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Issue #1770      March 22, 2017

Dehumanising Human Services

This month Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Nadine Flood and deputy president Lisa Newman addressed the Senate Inquiry into the Centrelink robo-debt debacle. Their analysis of developments in the Department of Human Services gives insights into the profound human effects of the government’s cuts. Below are extracts from Flood’s address. Next week; Lisa Newman.

Nadine 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 users 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.

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.

Robust, sensitive, flexible

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.

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 pre-decision 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.

Next article – Southern Cross Brigade 34 – The times they are a changin’

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