going to keep getting worse. They will keep pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable, and those boundaries will keep shifting as they push, because what was extreme today is normal next year, and because we don’t push back.

  6. So, apparently myGov will be taken from DHS and handed to the new DTO. I wonder how that will turn out? Hopefully it will result in good things.

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