Staff at the Department of Human Services are copping it hard because of a sharp increase in the volume of angry and hostile customers that have become frustrated by an increase in delays and errors stemming from a wave of retrenchments.
That’s the increasingly miserable picture painted by the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) after it released the results of a landmark survey of 5800 Australian Public Service (APS) staff it conducted as it braces for what it warns will be a “brutal” first Budget from the Abbott government that could slash as many as another 15,000 jobs from the bureaucracy if recommendations from the National Commission of Audit are adopted.
The new CPSU survey reveals that 87 per cent of staff reported understaffing and unfilled positions in their workplace, a figure that suggests Labor’s cuts from the efficiency dividend could be biting harder than expected.
The pain appears to sharpest at the mammoth Department of Human Services – which includes Medicare and Centrelink – where the union poll found “80 per cent of DHS respondents reporting increased waiting times and 78 per cent reporting increased customer aggression.”
The CPSU is not alone in its warning about the problems being faced by Centrelink’s customers and staff. Treasurer Joe Hockey was recently pulled up on talkback radio on Melbourne’s 3AW station over the meltdown in DHS customer service.
Mr Hockey has sheeted the blame back to aging computer systems that he accused Labor of failing to reinvest in, revealing there will be billions of dollars needed to be spent on upgrading the massive mainframe core systems not only at DHS, but potentially the Australian Taxation office as well.
However as the CPSU gears up for a major industrial campaign centred around the renegotiation of the APS’ main industrial agreement, the union is now ramming home the message that the scale of job cuts now hitting agencies and departments is already causing serious damage to APS performance.
Human Services and the Tax Office are key tactical battlegrounds for the union because fallout from the two federal giants easily has the most direct impact upon everyday Australians that that have to regularly transact with them.
At the same time, the size of the ATO and Human Services also makes them prime targets for headcount reductions as the government tries to either automate or potentially outsource assessments and transactions.
“The very clear message we are getting from workers at the coalface is that ongoing cuts are putting the public service under unsustainable pressure,” CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood said.
“The Government can pretend it can make cuts without hurting services, but this survey shows that is simply not true.”
Other agencies that could be hit hard in the Budget include the Australian Customs Service and the Department of Immigration after a consolidation of border security and control functions was put up by the Commission of Audit.
The Commission renewed pressure within the Coalition’s ranks for Australia Post to be sold off, despite the Treasurer indicating he wants to Post Offices to offer social security services as a way to cut costs.
Unlike Centrelink, Post’s big problem is that its core monopoly business – distributing paper mail – is in terminal decline and will start to eat away profits from other parts of the business, a situation any consolidation with Human Services is unlikely to fix.
The CPSU said that its survey has “exposed many worrying examples of corners being cut due to staff reductions.”
They include fewer Quarantine inspections and bio-security staff on the ground at entry points to Australian that would otherwise be checking “for insects that can damage Australian health and agriculture.”
Financial intelligence agency AUSTRAC has also been highlighted with the union saying that there is “reduced level of monitoring of data used to fight organised crime, corruption, people smuggling, illegal immigration, sexual servitude and terrorism financing.”
High profile efforts to find drug cheats in sports could also be headed down the toilet.
The union is also cautioning that Australian Sports and Drugs Administration has “insufficient numbers of chaperones to perform urine tests on athletes.”
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