By Julian Bajkowski
A proposal to use Australia Post’s retail footprint to deliver shopfront services for welfare agency Centrelink has drawn immediate fire from the union representing federal public servants.
The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has warned that although a “one-stop shop where you can sort out your mum’s pension entitlements and pick-up your eBay parcels sounds good in theory” such a move could have privacy implications and potentially create “massive queues.”
The union’s concerns follow reports that Treasurer Joe Hockey’s office has confirmed it will look at the idea under its forthcoming National Commission of Audit.
If adopted, the proposal to merge frontline operations would effectively end the prospect of privatising Australia Post’s retail and mail businesses in favour of pressganging its massive network of shopfronts into greater government use.
It could also translate to Australia’s highest paid public servants, Australia Post boss Ahmed Fahour, potentially turning a buck by helping to run the nation’s dole queue.
Efforts to create so-called ‘one-stop shops’ or ‘multi-function service centres’ are a well-established mechanism in pushing more efficient and convenient government services, with the Post Office already accepting passport applications.
The previous Labor government moved to substantially create combined Centrelink and Medicare offices that allowed customers to deal with a range of their social security needs in the one spot.
However the proposal to combine the retail footprint of Post and Centrelink would potentially marry the public sector’s two most mammoth organisations in what could equate to the biggest consolidation of frontline government services yet attempted in Australia.
It is understood that the sheer scale of both organisations in terms of property and staff is a key driver in the push to find new efficiencies.
The total number of DHS staff is listed at 35,800, a figure that the CPSU is clearly concerned may be reduced if retail services are merged.
According to the DHS’ latest annual report, “at 30 June 2013 the department maintained a leased portfolio of 708 commercial properties around Australia occupying 814 631 square metres.”
It is believed that just under 600 of those premises are frontline government service centres, most of which offer Centrelink services.
For its part, Australia Post says it has “Australia's largest retail network with 4,428 retail outlets (including 2,560 in rural and remote areas)” – as well as having more than 33,000 employees.
In its latest annual report, Australia Post listed the net book value of its total land and buildings at $796 million as at 30th June 2013. In a footnote to that figure, Australia Post said that “Were the entity to apply the fair value methodology, the net book value of land and buildings would be $1,408.3 million.
Extracting maximum value from such a vast pool of human resources and physical assets is now clearly attracting significant interest at the top levels of the Abbott government, not least because of previous commitment to reduce public service numbers by 12,000 full time positions.
However a key issue that any consolidation would have to deal with is the differing needs of postal and welfare clients, with Centrelink customers often presenting with necessarily more complex needs than bill payments or the lodgement of forms given that much correspondence can already be done online or through mobile apps.
CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood said that that many Human Services customers required “specialised and sensitive support and assistance which would be hard to deliver in an Australia Post environment.”
Labor Senator Doug Cameron has also questioned whether Australia Post’s franchisees will be thrown into the social service delivery mix.
Ms Flood said that Centrelink’s work included “dealing with the implications of family breakdown, unemployment and health issues.”
Some of those implications and issues are likely to involve physical safety and security for staff.
In August a senior Centrelink officer told a government security conference in Canberra that most security incidents involving clients happened in a “face-to-face environment.”
The Centrelink officer said sometimes clients were asked to come into the office because they had not done what was needed to get an entitlement and therefore a break in payments had occurred.
This meant that when people came in they could be in a “a conflicted and difficult scenario.”
He said that in terms of a risk environment, Centrelink’s staff dealt with verbal abuse as well as property damage. People carrying “weapons of some description” was also increasing as a trend, the Centrelink official said at the conference in August.
Ms Flood said that “if Mr Hockey wants to improve service delivery he could start by reconsidering plan[s] to slash 12,000 [public service] staff.”
Comment below to have your say on this story.
If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at email@example.com.
Sign up to the Government News newsletter