We also recognize that many of Centrelink's customers find it convenient to use online services. The complaints, although few in relation to the total number of Centrelink's interactions with its customers, point to a gap between DHS's service delivery obligations and the reality experienced by some customers. Centrelink's letters invited its customers to provide feedback or make a complaint, but only provided a website address for DHS's internal complaints service.
However, Centrelink's letters included the ombudsman's phone number, so many disgruntled Centrelink customers would call us instead. However, we recognize that Centrelink's letters are not the only place where its customers can access the DHS feedback and complaints telephone number. Centrelink inquiry lines are open from 8am to 5pm (local time), Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays).
Although we did not investigate all the complaints, they nevertheless show how Centrelink's service was perceived by these customers. She tried to call the phone number in the Centrelink letter for three weeks, without success. 16 Centrelink's annual reports for each year since 2003-04 are published on the DHS website at http://www.humanservices.gov.au/corporate/publications-and-resources/annual-report/.
Maria was pleased with this result, but she asked Welfare Rights to complain to the Ombudsman to highlight the problems with Centrelink's letters. Centrelink's computer system failed to recognize that the documents had been received and suspended Alex's pension. The central source of information about a customer is their record (or records) in Centrelink's computer system.
Charlie decided to sign up to use Centrelink's self-service telephone arrangements to avoid phone queues. We decided not to investigate Charlie's complaint about Centrelink phone delays as we did not consider it likely that we would be able to find a solution for him. Bob left Australia after receiving the Centrelink letter confirming that he would be paid while he was.
Joanna complained to the Ombudsman's office in October 2012 about Centrelink's refusal of her DSP claim. Ralph asked for a review of the valuation of his property and Centrelink's decision to cancel his pension. In agreement with this office, Centrelink's letters also included the number of the Commonwealth Ombudsman's complaints line and asked people to call the Ombudsman if they could not resolve their complaint by speaking to the Centrelink CRU.
But the cases discussed in this report illustrate problems that some people have experienced in a number of areas of Centrelink's service delivery.
In consultation with the Department of Social Services and other stakeholders, develop performance standards for prompt response to calls on each of Centrelink's customer inquiry lines. The department reviews its key performance indicators each year in connection with the development of the portfolio budget statements. The Department does not support establishing separate performance standards for each line of inquiry, as this would potentially lead to rigidity and inhibit the Department's ability to perform real-time management.
The Department does not support the wider disclosure of performance due to the risk of clients 'surfing queues' leading to adverse outcomes for clients.
In response to online inquiries and in accordance with industry standards, the department currently provides customers with an automatic receipt. The Department is investigating a more efficient system to support online inquiries and in the future the development of a performance standard will be part of this process. Response times to customer inquiries are highly dependent on the volume and type of customer correspondence sent to the department.
For example, for older Australians, disabled people and carers, more than 60% of all work is for non-new claims. A reasonable proportion of this work does not affect payments and does not require action from the department. The performance indicators that are developed should take into account the type of work and the impact of the work on the applicant's payment and should be developed in consultation with other agencies. The department will consult with stakeholders and consider the recommendation and its implications as part of its regular review of performance standards.
The department has already made arrangements for the ongoing review of correspondence and has an obligation to engage with customers. The department has formally committed to a broader customer communications renewal program through the purchase of a new enterprise-level communications system. The phased transition to this new system will enable the department to more effectively simplify and improve communication with customers through enhanced capabilities.
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Customer materials promoting our digital service offering were provided to 21 service centers before the end of 2013. These resources include Quick Reference codes to facilitate access to the humanservices.gov.au self-service page. Social media messages encouraging the use of online services are also published on Twitter and Facebook.
Customers can click and log in to online customer services in the upper right corner of the home page. If the customer clicks on each of the Centrelink, Medicare or Child Support icons on the home page, the page has a further link to online services for each brand of service. The Department may capture and monitor online inquiry data to assist in future customer service improvements.
The Department has online guides and demonstrations available on its website to help customers self-manage their business with Centrelink. These include step-by-step guides and video demonstrations on topics such as registering for an online account, updating personal and study details, searching for cards and documents, administering a BasicsCard and reporting employment income. Information on how to register for an online account is also translated into Korean, Persian (Farsi), Vietnamese, Arabic and Chinese.
The department has a network of self-service computers and phones in its service centers where customers can conduct their business online. There are also touchscreen self-service terminals in most service centers and all agents and access points.
At the Quarterly Liaison Meeting with the Office of the Ombudsman held on 4 March 2013, the department outlined the procedures in place to prioritize reviews of vulnerable clients. This process has been in place for several years, prior to the introduction of the enhanced internal review process. Clients without income - the client has no income as a result of a judgment and no other means of support from any source.
Clients who are currently in crisis or are extremely vulnerable – for example due to a recent traumatic relationship or recent serious mental health issues. In the 2012-13 financial year, more than 93 per cent of cases involving claims from vulnerable customers were dealt with within 14 days. vulnerable customers were not adversely affected by the number of inspections. The Department will consult with the Policy Department regarding the possibility of suspending the collection of any debt if the customer has requested a review of the debt for valid reasons, including changes in the law.
In developing its new approach, the department researched best practice, including the Ombudsman's best practice guides. I would like to begin by acknowledging the hard work and professionalism of your officers in conducting the investigation and the constructive way in which they worked with the Department of Social Affairs (Department) officials to progress the report. The department notes that many recommendations have been implemented or are in the process of being implemented.
In terms of the report more generally, the Department is pleased that it recognizes that the majority of Centrelink's program services are delivered without cause for complaint, that the Department is exploring a number of innovative options for service delivery, and that the issues highlighted in the report is only experienced by a minority of customers. The report also acknowledges the scale of the department's activities, noting that in 2012-13 the department processed 2.8 million claims for Centrelink-related payments and made over $116.1 billion in payments to individuals on behalf of the government. Notwithstanding the above, the Department considers that the report could better acknowledge the significant reforms that have been implemented as part of the Service Delivery Reform agenda and the very small number of complaints made about Centrelink's program services as a percentage of customer transactions.
This may affect the department's ability to provide as timely a service as it desires in other areas of its business. While the department acknowledges that all of the complaints referenced in the report reflect customers' perceptions of the service they received, the department questions the value of the report focusing on complaints that were not investigated and therefore not verified by your office . The Department also notes that some of the case studies relate to complaints that were filed more than a year and a half ago.
The department is constantly improving the service for its most vulnerable customers and shares the ombudsman's concern that the vulnerable are not left behind. The department engages with clients, identified peak bodies, community groups and external providers to carry out ongoing reviews of its letters and other communications. Departmental letters and the website will be updated so that it contains clearer information about how you can complain or give feedback to the department.
Finally, I would like to emphasize that the department's performance must be considered in the context of the extremely challenging environment in which it operates. The department therefore looks forward to working with your office to address any outstanding matters highlighted in the report. Thank you again for giving the department an opportunity to comment formally on the report.