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Centrelink demonstrates contempt for community


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Why senior heads should roll over Centrelink's appalling phone query wait times.

Research completed by Centrelink and published in the mainstream media today highlights the contempt that the government agency -- its staff, management and its Minister -- have for the Australian community, particularly low-income Australians.

Centrelink has contempt for the community it serves.

Centrelink has contempt for the community it serves.

I have no direct experience of Centrelink, but given today's finding, that is nothing short of fortuitous. The report shows customers have to wait up to an hour on hold when telephoning Centrelink. The average wait is 15 minutes and 44 seconds.

Unless I was desperate, as I imagine many of the callers to Centrelink are, I would not wait 15 minutes. And unless it was essential, I wouldn't call again -- ever.

Unfortunately, the patrons of Centrelink have no choice but to hang on.

On-hold waiting times of 15 minutes 44 seconds are not good. But what I find most appalling is that this is just 35 seconds greater than the agency's target time.

Here is an agency that sets incredibly low standards with a 15-minute wait deemed acceptable, but they cannot even reach that low target. To make it worse, Centrelink management reportedly said that was a reasonable result.

Not only are the standards low in terms of on-hold times, but it seems that the standards are low in terms of management. This observation was highlighted to me in an interview on the ABC, in which a spokesman suggested that the biggest issue related to frivolous calls, issues that could have been addressed online.

I beg your pardon? The problems with this suggestion are two-fold.

Firstly, many Centrelink customers may not have access to a computer. Secondly, Centrelink’s own data suggests otherwise. People calling with more serious issues actually have the longest time on hold -- with the disabled waiting an average 28 minutes to speak to somebody.

If this is even mildly acceptable to the Secretary of The Department of Human Services, the department responsible for Centrelink, then he is a long way short of earning his stellar salary.

The executive of a private or listed entity (other than Telstra) who accepted such standards would be sacked -- and rightfully so. If Renee Leon cannot manage customer service better than this, she is not worthy of the $400,000-plus salary she is paid.

The management of Centrelink will point to budget cuts, and with some justification, but there are two important responses to such a suggestion.

Firstly, it is only part of the problem. If Renee Leon was up to the job, she would negotiate the required budget and then recognise that the real problems are: a lack of will on the part of her staff; and an inability on her behalf to create an environment where such a will exists.

Secondly, the performance of any business is the responsibility of the leader and if Leon is not up to it, she should go.

It is surely the role of every chief executive to create a culture in which staff have a customer orientation, regardless of the socio-economic status of the customer. It is evident to me, from the report released this morning and comments from friends -- including those on pensions -- that the culture at Human Services, especially Centrelink, is dreadful.

The staff could bring hold times down if they had the will. But for them to have that will, so must the management team -- and it would appear that they don’t.

If management think that a 15-minute average wait time is acceptable, they most certainly lack the will to create a culture that will address this issue. And if they send out unconvincing hacks, like the PR spokesman I saw on the ABC, to utter platitudes and fill 60 seconds of TV time saying nothing as they did, they most certainly lack the will to create a culture that will see a better outcome for all concerned.

I often wonder where the public service finds these hacks to front up and so skilfully say nothing.

It is really not good enough that high-paid executives are allowed to get away with substandard performance. It is not at all acceptable that the minister not provide the required budget, but even worse that they do not remove heads of departments that do not perform.

In Australia today, we accept under-performance as readily as we accept poor customer service. CEOs hide behind their big desks in their cloistered offices claiming to be high performers, but rarely demonstrate this is the case.

 Ultimately, it is the minister that must be held responsible for this appalling service by Centrelink, but there should be an expectation that the secretary (CEO) perform at a standard befitting their income and privileges.

I am really tired of public service incompetence, and I am more tired again of management incompetence. In my experience, this is more common than staff incompetence -- especially if you accept that management should be responsible for the performance of the staff.

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