When new mum Bec Smith signed up to receive maternity leave, she never guessed it would result in a never-ending dispute with Centrelink and a loss of her savings.
Months prior to Smith giving birth to her daughter Matilda, she created an account on the MyGov website, which is a government-operated platform that links to a variety of services including Centrelink, Medicare and the Australian Taxation Office (ATO).
But after visiting Centrelink to verify her identification, she was told that the “system was down” and to go home and try again.
For the next six weeks, after trying online on different computers and making various calls, Smith was again told by Centrelink that “the system must be down” again.
Eventually the Camberwell Centrelink office told Smith that they “had no idea” what the problem was and to send a claim via snail mail to find out what the problem was. But, because she couldn’t access her online account, she couldn’t actually lodge the claim in the first place.
By this stage, Smith says she was dipping into her savings account and relied on credit cards to get by and then went on to make several phone calls to the office, which resulted in two-hour long waiting times.
“I came home from hospital on the Saturday and rang [Centrelink] on the Monday; every single day I called and was on the phone for an average of 2.5 hours a day,” Smith told The Age.
But Smith isn’t the only one facing Centrelink-related stress, long waiting times and little support. According to a recent report released by the Australian National Audit Office, Australians spent more than 140 years waiting to speak to Centrelink from 2013 to 2014, before deciding to hang up.
That worrying figure isn’t the half of it, though. The same report found that around 13.7 million calls didn’t get to the point of being put on hold, they were simply given the busy signal.
And a further 13 million callers who were lucky enough to have their calls enter the queue, ended up hanging up because of long waiting times.
While it was reported that the average waiting times are around 17 minutes, up from five minutes from 2010 to 2011, the auditors reported that that wasn’t a good reflection of what callers really experience, saying that 30 per cent of callers would wait 30 minutes or more before having their call answered.
But it’s not just long waiting times that have Centrelink customers in a huff. The Commonwealth Ombudsman has also brought attention to the welfare agency for taking unwarranted action against customers which has led to many complaints.
“People had difficulty finding information about payment qualifications,” says Ombudsman Colin Neave. “They had trouble making a claim because of a lack of accurate information. They could not understand Centrelink’s correspondence which they said was sometimes confusing and contradictory.”
Centrelink encourages feedback through their website. “You can talk with any of our staff, and if you’re not happy with their response you can speak to their manager. If you are still not satisfied, you can contact us through one of our feedback options,” their website says.
But unfortunately, the feedback process hasn’t worked out for Smith and her payment claims.
“The worst bit is I’m not getting any communication with Centrelink because all the letters are in the myGov account, and I can’t get on to see them or change my preferences for correspondence to be sent by post,” Smith said.
The myGov website integration with Centrelink, Medicare and the ATO sparked criticism earlier this year with the ATO experiencing difficulties during the last financial year when the site wouldn’t allow people to lodge their tax returns.
Eventually Smith was told that the myGov site issue was a “serious error” that affected people’s accounts at random. And, finally, after being told that requesting a time frame for the situation to be resolved was “unrealistic”, the Department of Human Services released in a statement that they were looking into the problem, offering Smith their apologies.
“I was basically told to suck it up,” Smith said.
In light of such issues the Human Services department says they are simply working within their means and the resources they are allocated, revealing that they would need to hire 1,000 new public servants, at an extra $100 million, to bring their phone waiting times down.