The objective of the audit was to review the effectiveness and efficiency of Centrelink's customer feedback system and the progress Centrelink had made in implementing the recommendations of the 2004–05 audit and the subsequent JCPAA inquiry.



In 2007–08, Centrelink administered $70.5 billion in payments to approximately 6.5 million customers. In making these payments and servicing its customer base, Centrelink received in excess of 32.8 million customer phone calls and completed 6.6 billion customer record transactions. These customer contacts not only facilitate the operation of Centrelink's core service delivery business but also provide a valuable opportunity to obtain customer feedback.

Previous audit

In 2004–05, the ANAO completed Audit Report No.34, Centrelink's Complaints Handling System, which was one of the Centrelink Customer Feedback series of audits.1 The audit found that while Centrelink's complaints handling system was well developed, there were opportunities to improve the effectiveness, efficiency and economy of the system through improvements to methods for gathering, measuring, reporting and responding to complaints. Such improvements would make the system more accessible to customers and provide more robust complaints information to Centrelink for use in enhancing service delivery.

The ANAO made 12 audit recommendations which were all agreed to by Centrelink.

Subsequent to the ANAO audit, the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit (JCPAA) undertook an inquiry into the Centrelink Customer Feedback Systems series of audits.2 The JCPAA made a further three recommendations relating to complaints handling aimed at improving customer access on the Centrelink website.

Centrelink's customer feedback system

Customer feedback can take the form of complaints, compliments and suggestions and is provided to Centrelink through a range of mediums including phone, in person or by mail. In 2007–08, Centrelink received 50 2183 complaints, 7370 compliments and 1993 suggestions, with telephone feedback accounting for 85 per cent of contacts.

Centrelink uses a three-tiered system to classify and resolve customer feedback. This system is based on an assessment of the complexity and/or sensitivity of the feedback, and the authority and capacity of a Centrelink staff member to resolve the matter. Feedback classified as tier one is generally more administrative in nature and is expected to be resolved within one working day. Feedback classified as tier two or three is more complex with resolution targets of three and five days respectively. A majority of customer feedback contacts are classified and resolved as a tier one contact. In 2007–08, tier one contacts accounted for 85 per cent of all customer feedback, tier two comprised 12 per cent and tier three made up three per cent.

Centrelink's customer feedback system is supported by a network of Customer Relations Units (CRUs)4 and Area Service Recovery Teams (ASRTs).5 The role of a CRU is, where possible, to resolve feedback at the first point of contact - that is, tier one complaints and all compliments and suggestions. Any feedback classified as a tier two and three complaint is referred to an ASRT for resolution. Customer feedback information is primarily recorded and managed through the Integrated Customer Feedback Database.

Audit scope and objective

The objective of the audit was to review the effectiveness and efficiency of Centrelink's customer feedback system and the progress Centrelink had made in implementing the recommendations of the 2004–05 audit and the subsequent JCPAA inquiry.

The focus and two major criteria for this audit were to determine:

  • the extent to which Centrelink had progressed and/or implemented the recommendations from the previous audit and JCPAA inquiry; and
  • the subsequent impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of the complaints handling system.


Obtaining and recording customer feedback provides Centrelink with the opportunity to gain customers' perceptions and expectations of service delivery and identify areas for improvement. It can also act as an early warning mechanism for emerging issues and provide important information about the organisation's performance.

Centrelink has further developed its customer feedback system for handling complaints, compliments and suggestions since the previous audit in 2004–05. Centrelink's customer feedback system provides for, and demonstrates, the characteristics of better practice6 such as accessibility, responsiveness and objectivity.7 In particular, Centrelink:

  • offers a variety of methods for customers to use in providing feedback, including free-call telephone numbers, a reply paid postal address and the Centrelink website;
  • promotes the customer feedback system through widely accessible mechanisms such as a customer factsheet and Centrelink's Customer Charter;
  • has developed a public policy on handling customer feedback - the Statement of Commitment to Listening and Responding to Customer Feedback (the Statement of Commitment);8
  • has restructured its operational framework to establish clear roles and lines of responsibility. This includes integrating CRUs (with staff specifically trained and responsible for handling customer feedback) within the National Call Centre Network; and developing the Integrated Customer Feedback Database (ICFD); and
  • has introduced a number of surveys to measure customer and staff satisfaction with the customer feedback system, in particular complaints handling.

