The objective of this follow-up audit was to review Centrelink's progress in implementing the findings and recommendation relating to Centrelink's Customer Charter from Audit Report No.32
2004–05, Centrelink's Customer Charter and Community Consultation Program. This audit covers Centrelink's Customer Charter only and does not follow-up on the findings and recommendation on the Community Consultation Program aspect of the 2004–05 audit report.

Summary

Background

Centrelink has recognised the importance of regularly seeking feedback from its large customer base on the quality of the services provided by the agency's extensive customer service network. A major component of Centrelink's customer feedback system is its Customer Charter. The Customer Charter is Centrelink's primary means for advising customers of their rights (including access to feedback mechanisms), their obligations, and the type of services they can expect to receive.

The Customer Charter also satisfies the Australian Government's requirement, as set out in the Australian Government's Client Service Charter Principles , that all Commonwealth agencies, having an impact on the public, have a public charter.2

In 2004–05, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) conducted a series of performance audits that examined Centrelink's major individual customer feedback systems3, including Centrelink's Customer Charter. ANAO report No.32 2004–05, Centrelink's Customer Charter and Community Consultation Program assessed the effectiveness of Centrelink's Customer Charter:

  • as a means of setting up customer expectations with respect to service delivery and customer obligations and rights;
  • in identifying feedback mechanisms available to customers; and
  • in communicating effectively with customers so as to help them understand their rights and obligations and the feedback mechanisms and processes available to them.

In the 2004–05 audit, the ANAO concluded that while Centrelink had invested significantly in the development of its Charter, Centrelink's Customer Charter only partially followed the mandatory elements of the Australian Government's Client Service Charter Principles and either partially, or fully, met some of the recommended elements. The ANAO made one recommendation in that audit regarding Centrelink's Customer Charter namely that:

…in accordance with the guidance set out in the Australian Government's Client Service Charter Principles, Centrelink include in its Customer Charter measurable service standards to:

(a) better inform customers of the level of service to expect; and

(b) provide an improved basis for measuring, monitoring and reporting, both internally and externally, the agency's performance against its Charter.4

In 2005–06, Centrelink undertook a review of its Customer Charter. Centrelink undertook this review:

  • in response to the ANAO's 2004–05 audit of Centrelink's Customer Charter5;
  • as part of the agency's subsequent undertakings to the Parliament's Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit (JCPAA) regarding the ANAO's audit in the context of the JCPAA's inquiry into the series of audits of Centrelink's customer feedback systems6; and
  • also as a result of the review of the corporate governance of Commonwealth statutory authorities and office holders, conducted by Mr John Uhrig AC (the Uhrig Review).

Audit objective

The objective of this follow-up audit was to review Centrelink's progress in implementing the findings and recommendation relating to Centrelink's Customer Charter from Audit Report No.32
2004–05, Centrelink's Customer Charter and Community Consultation Program. This audit covers Centrelink's Customer Charter only and does not follow-up on the findings and recommendation on the Community Consultation Program aspect of the 2004–05 audit report.

Key Findings

Centrelink's Review of the Customer Charter (Chapter 2)

In response to a range of factors, including the ANAO's previous audit, Centrelink undertook a review of its Customer Charter. This was the first major review since 2001, and included consultation with a number of internal and external stakeholders. The review led in November 2006 to the launch of a revised Customer Charter and a range of new products.

However, the ANAO found that there was some confusion amongst Centrelink staff as to the arrangements for the existing Customer Charter during the 15 months the new Customer Charter was under development. Centrelink has advised the ANAO that it will consider the ANAO's finding when communicating to staff as part of future large reviews of customer products.

Client Service Charter Principles (Chapter 3)

Centrelink has closely followed the guidance set out in the Client Service Charter Principles in conducting its latest Customer Charter review, albeit that there are some areas which could be further improved. In addition, Centrelink has addressed many of the ANAO's findings and suggestions from the previous audit report.

The ANAO found that Centrelink has substantially implemented the recommendation from the previous audit report by including both timeliness and quality service standards in the revised Customer Charter. In particular, the ANAO welcomes the inclusion of a specific timeframe for the provision of Centrelink's services in many of the revised Customer Charter's quantitative service standards. For example, ‘We will answer 70 per cent of your phone calls within 2½ minutes (you may have to wait longer during our busiest times)'.

The ANAO notes that two of the timeliness standards included in the revised Customer Charter do not include a specific time by which the relevant service is to be delivered.7 This may affect the customer's ability to judge whether the particular service standard has been met or in understanding what is a reasonable timeframe for the delivery of this service. As well, if there are no set timeliness parameters around these specific standards, using the standards to drive improvements in service delivery performance within the organisation may prove problematic.

