Government called out for sub-par service

When it comes to customer service, research shows the Australian public sector ranks poorly with the general public, writes Alethea Murphy.

Alethea Murphy

Anecdotally, many Aussies have stories of spending hours on hold waiting to speak to a government customer service representative, only to be told their issue can’t be managed over the phone, or to be transferred across multiple departments and people.

ServiceNow’s citizen experience gap report showed government departments are consistently ranked poorly for their customer service.

A quarter of Australians dubbed government the worst industry to deal with when trying to resolve issues, with people complaining about their inability to solve problems effectively. Nationally, this ranked government as the second worst sector, behind telecommunications.

Nationally, the level of disappointment is widespread, with most states facing frustration for their poor customer service offerings. In South Australia (32 per cent), Queensland (28 per cent), and Western Australia (25 per cent)p of citizens ranked government as having the worst customer service, ahead of telcos. Residents of Tasmania and Northern Territory were the least frustrated, with just 15 per cent calling out government for bad experiences.

Systemic issues

For many, they see the issues as systemic. More than a third of Australians (35 per cent) put poor customer service down to overwhelmed and understaffed teams, with another 33 per cent feeling customer service representatives lack the power to resolve issues, or the tools to communicate effectively with other departments.

There are signs of improvement, however. Those who had to make a complaint in the past 18-months are twice as likely (11 per cent) than average (5 per cent) to say governments have the best customer service. This suggests that small pockets of the public sector are cracking the customer service challenge – and that for some, perception of governments service may be worse than the reality.

Increasing expectations

Citizens in every state reported that they needed to contact customer service more often since the COVID-19 outbreak began. At the same time, expectations are also increasing. In fact, more than a third of people (36 per cent) said their expectations of customer service had increased since last year, so governments need to adapt to keep up.

Despite the increased need and expectations, many Aussies reported their experience in dealing with customer service staff had declined, and that they were spending longer on hold than ever before. Good service is at a premium across the board, with people of all ages wanting businesses and governments to step up and do better.

So, how can the public sector improve?

  • Solving issues, fast

When thinking about good customer service, citizens primary concern is speed, with more than half (51 per cent) saying getting issues fixed quickly was the most important factor. Having multiple touchpoints was also important, to cater to older generations who prefer speaking on the phone, and younger generations who are more comfortable with online systems and self-service.

  • Connectivity and efficiency

Cutomers are seeking streamlined, frictionless, and integrated systems that make dealing with issues a breeze – an area where many government departments have been slow to adapt. Too often, governments rely on paper-based, email, or excel sheets to track and manage issues, which causes delays and a lack of visibility between departments and teams.

  • The tools to succeed

 Some progress has been made, particularly in-light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to swiftly implement ways to track, record and manage citizen systems dealing with everything from border controls to the vaccination program.

For example, at the start of pandemic, the Department of Home Affairs set up three new portals to manage the return of Australian residents, to manage travel exemptions, and a temporary visa repatriation service, all of which consolidated several systems, and automated multiple processes so citizens could rapidly apply, track, and complete applications. This cleared significant backlogs while increasing the speed at which queries were resolved, from weeks to days.

The challenge now is for governments to replicate this approach more widely, with the departments and systems most used by citizens. A significant overhaul is required, both nationally and state-by-state, to upgrade fundamental service platforms to make complaint resolution easier.

Focus on automation

The priority should be on automation – streamlining processes and removing bottlenecks by creating self-service platforms that reduce or eliminate hold times, diverts calls to email or instant chat, and uses autofill forms to filter issues and direct customers to the most appropriate place to resolve their problem.

The benefits are clear – it builds trust and confidence with consumers and reduces the burden on public sector customer service staff trying to resolve issues. Introducing more efficient, user-friendly platforms has the potential to save thousands of hours for both consumers and employees.

*Alethea Murphy is regional director, public sector & education at ServiceNow

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