Opinion piece by Melissa Donnelly, National Secretary Community and Public Sector Union

If you’ve ever had to sit in a Services Australia Service Centre, you’d know that there is no such thing as a quiet day. On any given day, there are queues, customers frustrated by delays or an online system that didn’t work, and others seeking appointments only to be told they need to book by calling the agency.

Similarly, our members working in Smart Centres report the exasperation of customers desperate to speak with someone over the phone, but they’re hit with long wait times, or even worse, cut off.

In recent times, call pressures on the Services Australia Smart Centre have gotten so bad that the agency has resorted to blocking you from engaging.

You read that correctly.

Services Australia now has a telephony system that remembers your number. If you have already called them in a day and try to call again, you will likely get a congestion message and be unable to get through for the rest of the day.

In the 2021-2022 financial year, there were just under 6 million reported instances of congestion messaging and almost 22 million calls answered by a service officer.

In the 2022-23 financial year, there were over 9 million congestion messages and just under 13 million calls were eventually answered by a service office.

And too often instead of fixing the core problem, senior management just end up trying to game performance against KPIs.

All claims lodged with Services Australia have a KPI for processing that claim, for example more than 80% of aged pension claims need to be done within 49 days. Services Australia workers regularly describe the perverse incentives this can lead to in how work is prioritised and processed. An ‘easy’ claim will be prioritised by management and may be processed very soon after receipt, to help meet agency targets. By the same reasoning, once a claim goes past the target timeframe, there is limited agency incentive to get that work done and it enters what workers describe as ‘limbo’.

The reality is, for years the Services Australia staffing and resourcing model has meant it has lurched from disaster to disaster. From having excessive reliance on overtime to get business as usual work done one day, to cancelling all overtime because of a budget blow-out the next. From putting extra people on one business line to deal with a backlog, to switching them back because another business line has blown out.

Ongoing, sustained staffing increases are urgently needed.

For our members in Services Australia, this haphazard, box ticking, KPI driven, toxic churn, is their everyday working environment.

It is beyond being in crisis, and it is no longer at breaking point. It is broken.

Headline after headline has told us that Services Australia is failing the public, and day after day I am hearing from the coalface the way it is failing its own staff.

The current government didn’t make this mess, but they have an urgent responsibility to fix it.

The immediate injection of 3,000 new APS staff into the agency, announced this week, has been welcomed with a sigh of relief by current staff. But experienced Services Australia workers know that securing the ongoing funding for this staff increase, and perhaps an even greater increase, is what’s going to be required moving forward.

But it’s not all bad.

Services Australia is an agency filled with good-hearted and dedicated public servants who are passionate about helping everyday Australians when they need it.

Services Australia staff were there supporting our country during COVID-19 and supporting communities facing fires and floods. They are there when you head off to university and need youth allowance, when you have baby and need a Medicare card and paid parental leave, and when you get older and need to access the pension.

The agency just needs more of these hardworking and dedicated people so that the public services our country relies on can be efficiently and effectively delivered.

These staff and their vital role in the day-to-day operation of this nation need to be valued and they need to stop being told to do more with less.

With the announcement of a new CEO imminent, and this week’s boost to staffing, our members in Services Australia are desperately hoping for better times ahead.

As well as addressing the backlogs and call wait times, a new CEO will be tasked with addressing the broader cultural problems that plague the agency.

Whether it is concerns about employee monitoring and micromanagement, control over when you can have your lunch break, or whether you get some time off with your family over the Christmas break – Services Australia workers often feel under pressure and unsupported.

With the Government’s response to the Robodebt Royal Commission still outstanding, the question for many Services Australia workers is: can we turn this ship around?

And for the new parent trying once again to get through on the phone to chase up their paid parental leave, or the pensioner, job seeker or student chasing their payments, no doubt they’re also thinking there has to be a better way.

Let’s hope the announced 3,000 extra Services Australia staff is the start of that better way.

This opinion piece was first published in The Canberra Times on Thursday 9th November 2023.

Media contact: Tori McGregor 0429 000 620