What kind of government service puts public on hold for 811 years?

Millions of calls to Centrelink went unanswered as Australians waited a collective total of 811 years in 2013-14. Shutterstock/Sarah Jane Taylor

A new report by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) calculates around one in four calls to Centrelink went unanswered in 2013-14. The ANAO estimates the time lost by customers who abandoned their calls – after an average wait of nine minutes and 43 seconds – totalled 143 years. The average wait until calls were answered, 16 minutes and 53 seconds, translates to these callers hanging on the end of the line for a cumulative total of 668 years.

These numbers are indicative of more than being stuck in a wait queue. They speak to the bigger problem of the absence of respect in the relationship between government services and Australia’s vulnerable citizens.

Interactions between citizens and government services are a manifestation of the logic and values of our state. Government services like Centrelink are not designed to support citizens to claim the resources they need and are entitled to. The rollback of the welfare state, new public management and expectations of individual responsibility combine to restructure customer-worker interactions.

The results are characterised by short transactions limited to categorising “problems” and recording information largely for the purposes of policing compliance with welfare rules. These interactions limit the resources assigned to society’s “leaners”.

All citizens are entitled to respect

In contrast, sociologist Richard Sennett has argued for the centrality of respect in providing welfare services. The needs of vulnerable people must be met in ways that accord them dignity as humans and as citizens. Even in the absence of direct aggression or insult, lack of respect is wounding because recognition is not extended; a person:

… is not seen – as a full human being whose presence matters.

Many Australians feel Centrelink treats them ‘like a number’. AAP/Julian Smith

The absence of respect is a defining characteristic of many Australians’ interactions with Centrelink. In their book, Half a Citizen, John Murphy and his colleagues describe poor Australians’ experiences of being mistrusted, humiliated and “treated like a number”.

Working with my colleagues Kay Cook (RMIT) and Torna Pitman (University of Tasmania), I am finding similar experiences among single mothers dealing with Centrelink and the DHSCS (the old Child Support Agency). Many of the women we spoke to were deeply distressed by the absence of respectful, accessible, timely and accurate responses from Centrelink.

People in the above studies described workers not believing or ignoring information, criticising clients’ expectations and use of time and money, and strictly imposing rules irrespective of clients’ actual needs and behaviours. These experiences were often replicated when people were required to deal with multiple government services.

The women we spoke to described how the negative stereotypes of vulnerable people were echoed in many government service workers’ comments and advice even as, in the words of one woman:

Nobody’s really listened to the story. Nobody’s listened.

As Sennett notes, such experiences are wounding. In our research we are finding they erode people’s self-worth, exacerbate the sense of vulnerability accompanying poverty and intensify the insecurity of those single mothers in high-conflict or fearful relationships with former partners.

Materially, it is the customers of government services who suffer the consequences of missing, late or incorrect information. These consequences apply even when the “wrong” information is a result of misunderstandings, miscalculations or inconsistent advice.

Borrowing the words of Murphy and colleagues, there are occasional “flashes of empathy and help that made a difference”. These positive interactions are rare. They depend on the knowledge and attitudes of individual staff members rather than Centrelink processes.

For customers, the opportunity to share their experiences with workers who listen and respond with advice or moral support are valued for the sense of respect they offer.

Digital technology is no panacea

The problem with Marise Payne’s internet-based solution is that many poorer households are not connected. AAP/Nikki Short

Human Services Minister Marise Payne has pointed to the internet as a solution to Centrelink’s poor telephone services, but digital technologies will not solve the issue of access. The digital divide is closing, but under 60% of households with incomes of A$40,000 or less have access to the internet at home.

Additionally, the myGov website is renowned for its user unfriendliness and security vulnerabilities. Using service points also involves time and travel, both of which can be difficult for those with caring responsibilities or mobility issues.

Nor will technology solve the question of respect – it could make a bad situation worse. The DHS website sells “self-service” as a way of managing “business” with government. But making Centrelink processes more standardised and impersonal is counter to Sennett’s definition of respect.

The technologies impose definitions of the content and form of relevant information. They limit Centrelink customers’ agency in sharing the information, experiences and claims that are important to their definition of themselves and their situations. Websites, apps and voice recognition may be efficient, but they physically and symbolically render many Centrelink customers unseen and redefine what elements of their presence matter.

Responding to the ANAO report, Centrelink managers last week prioritised answering calls. Picking up the phones may change the numbers in the next report but it will not address the disrespect that is the common experience of Centrelink customers. Perhaps an audit of respect is the more challenging and necessary next step in assessing the performance of government services.

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