Senators have been left “astounded” after top officials from Australia’s largest government agency failed to explain how wait times for Centrelink had gotten worse - despite the number of calls to the agency falling.
Services Australia, which oversees Centrelink, has come under heavy scrutiny due to increased reports of longer call wait-times and processing delays despite a reduction in the number of calls made to the agency in 2023.
Agency heads fronted a Senate hearing on Wednesday where they were confronted with what Greens Senator Janet Rice called an “extraordinary” failure to improve unbearable wait times.
The committee heard only about 60 per cent of calls to the agency are currently being answered within 15 minutes, with about 9 million calls made per year directed to a non-human “congestion” voicemail message.
“Is there anything that’s improved?” an exasperated Senator Rice asked.
“We launched the MyGov app in December ... That’s a service that people are finding very useful,” Acting Services Australia CEO Chris Birrer responded.
On average, about 3,000 Services Australia staff are answering phone calls to the agency’s 24-hour centre daily, with about 5,000 staff responsible for processing claims.
About 6,500 staff are based in service centres nationwide.
According to the most recent Services Australia annual report, the number of calls made to Centrelink have fallen dramatically, with 55 million calls dialled this year, a steep decline from the 73 million made in 2021-22.
“Even with that decrease in the number of calls, your performance on serving those calls has declined?,” Senator Rice asked.
“Compared to the years we had pandemic funding - then yes Senator,” Mr Birrer conceded.
Despite a decrease in the volume of callers, claims for government payments are higher than ever.
Compared to last year, the number of bids for the child care subsidy rose by 36 per cent, claims to access the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme grew by 52 per cent, and applications for senior’s health cards increased by a whopping 85 per cent, the committee heard.