The ANAO suggests that Centrelink include more specific timeframes for the timeliness standards on queue times and responding to customer questions in future iterations of the Customer Charter, and/or include such specific timeframes in public reporting of the agency's performance against these standards.8

Monitoring and Reporting of the Customer Charter (Chapter 4)

Centrelink has proposed that the agency's performance against its Customer Charter standards will primarily be measured through the agency's programme of Customer Satisfaction Surveys, supplemented by call centre performance data, complaints handling system data and review and appeals data.

New questions Centrelink is adding to the Customer Satisfaction Survey may provide some indication of whether a particular standard has been met. However, the ANAO considers that, to address instances where customers' responses indicate they do not consider a standard has been met, there would be benefit in including questions that ask them the reasons why they hold this view.

The 2004–05 ANAO audit identified that there was low customer awareness of the Customer Charter and its content, particularly amongst vulnerable customers. This remains an issue for Centrelink. Centrelink has developed an external communication strategy with a special focus on vulnerable customers in order to address this issue. Centrelink has improved access to the Customer Charter on the agency's website and has conducted more thorough research into customer awareness of the Customer Charter and methods of communicating the Customer Charter and its content to customers.

The ANAO notes, however, that the long version of the Customer Charter (the only version of the Charter that sets out Centrelink's service commitments and standards) is only available on Centrelink's website. This may be a barrier to some customers accessing and understanding the commitments and standards, especially those considered at risk or vulnerable. Accordingly, the ANAO suggested to Centrelink that, at a minimum, the agency should make explicit reference to the standards in future iterations of the Customer Charter brochure available at Customer Service Centres. In response, Centrelink advised the ANAO that the standards will be included in future versions of the brochure.

Overall audit conclusion

The ANAO concluded that Centrelink had substantially implemented the recommendation from the previous audit report, through the development and dissemination of its new Customer Charter. Centrelink's latest Customer Charter meets all the components of the Government's Client Service Charter Principles, albeit that there are some areas which could be further improved. In addition, Centrelink has addressed many of the ANAO's findings and suggestions from the previous audit report.

Recommendations

The ANAO made no further recommendations in this report.

Agency responses

Centrelink

The CEO of Centrelink provided the following response:

Centrelink would like to thank the Australian National Audit Office for the draft Section 19 Report to the follow-up performance audit on Centrelink's Customer Charter. I have appreciated the professionalism shown by ANAO's management and staff in the conduct of this audit.

I am pleased that the Report recognises the hard work that Centrelink undertook to make sure that we responded to and addressed the recommendations from the previous audit.

Department of Human Services

The Secretary of the Department of Human Services provided the following response:

While overwhelmingly positive in terms of assessing the implementation of the previous recommendation, the audit report does identify a number of areas where further improvements could be made.

I note that Centrelink has indicated that these additional issues will be taken on board as part of its commitment to continual improvement and my Department will continue to monitor progress in this regard. Following tabling of the report it is my intention to advise all the Department's portfolio agencies of the findings of this audit to ensure that all Department of Human Services' agencies' customer service charters adequately address the issues raised.

Footnotes

1 <http://www.apsc.gov.au/charters/> [accessed 19 November 2006].

2 Further information on the Client Service Charter Principles, and an analysis of Centrelink's Customer Charter against these principles, is provided in Chapter 3.

3 Audit Report No.31 2004–05, Centrelink's Customer Feedback Systems – Summary Report; Audit Report No.32 2004–05, Centrelink's Customer Charter and Community Consultation Program; Audit Report No.33 2004–05, Centrelink's Customer Satisfaction Surveys; Audit Report No.34 2004–05, Centrelink's Complaints Handling System; Audit Report No.35 2004–05, Centrelink's Review and Appeals System; and Audit Report No.36 2004–05, Centrelink's Value Creation Program.

4 ANAO Audit Report No.32 2004–05, Centrelink's Customer Charter and Community Consultation Program, Recommendation No.1, paragraph 2.115, p. 20.

5 ANAO Audit Report No.32 2004–05, op. cit.

6 See Chapter 5 of JCPAA Report 407, Review of Auditor-General's Reports tabled between 18 January and 18 April 2005, August 2006.

7 These two standards are: ‘We will reduce the time that you wait in the queue when you come to a Centrelink office'; and ‘If we can't answer your question immediately, we will get back to you within an agreed time'.

8 For example, Medicare Australia publicly reports on its performance against its Charter standards on the agency's website.