Centrelink has implemented 10 of the 12 2004–05 audit recommendations (partially implementing the remaining two) and the three JCPAA recommendations. The audit recommendations not implemented are:

  • Recommendation No. 2(a) Centrelink has not re-commenced surveying customer awareness of its complaints handling system; and
  • Recommendation No. 7(a) Centrelink has not sufficiently improved controls for ensuring that all oral complaints are recorded in an appropriate and timely manner within its customer feedback database.

While Centrelink has improved its customer feedback system, there are areas of complaints management that could be further developed to improve service delivery and also provide Centrelink with a greater understanding of customer expectations. These areas include:

  • measuring and monitoring customer awareness of the complaints handling system to assess the impact of communication strategies;
  • analysing and using survey information to better understand the customer/staff behaviours and experiences underpinning feedback; and
  • using the ICFD (or similar) as the central repository for all customer feedback to enable better quality assurance coverage and comprehensive records for internal and external reporting purposes.

The ANAO has made three recommendations in this follow-up audit aimed at assisting Centrelink to further improve its complaints management system, and fully implement the two partially implemented recommendations from the previous audit.

Key findings by chapter

Customer Feedback (Chapter 2)

Centrelink has promulgated a public policy - the Statement of Commitment - and developed a supporting operating framework that provides a basis for consistent identification, recording and resolution of customer feedback across the network. Two key developments in the operating framework have been the integration of CRUs (dedicated to handling customer feedback) into the National Call Centre Network, the channel through which 85 per cent of customer feedback is provided; and the development of the ICFD to capture customer feedback across the network.

In 2007–08, Centrelink received 50 218 complaints, 7370 compliments and 1993 suggestions. These figures, while comparable with other Australian Government agencies, represented a significant increase on the 2006–07 results: 39 308 complaints (21.7 per cent increase), 5432 compliments (35.7 per cent increase) and 950 suggestions (109.8 per cent increase). Supporting these increases was a 15.4 per cent increase in the level of customer contacts from 197 149 in 2006–07 to 227 539 in 2007–08.

While there is an absence of any direct quantitative data, the ANAO considers that improved accessibility to the customer feedback system is a likely driver of the increased number of customer contacts including complaints, compliments and suggestions. This assessment is based on the improvements to the customer feedback system as a result of the 2007 restructure; the general increase in customer contacts; and feedback from stakeholders.

Classification and Resolution of Complaints (Chapter 3)

Centrelink has a key performance indicator target of resolving 90 per cent of: tier one complaints in one working day; tier two complaints in three working days; and tier three complaints in five working days. Between 2003–04 and 2007–08 Centrelink consistently exceeded its tier one target. However, it did not achieve its tier two targets in 2007–08 and its tier three targets from 2005–06 to 2007–08. ANAO analysis indicates that the complexity of tier two and three complaints meant that resolution processes were sometimes not possible within the established targets.

In 2006 Centrelink engaged a market research company to conduct a Post Complaints Survey (PCS) of 700 customers who had made a complaint to Centrelink within the period July to September 2006. This was repeated in the period November 2007 to April 2008.

The PCS results when compared to Centrelink's Annual Report, demonstrate that Centrelink and its customers do not share a common view on the time it takes to resolve a complaint. There are a number of factors that could be driving this result including different interpretations of when a complaint is considered resolved.

Stakeholders interviewed for the audit advised the ANAO that while customers might accept an explanation provided by Centrelink, they did not always consider that this resolved their complaint. This was particularly the case when a customer had made a complaint about government policy, legislation or a decision made by Centrelink (25.4 per cent of all complaints). However, a significant proportion of complaints made to Centrelink are regarding ‘staff knowledge and/or practice' or ‘staff attitude' (38.6 per cent of all complaints).

The PCS did not provide data or analysis that considered if a relationship existed between the type of complaint lodged and the customer's satisfaction that it had been resolved. Therefore, it is not possible to determine if the reason for a customer complaint impacted on whether they consider the complaint resolved.

Barriers to a customer lodging a complaint with Centrelink

Stakeholder feedback, Centrelink data and survey results confirm there is an ongoing concern from customers that they may suffer retribution if they lodge a complaint with Centrelink.

