The waiting times for several key Centrelink phone lines have blown out, although the number of busy signals has dropped dramatically, new figures show.
Data on the Centrelink call centre was provided to Senate estimates late on Thursday, showing its performance between July last year and the end of March.
It shows 36.3 million people received a busy signal. If the trend holds, the department estimates about 45m busy signals by the end of the financial year, 10m fewer than the year before.
The human services department secretary, Renee Leon, said the problems were being addressed.
“I’m not declaring ‘mission accomplished’ yet but we are saying we’re seeing a positive trend in the right direction,” Leon told Senate estimates on Thursday.
The total average wait time across all Centrelink lines remained largely static, compared to roughly the same period the year before. The average wait time for Centrelink’s phone lines was 15 minutes and 56 seconds between July last year and the end of March, compared with 15 minutes and 58 seconds between July 2016 and the end of April 2017.
But the wait times blew out on a number of Centrelink’s phone lines. The average wait was up by two minutes on the employment services line, and five minutes for the family and parenting, older Australians, and youth and students lines.
Wait times were cut significantly for the disabilities, sickness and carers line and the participation line. Both lines saw a five-minute drop in average wait times.
More than 4m calls were abandoned.
The federal government has announced several measures designed to address problems with the Centrelink call centre.
It paid a US consultant $430,000 to review the system, and estimates heard that one of his key recommendations was to reduce the dizzying complexity of the system, largely by reducing the number of separate business lines.
Software to block automatic dialling apps is being used, and the government brought in 250 Serco contractors to work in the call centre, a move that prompted a furious response from unions and Labor.
The Coalition is also seeking to contract another 1,000 staff to work in the call centre.
But the opposition spokeswoman on human services, Linda Burney, has pointed to recent staff cuts to the human services department, which she said would make contacting and accessing Centrelink more difficult.
“Ask any Australian who has had to contact Centrelink, and they will tell you their own personal nightmare,” Burney said. “We have heard stories of people waiting hours just to speak to someone at Centrelink.
“The truth is Centrelink is understaffed and under-resourced, and staff lack support.”
Greens senator Rachel Siewert said she welcomed the cuts to busy signals, but said the number was still far too high.
“At the end of those busy signals were exasperated members of the community trying to get through for support,” Siewert said. “Let’s be clear, there are still 36,360,094 busy signals this year to date.
“In addition wait times are still too long. People should not be waiting on average over 15 minutes for someone to answer. The wait times on some lines are over half an hour. Across the board that is just too high and on some lines those call wait times have actually increased.”
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