Hold the phone: government call centres out of favour

By Harley Dennett

October 27, 2014

Australians are increasingly choosing not to interact with government call centres if given online alternatives. Just a few years ago telephone was king in complaints handling, but figures released today from the Commonwealth Ombudsman reveal a steep decline.

In the last two years, approaches via telephone have dropped from 70% of all interactions to just 56%, and electronic approaches — available via “Smart Form” since 2011 — have risen from 23% of all interactions to 35%. Written and in-person approaches remain steady at less than 5% each.

As the peak complaint handler for the Australian public service, ombudsman Colin Neave gets a lot of requests. In the last year there were 23,529 complaints or information requests, which represents an 11% decline from the previous year. The decline is attributed to recent improvements to communication encouraging people to first complain to the correct agency about their concerns.

Australia Post was the only agency to see a rise in complaints and, along with the departments of Human Services (Centrelink, Medicare and child support), Immigration and Border Protection and the Australian Taxation Office, dominates the ombudsman’s workload.

Reasons agencies exercised discretion not to investigate a disclosure
Reasons agencies exercised discretion not to investigate a disclosure
Types of disclosable conduct
Types of disclosable conduct

Neave challenged agencies to keep fairness and integrity in focus amid the pressures to do more with less:

“While being responsive to those challenges, it is critical to maintaining ongoing confidence in the Australian Public Service that standards of good public administration and integrity of government operations are sustained and enhanced.”

Neave cited examples such as Australia Post repeatedly leaving a collection card for an addressee with a disability, instead of ringing her doorbell. Child support complaints include situations such as where a client knows where her partner lives, but the agency claims he was unlocatable. Centrelink errors included unreasonable demands for customer documentation that doesn’t exist or cannot be obtained by the customer.

Having wrapped up a major investigation into Centrelink’s service delivery complaints, culminating in 12 recommendations, Neave is now turning his attention to a wider review of agency complaint management. Neave says this investigation “represents the most comprehensive snapshot of Commonwealth complaint handling that has ever been done by this office and will be the subject of a formal report due to be released later this year”.

That report will be used to provide an evidence base for updating the Ombudsman’s Better Practice Guide to Complaint Handling.

Whistleblower scheme gets pass

The ombudsman also released the first report card on the Commonwealth’s new public interest disclosure scheme — better known as the whistleblowers scheme — which commenced operation in January this year and grants “robust protections” to public officials who report wrongdoing in the public sector. Neave’s office helped prepare agencies for the scheme’s introduction. He stated:

“Overall, I am pleased with the commitment agencies have shown to implementing the new scheme within their operations, and their responsiveness to our suggestions for improvement.”

However, discrepancies in information reported by some agencies reflected a “fundamental misunderstanding with the application of the Act”, Neave warned.

Since the introduction of the scheme, 48 of the 191 agencies involved have received at least one public interest disclosure about wrongdoing in the agency that met the minimum threshold requirements for reporting. Within those 48 agencies, 378 disclosures came from current or former public officials.

Just over half of the disclosures were of offences by the agency against state or Commonwealth law. Abuse of position and maladministration were the next most common types of disclosure. A further handful of disclosures revealed safety risks, wastage of public money, corruption or abuse of public trust.

The Department of Defence reported the most disclosures at 181, with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection following with 61 disclosures. Neave noted that both departments had large numbers of employees, and both were active in raising awareness of the scheme, possibly explaining the high rate of disclosures.

A further 286 approaches were not included in the official reported figures as they did not meet the minimum threshold requirements for reporting, such as actions that were not by public officials or were covered by other legislation such as the Defence Force Discipline Act.

Over the course of the last six months, these whistleblower reports resulted in 223 investigations across Commonwealth agencies.

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