Standing up for DHS staff and customers

Last week CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood and Deputy President Lisa Newman addressed the Senate Inquiry into the Centrelink robo-debt debacle. Below are their opening statements. 

Ms Flood: The Community and Public Sector Union represents the real humans working at the centre of the Centrelink Online Compliance Intervention, more commonly known as the robo-debt debacle. Our community legitimately expects that government provide a properly resourced, transparent and accessible social security system which supports people in our community as needed through critical times of their lives. Delivery of those services is the role of the aptly named Department of Human Services, with the work done by our members. It is work they value and believe in, supporting families, pensioners, low-income earners, students and people, as they face life's challenges from illness to unemployment.

Our members believe that system is a cornerstone of a fair society and it is work that they are proud of and deeply committed to. However, what the Online Compliance Intervention and other failings in this department show is that years of government funding cuts and poor policy decisions have severely reduced the department's capacity to be that cornerstone and to deliver for our community. Of course what we are seeing currently is a very high human price being paid both by clients, the people in our community who rely on Centrelink and Human Services, and by the people themselves who work for the department.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Department of Human Services is an agency in crisis, and it is not something I say lightly. The automated compliance or robo-debt issue has hit well over 300,000 people in our community, and of course there are approximately 20,000 letters still going out each week. We have an approach from government, and indeed the senior management of the department, which seems more focused on denying there is a problem and spinning the problem then actually dealing with.

More than 36 million calls to the Department of Human Services went unanswered last year as the department is no longer able to provide a basic level of service to Australians. Centrelink and Human Services' workers are already struggling with massive workload and pressures and the real lived impact of 5,000 permanent job cuts through a series of successive government decisions that have left this department simply unable to cope. Indeed, elements of that were acknowledged by the secretary of the department in estimates last week. What that means is that this department is increasingly placed in the position by government of making very bad decisions.

I think it is important to understand the root causes of these issues which do go back some years. If we deal with the lived impacts on our community now, we can see that the department has been put in a position where it has made decisions with the recent introduction of the automatic debt recovery program to remove or reduce the role of DHS staff in that crucial hands-on element of the work: investigating suspected overpayments and advising on appropriate debt recovery action. The notion that our community expects people should get what they are entitled to and no more is not a new one or a new part of this department's work. But there is a very serious problem here. This new approach, which removes and reduces human oversight of suspected overpayments and reduces employees' roles in a range of elements of the system, has been an absolute disaster for many Centrelink uses and also for the workers charged with implementing a system they know to be deeply flawed and unfair. Hundreds of thousands of Australians, as you have heard, have received frightening and, in some cases, inaccurate debt notices and then faced enormous difficulties trying to get in touch with DHS staff. Of course, at the other end, employees are unable to provide services of the sort they are committed to provide and are also increasingly facing client aggression and frustration.

So how did it come to this? Most of the major problems facing DHS begin with a lack of funding and resources and without proper funding the agency loses the capacity to make good policy decisions, design effective programs and ensure the right benefit goes to the right person at the right time and for the right amount.

DHS has faced a triple whammy of funding cuts starting under successive governments. These do go back to Labor government decisions on efficiency dividends that have then rolled into the decisions of the Abbott/Turnbull government. Service delivery agencies are hit hardest by a number of elements of budget funding processes. I would note that no government ever stood up and said, 'We would like to cut 5,000 jobs from the Department of Human Services, and we think that is a good idea.' It is simply the result of a number of decisions put together.

So-called efficiency dividends hit service delivery agencies harder. Other whole-of-service savings measures, many emanating out of the Department of Finance, also generally hit service delivery agencies harder because they do not have the scope of policy agencies around program funding. In DHS's specific case, the machinery of government changes that resulted in the creation of this mega-agency and the service delivery reform initiatives included the classic Department of Finance mistake where you very clearly identify the savings that will supposedly come out of consolidation and these changes, take those up-front and then see what happens. In this case those impacts have resulted in DHS being an agency that is absolutely struggling. I note the secretary herself said cutting an agency by 10 per cent in 18 months has created no little challenge, which was at one point the impact of those combined three different elements of savings measures.

If we want to look at where robo-debt has come from, it is a fairly obvious consequence of a department that no longer has the resources to provide effective services. The decision to replace the human oversight of debt recovery with automated data matching was absolutely based on a desire and an imperative to save money. It has of course proven to be a classic false economy and has created costly reverse workflows where staff are taken offline to deal with complex and difficult disputes over incorrectly raised automated debts. Sadly, I would suggest that in the last few years, one of the things DHS has become an expert at is bandaid solutions as it lurched from one crisis to the next. This is simply the largest of those.

As a result, the department tries to plug the gap in those services with casual staff who do not have access to the appropriate training, who are deeply frustrated that they cannot do the work and who are largely used to answer the phone and redirect customer inquiries, which allows the department to keep its core statistics lower; someone has clicked on it, they cannot fix the problem, but it is going through to another line and that is good enough. That sort of gaming of the system is the situation this department has been put in.

Our members believe that our social security service system must be robust, sensitive and flexible enough to deal with underpayments, overpayments and other changes in people's lives in a way that ensures the integrity of Commonwealth funds and the dignity of customers. That includes dealing with the reality of an economy and a workforce where people come in and out of work, employers come and go, and there is an increasing level of insecure employment, casual contracts and so on. It is a complex situation that people are in, and systems like this have to deal with that.

