Centrelink’s one weird trick to get unbelievably good call centre stats

By Stephen Easton

Friday March 3, 2017

The truth behind Centrelink’s unbelievably good call centre stats has come out in Senate Estimates, pressure is ramping up on the minister over his role in releasing a client’s personal details, and the bipartisan support for a bill giving Veterans’ Affairs similar powers is now in doubt.

Administrative tricks that allow the Department of Human Services to claim unbelievably short average telephone waiting times have been revealed in Senate Estimates, and more has emerged about the minister’s role in releasing a client’s personal information to a journalist.

The surprisingly short average call waiting times regularly trotted out by Centrelink, Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge and a line of his predecessors have often been viewed with suspicion, if not ridiculed and dismissed outright.

It is quite hard to find Centrelink clients whose experience tallies with the rosy figures and very easy to find a throng who say they bear no relation to reality. People who work in the department have previously suggested the methods used to calculate the performance information are designed to make them look as good as possible, rather than for public accountability, and the testimony given by DHS this week shows how one could arrive at that conclusion.

“A transfer to a new line becomes a new inquiry, and as such, the clock would start again,” deputy secretary for service delivery Barry Jackson told the senators. “It becomes a new call coming into the system.”

Secretary Kathryn Campbell said DHS tried “very hard” to make sure queries could be answered on the first line the person calls.

Like all big service-providing organisations, Centrelink wants clients to go through online self-service channels as much as possible, but is finding that a lot of them still want to speak to somebody. In the first seven months of the year, 28 million calls to Centrelink got an engaged signal before they made it to the point of being put on hold, compared to 29 million for the whole of 2015-16 and 22 million 2014-15.

The engaged signal people hear isn’t the normal kind; it effectively means a computer system automatically hangs up on them. This means the call time is recorded as a few seconds, again lowering the average waiting time figure considerably.

If a person spends a long time listening to the hold music but has to hang up before they get anywhere, the call is recorded as abandoned, and the time spent waiting does not contribute to the virtually meaningless average either. There have been 4.1 million abandoned calls so far this financial year.

Tudge: ‘mistake’ cleared by legal team

The suggestion that call waiting times are not as bad as everyone says was also present in the article penned by Canberra journalist Paul Malone, who controversially received personal information about blogger Andie Fox from Centrelink to rebut her previous criticisms. Agency bosses and Alan Tudge both asserted the release was legal although they appear to have got mixed up about which section of the social security legislation they were relying on.

It has also now been revealed in an exclusive report in The Guardian that Tudge’s office sent Malone an entire detailed briefing package from the department — “mistakenly” according to the report — instead of three simple dot points DHS had provided. The minister said it was not a problem, however, because he said the official-use-only documents were cleared by the DHS legal team.

Secretary Campbell told senators the department had felt the need to rebut Fox’s article by releasing details of her case “so that people knew it was important to file their tax returns and tell us about changes in their circumstances” — to ensure confidence in the integrity of the welfare system — but the debacle has arguably done more harm than good in that regard.

The shadow minister, Linda Burney, has meanwhile asked the Australian Federal Police commissioner to look at whether Tudge’s actions were illegal.

Shetler: DHS ‘very, very defensive’

The outspoken former chief executive of the Digital Transformation Agency, Paul Shetler, told ABC radio this morning the debt recovery program that relies on simplistic use of data-matching, was clearly a failure. He said DHS was hard to work with and behaved like a person declaring “nothing is wrong; everything is good” while their house burns down around them.

“Generally speaking they were difficult to work with and very, very defensive,” said Shetler.

Angus Taylor, the Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation, said the DTA and DHS now had a “terrific” relationship and the DTA’s role had changed since Shetler’s time.

And while DHS deals with the fallout over its decision to release information about Andie Fox’s case to the media, which has now been compounded by bungling in the minister’s office, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is getting similar powers under legislation currently making its way through parliament.

The ABC reports the DVA secretary would be allowed to approve the release of a client’s private information without their approval — if they feel the person is making false claims — under the new legislation, but the boss could not delegate the power to anyone else.

DVA staff would also face serious criminal penalties like fines of over $10,000 if they failed to comply with their privacy obligations under the proposed rules, which had bipartisan support but soon may not, as the opposition is reconsidering its position.

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