Minister Shorten doorstop interview at Services Australia Bendigo Smart Service Centre


SUBJECTS: New Services Australia staff; improving call and payment wait times

LISA CHESTERS, MEMBER FOR BENDIGO: So, Lisa Chesters, Federal Member for Bendigo, really proud to welcome my good friend, Minister Bill Shorten, back to Bendigo with a very exciting announcement for our Services Australia team here. For a long time, we have had Services Australia employees working in Bendigo from this smart centre. So, the front of house and the back of house. And every federal election, I actually stood out the front to say, hey, a Labor Government will increase the number of directly employed staff to make sure that we have well trained, skilled local people on the phone helping people with their claims and with their Services Australia, Centrelink, Medicare inquiries. So, Bill, this has been a long time coming for me and it is great to have you here in our town with this announcement.

BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Hello everyone. It's lovely to be back in Bendigo with Australia's hardest working federal MP, Lisa Chesters. It's also great to be meeting the new Services Australia staff. People in Bendigo, people across Victoria, people across Australia, have a human right to be able to access Government services. The problem is that in the last 8 or 9 years, we've seen the number of staff reduced, yet the demand is still pretty constant. You know, in about 2015, there was one Services Australia staff for every 700 Australians. Until recently there's been one Services Australia staff now for well over each thousand people. So, it means that Services Australia is being asked to do more with less. I'm very pleased that last October, for the first time in a decade, we saw the largest ever employment of new staff, and some of these people are behind me. 3000 extra staff were hired to help tackle payments. We want to make sure that if you put in your carers claim or your aged pension or your DSP claim, that it can be resolved in a reasonable time. The backlog of claims has blown out. Also, we're seeing a lot of pressure on our telephone systems. Every year, 1.1 billion transactions occur online with Medicare payments and social welfare payments. But we still have 10 million people visiting service centres, and there's over a million phone calls every week, people just interacting with Government.

What's really exciting is that as part of the initiative to get 3000 extra humans back into human services, that we've able to put so many of them in the regions across Australia. There's 130 new staff working across regional Victoria alone, and 11 of these people are based in Bendigo. And when you look at the new hires, we've been doing to replace existing staff in Services Australia, there's been 22 jobs now, new people employed in Bendigo, making sure we can tackle waiting lists right across this region. But across Australia. The people behind me, they're highly motivated. They want to make a difference. It's fantastic that we've got so many people who want to step forward and help their fellow citizens. The final thing I just wanted to say is due to the lobbying of Lisa and having a Labor Government in Canberra, we're not just relying on call centre labour hire workers. That's important for surge matters, but we want to give people a career in the public service. Well, I would say this about our public servants in Australia. They're very professional. They're very passionate. They're very committed to accomplishing great things for people. And I think this next generation of public servants starting their journey, their careers here in Bendigo, you know, I think it's an exciting time for citizens and for our new staff. If there's any questions, I'm sure Lisa and I'd be happy to take them. Tough local questions, Lisa.

JOURNALIST: Minister, are these new jobs an acknowledgement of cost of living pushing more people to Services Australia?

SHORTEN: Yeah, well, if you have to wait two months to get your payments sorted, that's a cost-of-living issue. We've been upgrading the myGov app. Now, well over 4 million people have downloaded the app. We encourage people to use digital services where they can, but for some people, they either can't or don't want to use digital services. At the end of the day, to have proper human services in this country, you need humans. The previous Coalition Government for four and a half years perpetrated the unlawful misery of Robodebt, where they simply relied on an algorithm and sent unlawful debt notices to nearly half a million of our fellow Australians who'd done nothing wrong. They were just given false debt notices. So, what we want to do is put more humans back into the system. I'd just say to people who are experiencing delays, be it in payment processing, claim processing, we get it. It is a problem. This problem has taken ten years to create. You can't turn it around overnight, but due to the hard work, the intellect, and the passion of the people behind me, I'm confident that in coming months we will see waiting times for payments, claims and telephone calls reduce.

JOURNALIST: In February, you did say that the new jobs would take about six months to see an effect on the ground. We're still on track for that sort of time frame?

SHORTEN: Yeah, and we're starting to see some modest reduction in waiting times now. Late last year, the average waiting time was somewhere in the mid 30 minutes to get a call answered. Now it seems to be under 30 minutes, but one, I get it's an average which means there's longer and two, I still think that's too long. But let's all work together. We need more humans back in the system. During Covid, there was a spike of resources, which was really good. But the Covid extra resources have gone, but demand is still quite significant. So, we just need trained, skilled public servants. And it's exciting to see and talk to the workforce here, how they're learning, understanding, and they're getting a better appreciation of their community, too, and are able to give something back to it and be paid and have a permanent job. So, it's a win/win/win.

JOURNALIST: When you were looking at creating new roles for Services Australia, what types of people were you hoping to attract and what kind of culture would you like to see developed within Services Australia?

