Paying the Price of Welfare Reform: the experiences of Anglicare staff and clients in interacting with Centrelink
New research released by the Anglicare Australia network, including Anglicare Tasmania’s Social Action and Research Centre, examines the impact of the ongoing automation of Centrelink services on vulnerable clients, on staff, and on outcomes for our community service programs.
We initiated this research because of a perception across our services that increased Centrelink automation is not meeting the needs of some Australians, particularly those experiencing complex life circumstances or high levels of vulnerability. It is also resulting in unintended consequences for community sector staff in terms of increased time and other resources required to assist clients with Centrelink-related matters.
This research was undertaken across three different jurisdictions by Anglicare Southern Queensland, Anglicare Tasmania, and Anglicare Western Australia. It involved surveys and face-to-face interviews with a total of 218 staff and the collection of 18 client case studies across several community services areas, including accommodation support and homelessness services, financial counselling, mental health services, domestic violence, alcohol and other drug services, gambling and family support.
Australia is in the midst of a major reform to the way in which the income support system is delivered. This involves automation of the system and a move towards self-sufficiency for customers, as well as changes to eligibility criteria, assessment processes and the compliance framework for a number of different payments.
While this shift to automation will provide convenience and efficiency for some Australians as they access and navigate the social security system, our research indicates that for many people it presents distressing barriers to accessing the income support to which they are entitled.
In progressing an automation agenda for the Centrelink system, the Federal Government is failing to identify and accommodate the needs of its most vulnerable citizens. This is resulting in people missing out on income support to which they are entitled. Alarmingly, in some cases, through overwhelming distress and confusion, people are disengaging from the system altogether, which puts them at risk of poverty, homelessness, and very poor health outcomes.
The research also concludes that although welfare reform may be leading to cost savings for the Department of Human Services (DHS), substantial costs are being shifted to vulnerable customers and the community services that support them. It is they that are paying the price of welfare reform.
See below for an overview of the findings and recommendations, and access the full report and research summary brief HERE.
Difficulties in accessing Centrelink
- Accessing services via telephone: the cost of calling, lengthy call waiting times and high rates of disconnection and abandonment.
- Using online services; a lack of access to a computer or smartphone, a non-functioning website and being bounced between different parts of Centrelink and between online and telephone services.
- Lengthy processing times for applications, loss of documents or difficulties in accessing the documentation required or updating it, and problems in meeting mutual obligation requirements.
- Hostile Centrelink service centre environments with long waiting times and staff who lacked the capacity and understanding to de-escalate situations created by customer frustration with the system.
- Difficulty accessing the social work and community engagement teams, which Centrelink employs to work with vulnerable customers, without the intervention of support services.
Falling through the safety net
- Clients may have to survive for periods of time on very little or no income due to reductions in, waiting periods for and suspensions of their payments, as well as Centrelink debt repayments. Young people and people with a disability are especially affected and the processes and demands for information they encounter, combined with surviving on low incomes, is having a profound effect on their health and wellbeing.
- Difficulties with Centrelink often occurred on top of other adverse circumstances in the lives of vulnerable people and were for many the ‘tipping point’ into anxiety and depression. This was compounded by the stigma customers experienced because of their dependence on welfare and how this impacted on their feelings of self-worth.
Supporting access to Centrelink
- Anglicare’s community support workers spend considerable amounts of time helping their clients to navigate the system. This could include help with getting online or making phone calls, help interpreting communications from Centrelink, help with providing evidence and information, escorting people to Centrelink service centres and, most significantly, providing emotional support and reassurance.
- Some workers had developed good relationships with Centrelink social workers and community engagement officers, enabling them to fast-track solutions to their clients’ Centrelink issues. However they were also aware of the demands on this service and were careful in how often they called on their help. Other workers without these connections experienced the same delays, wait times and problems as their clients in trying to resolve difficulties.
- For clients the support from Anglicare staff had been ‘invaluable’ and allowed them to alleviate their difficulties and avoid deterioration in their circumstances.
