On the heels of the Digital Transformation Office’s findings that half of Australians remain unpersuaded by government digital services, the Commonwealth Ombudsman has his own concerns that Centrelink is pushing digital self-services that aren’t friendly enough to all its customers.
Releasing a new report today, ombudsman Colin Neave acknowledged the Department of Human Services had made considerable progress in the last 12 months to rectify customer service shortcomings highlighted by complaints to his office and detailed in a report on Centrelink last April.
That progress, however, only concerned some of his 33 recommendations, mainly around document handling, internal review, management of internal complaints, and the improvement and expansion of self-service and online channels. The ombudsman has continued to receive complaints that indicate service quality has gone backwards in other areas, leading him to conduct the 12-month review, which resulted in 12 new recommendations.
In a statement today, Neave says “that emphasis on self-service does not work for all customers and can, in itself, be the cause of customer complaints” — a fact he says is most obvious from the ongoing complaints about Centrelink’s online and call centre services his office is still receiving from a small but nonetheless important minority of customers. He adds:
“In some respects, Centrelink’s phone services have deteriorated further as we now routinely receive complaints from people who have not been able to get through to the DHS Complaints and Feedback line to make a complaint about their phone experience on other Centrelink lines.”
These are the complaints that government’s digital pioneers and bean counters would rather didn’t exist. Catering to those who don’t want to use online options is cutting into the huge savings in service delivery the government is expected to make through digital transformation.
In her recent keynote speech to the ACT branch of the Institute for Public Administration Australia, DHS secretary Kathryn Campbell marked the end of a four-year process of consolidation and service delivery reform, which brought Centrelink under the umbrella of the department. She declared the reforms a success but briefly acknowledged that more work needed to be done on the Centrelink call centre, which was also scrutinised by the auditor-general in May.
Even before it came into DHS, Centrelink was the agency most complained about, which today’s ombudsman’s report notes is not surprising given it deals with far more citizens than any other. It continues:
“However, while we do not expect Centrelink to be error free, we would like more people to be able to sort out their problems with Centrelink without our involvement.”
The department’s response to the audit made it clear that the performance of Centrelink’s call centres was heavily dependent on its level of funding, and Neave’s latest report points out it obviously struggles to deal with demand at peak times:
“When Centrelink is under most pressure, it cannot service all of its customers. At these times, despite DHS’ commitment to provide additional support to vulnerable customers, there is a risk that the more resourceful, persistent and able will find a way to navigate through barriers, leaving the vulnerable behind.
We therefore consider it is imperative that DHS consider how it can ensure that it provides equitable access to all the people who are likely to use its services, particularly those who are unable for whatever reason to take advantage of the digital service delivery innovations being introduced.”
Neave said he recognised that many of the problems people encountered with DHS’s services stemmed from its ageing computer system, which is to be replaced through another reform process that “represents a new era for the department”, according to Campbell.
“It’s not just an IT system; it will be a different way of working,” the DHS secretary said in her speech. “There will be that focus on what the customer’s circumstances are and how we can help them, and how we build a system that’s flexible and able to be adapted to the different requirements of the government of the day.”
Neave hopes so. He says the Welfare Payment Infrastructure Transformation is “a necessary step towards equipping DHS with the tools it needs to provide proper services to its customers”, adding:
“In the meantime, DHS needs to consider how it can alleviate the adverse impact on the people who need to access the services of its Centrelink program.”