SHORTEN: Well, Services Australia for years has been the whipping boy or girl of Coalition Governments. A lot of the long-standing staff were asked to implement these unlawful debt notice demands against citizens. That was a traumatic period. Also, we'd seen the trend towards casualisation and contracting out. In other words, there were people who might be answering the phones who had no employment relationship with Services Australia. And if you don't know if you're going to keep this job from one month to the next, it's hard to give it your all. Also, what we found is that the previous Government in particular would employ people for fixed terms, you know, a year, and then instead of making them permanent ongoing at the end of that, they'd roll over their contract. At the end of the day, you can't expect quality human services for the nation if you don't treat the people working in the service system with dignity. But the good news is they've got a Labor Government. We want to make sure that we've just sorted out an enterprise agreement, which actually received a 93% positive vote, and 80% of people even voted on the agreement. So that's good. Some overdue pay rise for hard working staff. We've been moving a lot more of the jobs in-house and now we're hiring more people. So, I want to send a very clear message to our 30,000 plus people who are doing incredible work, that the Government respects what you do. So, we're going to change the culture by treating people with respect. If you look at the backgrounds of the staff behind me and the new blood which we're bringing into the show, there's people come from hospitality, people come from health. People might have come from other public sector jobs, even the state public service. So, you've got a great range of people skills. And that's what we want. I want people to feel that if they go and work at Services Australia, it's a career, not just a job.

JOURNALIST: We all know that people in public service can cop a hard time from the public. Yes. What protections are you going to put in for staff? How will you help them deal with that?

SHORTEN: Our frontline public servants experience an unacceptable level of abuse. When you're a police person or you're an ambulance person or you're a firefighter, they cop abuse, but they're also given support and recognition for it. But an invisible area of stress for our Services Australia staff is that they deal with people who are already unhappy. You don't go to Services Australia as a general rule when you're really happy. And some people come in who are just dealing with some really tough personal issues. So that may explain aggression, but it doesn't excuse aggression. And I think that whilst the Agency is completely focused on customer service, which it actually wasn't during Robodebt, but it is focused on customer service, you can't have quality customer service if the workforce don't feel safe. So, there are thousands of recorded incidents of minor aggression. But then there's thousands of moderate aggressions. And indeed, north of a thousand instances each year of very serious aggression. We have a small cohort of Australians who are on managed service plans. They're not allowed to come to the building. They just can't cope and interact properly. They still have certain rights, but they don't have the right to abuse staff. So, what we're doing is we're going to legislate to increase penalties. If you abuse the Services Australia person, you're going to just, you're going to get bigger fines and you're going to cop it harder. We're putting in more security guards because a safe environment for the workforce is also a safe environment for every other consumer as well. And we're also going to improve our information technology offerings so that if you've got someone who's really a troubled person, that the different offices and regions can actually tell each other, so that we give some better security.

JOURNALIST: Can you tell me how long you'd like to see a call be answered within, what a target timeframe would be, if under 30 minutes is still too long?

SHORTEN: Yeah, that's still too long. It would be good if we could reduce it, halve it from 30 minutes. I guess it's the age-old argument that, you know, which comes first, the chicken or the egg? We've got people waiting for their payments, and then we've got people ringing up. I think that the more we can focus on resolving the backlog of payments, that'll take some of the traffic off the phones. But we've got to reduce waiting times for pension applications, for everything. So, we've got to get it down. Our previous Government were cheeky roosters really. They used to just not answer the phones and then they'd say, then they'd put the waiting time averages based on the calls that actually got answered and not even count the calls that they wouldn't answer. We've been more honest than them, but I just want to get down. Government services are the most frequent area where citizens interact with Government. If we can improve the quality of that transaction and that engagement, then I think we just lift faith in the system overall. But we're completely not there yet. But courtesy of these 11 people that we've used in Bendigo and 3000 across Australia, we have a better chance of improving the confidence that citizens have in the system. But that's a big mountain to climb.

JOURNALIST: Let's say, the average wait time to have a call answered is one thing, but what about the average wait time between when you've come in to Services Australia and when you're actually receiving a payment?

SHORTEN: We get 10 million plus people visiting our 318 Services Australia centres. I'm looking forward to developing a proper system where you can make an appointment for a time before you come in. You know, I think that's the sweet spot. We're working on our information technology to do that. We encourage people to go online. I know that for some people, they think going online is scary or spooky or unfamiliar. The 1.1 billion transactions happening online, that's the quickest way to get things done. But we also respect and want to offer people can come to a Services Australia centre, or indeed that they can ring up. We've also now embedded some very skilled Services Australia staff with 27 frontline homelessness organisations because for some people, their lives are in such a muddle that the idea of even going to an office is beyond where they're at in their lives. So, we want to make sure that we've got a safety net which captures everyone. But I do want to reduce call waiting times. I want to reduce payment waiting times. And I think we're not far off having, we're already trialling, proper appointment technology. So, rather than hang around you, can you ring up or you make a - you go online, see when the appointment blocks are free, I'll come down then and we can see you pretty quickly.