In April 2007, Centrelink's Internal Audit undertook a management initiated review to determine if there were any incidences of retribution from staff towards a customer after they had lodged a complaint. The internal audit did not identify any cases where customers were discriminated against after they had made a complaint and no breaches of the APS Code of Conduct were established.

While a perceived fear of retribution is likely to remain to some degree, the Statement of Commitment aims to provide a policy of assurance that customers will not suffer any retribution or discrimination if they lodge a complaint and this is supported by staff guidance. Centrelink has internal follow-up procedures to investigate all complaints or allegations of serious misconduct by Centrelink staff in relation to discrimination, retribution or a breach of privacy. This meets the suggested approach from the Ombudsman's Guide.

Complaints Handling System - Awareness and Satisfaction (Chapter 4)

Centrelink uses a range of surveys to measure customer and staff awareness and satisfaction with the complaints handling system including the National Customer Satisfaction Survey (NCSS).9

Customer awareness of the complaints handling system

Centrelink has a number of communication strategies that focus on enhancing customer awareness of the complaints handling system including a customer factsheet on complaints, Centrelink's Customer Charter10 and the Statement of Commitment. These documents are widely accessible, with most available in a large range of languages and on dedicated ‘Complaints' and ‘Customer Charter' webpages on the Centrelink website.

While some questions in the NCSS measure customer satisfaction with the complaints handling system, they do not directly measure customer awareness of the system.

Two of the questions in the NCSS could provide Centrelink with an indirect measurement of customer awareness. However, the methodology used to analyse the results for these questions excluded those customers who responded ‘don't know', ‘refused', or ‘not applicable' (missing data). When the ANAO included the missing data in the analysis, the results reported by Centrelink changed significantly and indicated that only 53 per cent of customers agreed it was easy to make a complaint compared to the 71 per cent reported.

The ANAO considers that Centrelink cannot solely rely on this information to provide an assurance that customers are aware of its complaints handling system. As a result, Centrelink's ability to assess the impact of communication strategies on increasing customer awareness is limited.

Customer and staff satisfaction with the complaints handling system

Centrelink continues to conduct a suite of surveys that measure customer and staff satisfaction, including the NCSS, PCS and the introduction of two staff surveys.

The NCSS and the PCS represent sound management tools that allow Centrelink to assess how customer satisfaction changes over time and to develop measures to improve satisfaction rates. However, the ANAO examined the methodology used in the surveys and identified a number of areas for improvement, such as including customer groups that are currently excluded.

The staff surveys present useful information about staff perceptions and attitudes towards complaints handling. In particular, the Complaints Culture Research Project is also conducted in other organisations and the results detail how Centrelink performed compared with other participating government agencies. However, the ANAO identified a number of areas for improvement in the methodology used in these surveys, such as, ensuring the sample population and weightings used are representative of the total staff population.

Based on the results of the customer satisfaction surveys, the ANAO considers that resolving complaints in a timely manner and keeping customers informed of the progress of their complaint provide the greatest opportunities for Centrelink to improve customer satisfaction with the complaints process.

Monitoring and Reporting of Customer Feedback Information (Chapter 5)

Centrelink has developed and implemented a new database to capture customer feedback - the ICFD. All customer contacts and feedback actioned through the CRUs and resolved at the first point of contact are recorded in the ICFD. However, there is a risk that Centrelink's data included in the ICFD regarding the total number and types of complaints received by the agency is inaccurate, as data on oral complaints received at Customer Service Centres (CSC) is limited.

In January 2008, Centrelink introduced a quality assurance framework covering data integrity and procedural checking of complaints information entered into the ICFD. This process involves checking 10 per cent of referred, and 10 per cent of resolved, complaint feedback records and associated DOCs (information on the customer's mainframe record).

However, there are a number of other Centrelink databases used to record customer feedback outside of the ICFD, such as the Multicultural Activity Reporting Tool11 and the Community Issues Management System.12 These databases are not subject to Centrelink's quality assurance mechanism for complaints resolution and there is a risk that these complaints are not being resolved in an appropriate and timely manner and actioned in accordance with the CRU protocols and taskcards. Further, these contacts are not included in the total number of customer feedback details reported in various documents such as the Annual Report and are not included in the selection of complaints followed up as part of the PCS.

