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Issue #1541      28 March 2012

Human Services offices swamped by floods and budget cuts

The combination of federal government budget cuts and new flood relief efforts are putting intense pressure on Centrelink, Medicare, CSA and other Department of Human Services (DHS) agencies.

Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) national secretary Nadine Flood said that a recent survey of workplace delegates had exposed the impact of the federal government’s budget cuts on DHS’s ability to serve its customers.

“We are seeing much longer wait times, higher workloads for staff, more errors and more frustration and conflict from customers as a direct result of budget cuts and staff losses,” she said.

DHS’s staff numbers have dropped from 42,000 in 2010/11, to 40,000 this year and are predicted to drop to 38,000 in 2012/2013 as a result of funding measures and budgets cuts including a higher than ever “efficiency dividend.

“You can’t cut $2.2 billion from public services without reducing the quality of service delivered to the public,” Ms Flood said.

“Centrelink and Medicare provide vital support for millions of Australian pensioners, families, new parents, and others who rely on government payments. We do not want to see people unable to pay rent or buy food because the agencies don’t have enough staff to deal with their situation.”

Ms Flood said the recent floods in eastern Australia had shown the crucial role Centrelink, Medicare and other DHS staff play ensuring financial support is quickly delivered to Australians in times of disaster.

“During natural disasters Centrelink and Medicare rely on staff volunteers to work in specialised call centres or to travel to disaster-hit areas to provide relief. As always, hundreds of staff have volunteered during the current floods,” Ms Flood said.

“However this diversion of staff from their regular duties puts even more strain on daily operations. These essential services are already at crisis point yet thousands more jobs are being cut.

“We are deeply concerned that government may cut Centrelink and Medicare even further in the upcoming Budget. I’m not sure many Australians would support a Budget surplus delivered at the expense of essential frontline services,” said Ms Flood.

The CPSU survey of workplace delegates in DHS found that:

  • 81.8 % report that waiting times for customers have increased
  • 77.8% report workloads and targets have increased
  • 71.9% report there has been a reduction in quality/cutting corners
  • 57.0% report they are having problems accessing leave
  • 71.8% report they have experienced more customer complaints
  • 71.3% report they have experienced more customer hostility

Meanwhile, the CPSU is calling on the government to crack down on spending on consultants after it has been revealed that more than $2 billion has been pocketed by firms such as KPMG, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young over the past four years.

The revelation comes as public sector agencies are shedding jobs and cutting services as part of a $2.2 billion government savings drive. “I think most Australians would be outraged that such a huge amount of taxpayers’ money is going to a handful of high-flying, multi-national companies at the same time as essential frontline services and jobs are disappearing,” Nadine Flood said.

“These big firms first got their claws into government during the Howard years. Now, with such huge amounts on money at stake, you can see why they want to keep their good thing going.

“The federal government appears to have developed a long-term dependence on expensive contractors to do work much of which could – and should – be done in-house.”

She said that the government knows it has skill gaps and shortages in key areas and now is the time to get serious about addressing them. “Surely it’s smarter in the long term to invest in and develop our own people rather than continue to be fleeced by the big end of town.

“Congratulations to the media for exposing the extent of contracting in the APS, but if the government is so committed to saving money on contractors, why isn’t it publishing this data itself?

“When the government announced an extra $.2.2 billion cut to public sector agencies late last year, they promised to crack down on consultancy spending. If agencies do have plans to cut consultancy spending, staff can’t see them. Instead they are facing redundancies and higher workloads for the staff left behind.” she said.

Recent CPSU research shows that very few agencies had discussed cutting consultancies or other saving measures with staff, although many of those agencies are steaming ahead with jobs cuts.

“We could see this problem get worse. Current Budget cuts to the public service are seeing skilled staff go out the door and not be replaced. If you keep degrading the public service’s long-term capacity, inevitably there will be greater reliance on expensive private sector firms to undertake core public service work,” Ms Flood said.  

Next article – NT “intervention” plan condemned

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