Quantifying Anglicare support
The costs to Anglicare as an organisation of supporting clients with Centrelink issues are considerable, and other community service organisations are likely to be having similar experiences. Cost incurred relate to:
- Staff time: the research found that over the survey period of a week close to half the community support staff with direct client contact were spending time dealing with Centrelink issues.
- Additional resources: when a client’s payments are reduced, suspended or they are waiting for them to be established Anglicare staff may be supporting them with food assistance, covering rent arrears or bills to avoid eviction and meeting a diversity of other essential items like paying for documentation to process claims, transport, medication and so on.
- Impact on the service: dealing with Centrelink issues had a significant impact on the ability of staff to deliver a service. It increased the support that clients needed due to distress and anxiety, increased workloads and reduced the time staff had to provide support to both their Centrelink clients and to their other clients. It affected a client’s ability to engage with the service and/or their access to other support services. It also challenged staff knowledge about Centrelink and how the system worked. These direct costs hide less visible costs where staff are carrying an emotional burden through absorbing the vicarious trauma generated by their clients’ Centrelink experiences.
That the Department of Human Services reinforce and extend current mechanisms to better identify, track and support vulnerable Centrelink customers to ensure they are protected by the Centrelink safety net.
That Centrelink establish an interface which meets the needs of its vulnerable customers.
That the Department of Human Services ensure that Centrelink is properly resourced to improve its processes to eradicate error and ensure efficiency in delivering services within a reasonable time frame.
That the Australian Government consider the provision of specialist advocacy services to assist Centrelink customers who are struggling to navigate the system.
That the Department of Human Services commit to collecting and using detailed feedback from vulnerable customers during the period of welfare reform and incorporating it into policy, service design and implementation to provide a customer focused service.
That the Department of Human Services ensure that the principals of respect and dignity are embedded in the Centrelink system.
That the Australian Government commit to an increase in payment levels to ensure customers have a minimum acceptable standard of living.
Hear the voices of our clients and community support workers:
”I prefer not to use computers. I want to speak to people in person because I don’t understand a lot of things. I know the system but there are a lot of words I don’t understand. The thought that if something goes wrong it’s going to be my fault because I am the one that read it and agreed to it. If I speak to someone if I don’t understand something I can ask them.”
“English isn’t his first language so speaking on the phone he really struggled. I could see he was looking confused but they couldn’t see him and they kept the conversation going whereas he was lost three questions ago and wasn’t understanding the questions. If you’re not understanding what they are asking it’s difficult to engage on the phone. He said to me afterwards he’d been into Centrelink three times before I went with him and had given up. He had sat on the phone, didn’t understand so he’s hung up and just left.”
“The phone wait time. I do have other things going on during the day that I need to do. You wait so long that you have to hang up because you have to be home for the children or other things. It’s not convenient to sit there.”
“You see elderly people there and you can see they are struggling to stand up. They are in their 80s and 90s and you see them standing in line for up to an hour. There are no seats for them to sit down, they are really struggling, in pain. It’s terrible the way they treat the elderly or disabled, it’s really appalling.”
“I get anxiety. I am sitting in Centrelink waiting and I started crying with the anxiety of waiting. I was asked to leave the building. I left the building. There was one time in Centrelink where I disagreed with the worker. I wasn’t being aggressive or rude I just disagreed with her and they got security to show me out of the building.”
“Some people cannot sit in Centrelink that long. They escalate and you see someone being escorted out. If someone is prepared to listen to you and take some time to address it you can really de-escalate pretty quickly. But if you have just wasted your time and got nowhere and no one has listened to you, you will have an angry person on your hands. People get very angry with the poor workers at the coal face.”
“I have claustrophobia and I’m really bad. I can’t keep the door shut and I get particularly bad at Centrelink. I don’t like having panic attacks in front of people. It’s really embarrassing. I start pacing and then go absolutely white, I can’t breathe. At one stage a lady rang me from Centrelink and said I don’t have to go anymore, you can do it all over the phone but then that of course disappeared. You try explaining that to them the next time. They say well no one is going to bite you if you come in. They are just not getting it.”