Reporting of customer feedback information

Centrelink produces a number of regular internal reports on its customer feedback system. All National and Area Office reports are populated with data from the CRU component of the ICFD. Centrelink internal reports have the potential to further improve the use of customer feedback and provide Centrelink with opportunities to identify improved performance areas and address systemic problems. For complete and accurate reporting, it is important that the data from all sources are included in the reports.

Centrelink's Annual Reports from 2003–04 to 2007–08 provide performance information on the operation of the CRU network. This includes a breakdown of the numbers for all customer contacts and the percentage of each type as a total of all contacts received in the CRU. However, customer feedback that is received and recorded outside of the CRU, such as Ministerial13 and stakeholder correspondence, is not included in the overall reporting on the numbers of complaints, compliments and suggestions for the Annual Report. Accordingly, the performance information reported under Centrelink's Customer Service Charter in Centrelink's Annual Report does not accurately reflect the total amount of customer feedback received.

ANAO Report No. 34, 2004–05, Centrelink's Complaints Handling System and JCPAA Report 407 (Chapter 6)

Centrelink has fully implemented 10 of the 12 recommendations from the previous audit and partially implemented the remaining two (refer paragraph 12). Centrelink has implemented the three recommendations from the JCPAA inquiry.

Summary of agency responses


Centrelink agrees with the recommendations of the audit of its Complaints Handling Systems. Customer feedback is an essential part of Centrelink's relationship with its customers and Centrelink is committed to managing feedback with professionalism and integrity. Centrelink therefore welcomes any improvements that can be realised as a result of the audit.

Department of Human Services

The Department of Human Services (DHS) welcomes the recommendations made in Centrelink Complaints Handling System follow-up audit. DHS believes that the audit will aid the receipt of feedback from customers who wish to make a complaint and the identification of areas for improvement in service delivery.


[1] The Customer Feedback series of audits included: ANAO Audit Report No.32 2004–05, Centrelink's Customer Charter and Community Consultation Program; ANAO Audit Report No.33 2004–05, Centrelink's Customer Satisfaction Surveys; ANAO Audit Report No.34 2004–05, Centrelink's Complaint Handling System; ANAO Audit Report No.35 2004–05, Centrelink's Review and Appeals System; and ANAO Audit Report No.36 2004–05, Centrelink's Value Creation Program.

[2] Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, Report 407, Review of Auditor-General's Reports, Parliamentary Paper 394/2005.

[3] This number excludes complaints received regarding ‘call centre busy'. In 2007–08 Centrelink received 3268 complaints regarding ‘call centre busy'. A ‘call centre busy' complaint is where the customer experiences a busy signal when trying to contact Centrelink and then makes a follow-up call to the CRU to make a complaint.

[4] Customer Relations Units provide a medium for customers to raise issues and have them resolved. They are the central contact point for handling customer complaints and are examined in detail in Chapter 2, at paragraph 2.15.

[5] Area Service Recovery Teams are located within the Centrelink Area Office network around Australia. This is discussed in further detail in Chapter 2, at paragraph 2.16

[6] Commonwealth Ombudsman, A Good Practice Guide for Effective Complaint Handling, 1997, p.7–9.
[7] Australian Standard ISO 10002–2006 Customer satisfaction – Guidelines for complaints handling in organisations, p.3–4.
[8] Centrelink's Statement of Commitment, <$file/soc_0607en.pdf> [accessed 21 August 2008].

[9] The National Customer Satisfaction Survey is a telephone survey conducted on an annual basis. In 2007, 1828 customers were surveyed.
[10] <>[accessed 21 August 2008].
[11]  This tool is used by Multicultural Service Officers to record feedback from customers of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds; and is discussed further in Chapter 5, paragraphs 5.28 - 5.33.
[12] This tool is used to record feedback from stakeholders such advocacy groups, community groups, peak bodies or the business sector, and is discussed in Chapter 5, paragraphs 5.31 - 5.36.
[13] Information on Ministerial correspondence was reported in the 2004–05 to 2006–07 Annual Reports; however, this is separate from the reported customer feedback actioned through the CRU. Information on Ministerial correspondence was not reported in the 2007–08 Annual Report.