At the same time it is important we note there has been a disturbing cultural shift imposed on Centrelink and on the Department of Human Services. It has increasingly gone from an agency focused on treating people like people to one that focuses on treating people as numbers in a dataset and doing the minimum possible. It is also an agency that, more than most, ignores or discards the input of staff in relation to crucial work design and staffing issues and has a vicious and draconian approach to staff speaking out internally and externally.

I would note that this is possibly the only Senate inquiry in the last three years where CPSU representatives have appeared without bringing delegates or rank and file workplace representatives. In this case we felt that it was simply too difficult to ask those people to attend because of the circumstances and the pressure that is in place in this department at this time. We will be putting their feedback further in a written submission, but this is an unusual step for the CPSU.

The same 'my way or the highway' attitude that created the robo-debt debacle has caused major problems elsewhere, including the agency's hopelessly stalled enterprise bargaining situation where DHS has again taken a more negative and unfortunate approach on government policy, significantly causing concerns for working women in that department and meaning that bargaining is impressively more mired in this agency than across the rest of the Commonwealth public sector, which is really quite a high bar after a three-year industrial dispute. Crucially, one of the issues still in dispute in this agency is the need for robust predecision consultation processes where people who do the work in areas such as compliance can actually have a better voice to inform senior management on what will and will not work at the front line. Those sorts of issues are very important to the people who work in this agency.

So, we are calling for a number of things to happen. The Turnbull government must immediately suspend the online compliance program and actually put the real fixes in place so that this no longer hurts thousands of Australians. There needs to be immediate action and a serious budget solution to reverse the damage done by the combination of multiple cuts to the Department of Human Services, including the reduction of 5,000 permanent jobs. Any new approach should have properly resourced human oversight so that the agency can be confident that the overpayments it identifies and debts it raises are legitimate and accurate. DHS must immediately be put in a position by government to convert casual workers—of which there are now thousands—to permanent roles with access to effective training and to be able to provide a genuine, full range of services and support to customers.

Finally, the culture in this agency needs to change, and the approach we have seen over recent months in this matter is a damning indictment, but it is also a responsibility of government. We need to deliver a system in which the people who work for DHS can deliver great services to the community, and the community can have faith in our social security system and this department's work.

CHAIR: Ms Newman, would you like to make a statement?

Ms Newman: The introduction of the automated debt processing system has been done without any consultation of effective staff or their union. We have not been consulted about the design of the system or its potential impact on staff. We have watched the introduction of the system roll out with increasing levels of alarm and distress. In January we started to have contact from members who were reporting that average incomes could lead to incorrect debt calculations and customers could end up paying money that they did not owe before a debt was proven to exist. A mismatch in employer information could also lead to double counting of income and therefore generate false debt statistics. Customers would be unable to get the documentation they required to prove that the debt did not exist, and customers would not be advised of their appeal rights.

We have also been told by our members, as Nadine said, that the customary oversight has been removed from the system before contact with customers has been initiated and that, instead, that oversight has been limited to queries and requests for reassessments once notices have been issued and received by customers. Members have been particularly disturbed by reports of managers instructing frontline staff not to correct errors that they find and instead to push customers onto self-service mechanisms and/or refer them to a different part of the department—namely, the OCI teams.

This week I was contacted by a member with over 20 years experience in the department and extensive knowledge of debt management processes. She described the distress she felt at seeing the integrity of the debt management process that she has worked with for many years being sacrificed to the point where staff know that customers are going to incur needless debt. As she described it, the department has an obligation to pay the right person the right payment at the right rate at the right time. She told me that people are complex, with messy lives. The department has moved the burden of proof of a debt to customers, who in many cases struggle to find the required evidence to prove that they do not owe the alleged debt.

The system has had a significant impact on staff working with it. People have reported increased stress levels, increased absences from work, lack of sleep and increased customer aggression. And I would just note to the committee that in our previous surveying on client aggression directed towards DHS staff financial stress was one of the primary triggers to incidents of aggression. Staff are also very concerned and very angry about what they see being done to some of the most vulnerable members of the community, and many feel morally conflicted in their role in this process.

In January we contacted the department to raise the concerns our members had contacted us to relay and also asked for a meeting with the department. We were given the advice that has generally been given to other organisations, and that is that the system was working as it was designed to work and that there was no need to meet and talk about any issues about the system in detail.

DHS staff—our members—want to help customers, and that is why they find it so distressing to see their department putting customers at an increased risk of depression, decreased motivation, self-harm and even suicide. There have been anecdotal reports about increased levels of customer aggression directed at Centrelink workers that includes swearing, threats, physical aggression and spitting. We would make the case that the Turnbull government needs to suspend this system. It needs to fix the system so that before it contacts a person over an alleged debt it has skilled and experienced staff assessing that person's records holistically, because automated systems cannot read customer records and see the details that experienced officers can.

The department should also undertake an urgent risk assessment of the process to ensure that the risks to both the physical and mental health of both customers and staff are taken into consideration in the design of the system. And there needs to be immediate action to reverse the damage done by cutting 5,000 permanent jobs from DHS. Any new approach has to ensure that properly resourced human oversight in this agency occurs so that the government and the community can be confident that overpayments are identified and are correct. DHS must also immediately convert current casual workers to permanent roles through a merit selection process so that they can be properly trained and provide the full range of services to support the communities in which they live.

As Nadine mentioned, the culture in DHS is one of the most significant barriers to our members' voice and input into systems like this. There are many things that should have been taken into consideration in the design of this system that we believe constitute a current risk to our members' health and safety as well as the health and safety of the community that uses that system.

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