Services Australia, the government department in charge of Centrelink, has been stretched to “breaking point” and is potentially at risk of collapse, an investigation claims.
Centrelink payment processing times are getting worse each week, staff numbers have been reduced to unsustainable levels and overtime has been cut, according to an investigation by The Saturday Paper, which spoke to Services Australia staff directly.
Behind these problems, staff say, is an “agency in chaos”, hampered by poor decision-making and a lack of resources.
Some staff say they are concerned the department that processes government welfare payments could be on the verge of “collapse” and unable to deliver its most basic functions.
A Services Australia spokesperson, meanwhile, has defended its services and praised staff for their commitment.
Staff levels too low
Staff members say they feel abandoned by the government and upper management, which are not providing the budget necessary to replace the high turnover of staff.
This, in turn, is leading to increased workloads for remaining staff and longer turnaround times, the investigation claims.
“The culture, morale and treatment of staff by the government and the senior executive service (SES) within the agency is the worst that I have ever seen or experienced,” one staff member said on the condition of anonymity.
“And each day it gets worse. Essentially, we are getting told every day that the agency is broke.”
The agency has had its funding cut. In the May Federal Budget, the average staffing level cap for Services Australia was 26,692 – down 1868 from the previous year.
The government says that was a return to normal staffing levels after an increase initiated during the pandemic was no longer needed.
At least part of the alleged problems at Services Australia could be due to an ill-fated upgrade to its recipient eligibility software.
The ‘entitlements calculation engine’ (ECE) was first introduced in 2019, and aimed to provide a more streamlined way for Centrelink staff to assess a person’s payment eligibility.
The problem was that the new system took minutes to assess what the previous eligibility software could do in seconds. After three years, and more than $191 million, the ECE was scrapped earlier this year, IT News reports.
The exercise has left an enormous hole in the agency’s budget.
Alongside increased workloads caused by a lack of staff, many Services Australia staff say they are still shocked and stressed by what they were asked to do during the Robodebt scandal.
Robodebt involved what was later deemed to be the illegal issuing of debts to some Centrelink recipients using automated ‘income averaging’ to determine how much a recipient had earned, rather than actual records.
It resulted in many incorrect debts being issued to some of Australia’s most vulnerable people, even driving some to suicide.
Many staff who were required to enforce those debts are now dealing with mental illness issues.
Services Australia CEO Rebecca Skinner issued an apology to staff earlier this month.
“I know Robodebt and the fallout from the scheme has been difficult for you all to navigate,” Ms Skinner says in a video apology.
“I want to apologise to all of you for Robodebt. Robodebt is a heavy burden that many of you still carry.”
Services Australia responds
A spokesperson for Services Australia said the agency dealt with an extremely high workload.
“Services Australia manages more than $220 billion in payments and processes more than 500 million claims a year,” the spokesperson said.
“This is a huge undertaking which we deliver because our staff are devoted to helping the millions of people across the nation who rely on us.”
The spokesperson also praised Services Australia’s existing staff and defended staffing levels.
“The heart of Services Australia’s culture is staff who are driven to serve and make a difference in the community,” the spokesperson said.
“This was best demonstrated throughout the pandemic years when our staff went over and beyond to provide record support to Australians, from COVID-19 payments to vaccination certificates and through rolling natural disasters.
“Their commitment allowed us to keep our doors open safely during all lockdowns to provide face-to-face support to those who needed it.”
“Our staffing has returned to more regular levels now that pandemic era work, and associated extra resourcing, has concluded.”
Services Australia reiterated its staff were fully committed to helping Australians who needed it most.
“Our entire agency is focused on putting customers at the centre of everything we do and applying our guiding principles of simple, helpful, respectful and transparent in serving Australians.
“We’re committed to providing the best service we can within the agency’s budget allocation.”
Have you had any problems with Services Australia processing payments. or queries? How have you found wait times? Let us know in the comments section below.