Given the importance of customer feedback to Centrelink's business, the ANAO considered it timely to conduct a series of performance audits relating to Centrelink's customer feedback systems, particularly in relation to its delivery of the services then provided on behalf of FaCS. The overarching objective of this series of ANAO performance audits of Centrelink's customer feedback systems was to assess whether Centrelink has effective processes and systems for gathering, measuring, reporting and responding effectively to customer feedback, including in relation to customer satisfaction with Centrelink services and processes.
In 2003–04, Centrelink delivered services1 to 6.5 million customers, or approximately one-third of the Australian population.2 Customers include retired people, families, sole parents, people looking for work, people with disabilities, carers, Indigenous Australians and people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds (DCALB). A number of these customers are the most vulnerable3 in our society, and are those who have a heavy dependence on Centrelink.
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. To this end, Centrelink has a number of processes in place from which to obtain customer feedback. Some of these are Centrelink initiated, such as customer surveys; others are customer initiated, such as complaints and use of the review and appeals system.
In addition, the Centrelink Customer Charter is important in setting up customer expectations with respect to service delivery, obligations, rights and identifying feedback tools and in communicating to customers so as to help them understand their rights and the feedback tools available to them. As such, it is an important part of the overall feedback system.
Given the importance of customer feedback to Centrelink's business, the ANAO considered it timely to conduct a series of performance audits relating to Centrelink's customer feedback systems, particularly in relation to its delivery of the services then provided on behalf of FaCS.
The overarching objective of this series of ANAO performance audits of Centrelink's customer feedback systems was to assess whether Centrelink has effective processes and systems for gathering, measuring, reporting and responding effectively to customer feedback, including in relation to customer satisfaction with Centrelink services and processes.
The ANAO consulted with Centrelink to establish the agency's key customer feedback systems to be included in the series of audits to be undertaken to inform the ANAO's conclusions against this overarching objective. The feedback systems identified were Centrelink's: Customer Charter and community consultation program; customer satisfaction surveys; complaints handling system; review and appeals system; and Value Creation program.
The ANAO prepared a summary report providing an audit opinion against the overarching objective for the series of audits on Centrelink's customer feedback systems.4 As well, a separate report5 has been prepared for each of these systems, including detailed analysis and findings of the audit of the particular system.
Overall Audit Opinion
The ANAO concluded that, while Centrelink has a range of systems for gathering, measuring, reporting and responding to customer feedback, there is no overarching system for bringing all of this information together in a systematic way, to better inform Centrelink of opportunities for service delivery improvement.
Centrelink informed the ANAO that it is developing a Business Intelligence Framework to enable all forms of data gathered or received by Centrelink regarding customer satisfaction and customer feedback to be meaningfully compared, measured, and used to add value to the customer experience.6 However, the ANAO understands that completion of this system is ‘some time away'.7 More importantly, while bringing the information together is one step towards developing an overall system, it is predicated on the information from the individual systems being accurate.
The ANAO found that there was a range of identifiable performance issues with each of the individual Centrelink customer feedback systems, classified by Centrelink as being the key systems and therefore audited by the ANAO as part of this series of performance audits. The ANAO also identified a number of common themes among these issues.
The common themes relate to a low level of customer awareness of the individual systems, the lack of a national mandate for processes, a lack of robust cost information, and a lack of quality assurance procedures. As well, there are monitoring and reporting problems with each system. These all impact adversely on the effectiveness and efficiency of the individual systems and the robustness of the data generated from each system.
The ANAO concluded that there is a low level of awareness amongst customers of the individual feedback systems, and little information on customer satisfaction with the systems. The low awareness impedes customers' access to the systems and affects the accuracy of the information generated by the systems. More importantly, lack of awareness may mean that customers do not pursue their rights to access feedback systems, such as for complaints or appeals.
An allied and important issue, which affects customer access to Centrelink's feedback systems, is fear of retribution.8 Fear of retribution was consistently raised as an issue during the ANAO's discussions with stakeholders.9 Centrelink does not undertake any analysis of the existence, or extent, of any fear of retribution customers may experience in using the various feedback systems.
The ANAO found that Centrelink has not mandated procedures nationally within the various feedback systems. Accordingly, there is a risk that there is inconsistency across the network in the manner feedback is recorded, analysed and resolved.
Centrelink has little information on the actual cost of most of its individual feedback systems, and no ability to mandate quality assurance procedures across the network. Without a mechanism to provide an oversight of national quality, and to ensure better practice across the network, there is a risk that Centrelink is not providing a consistent, as well as high quality, service across its network.
A lack of national oversight and mandate also limits Centrelink's ability to use the information generated from the feedback systems to improve service delivery. Without adequate information on the cost of the systems, Centrelink is hampered in identifying efficiencies or better practices which may lead to better service delivery and cost savings.
The ANAO concluded that the data generated from the individual systems was limited and not robust. This compromises the reliability and integrity of Centrelink feedback data, and the ability to identify opportunities to improve service delivery and organisational processes. In addition, the ANAO concluded that Centrelink's reporting was compromised by the quality of the data. This inhibits Centrelink from adequately reporting information regarding customer feedback to Parliament and the public. Apart from the data quality issues, the reports from the feedback systems were generally not used across the network to improve service delivery.
Overall, the ANAO concluded that, while Centrelink has a well developed, extensive and diverse range of customer feedback systems, there are identifiable opportunities to improve the effectiveness, efficiency and economy of the systems and the data they produce. Such improvements would make the systems more accessible to customers, and provide more robust information to Centrelink for use in enhancing its service delivery and identifying cost savings.
This series of audit reports makes a total of 44 recommendations chiefly on ways to improve Centrelink's key customer feedback systems to better obtain and utilise the allied information, with a view to capturing better the potential for service improvement and cost savings, resulting in more efficient and effective program outputs and outcomes.
The CEO of Centrelink advised the ANAO on 7 February 2005 that he welcomed these audit reports and agreed with all of the recommendations.
1 Until the machinery of government changes following the October 2004 Federal Election, Centrelink's delivery of services on behalf of the Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS) constituted the overwhelming bulk of Centrelink's activities.
2 On 22 October 2004, the Prime Minister announced machinery of government changes affecting, among other things, the administration of policy relating to income support payments and related programs. Previously, Centrelink was located in the FaCS Portfolio and, while it had agreements in place with other agencies such as Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR) and the Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) for the delivery of some services, the overwhelming bulk of Centrelink's activities related to its delivery of services on behalf of FaCS. As a result of the changes announced by the Prime Minister, Centrelink is now part of the newly established Department of Human Services Portfolio. In addition, DEWR now has policy responsibility for the delivery of working age income support payments (including Newstart, Parenting Payment (partnered and single), Youth Allowance for non-students, Disability Support Pension and Mature Age Allowance) and DEST has policy responsibility for income support payments for students (including Youth Allowance for students which had previously been administered by FaCS).
3 Vulnerable customers may include those customers who: are homeless; have a drug or alcohol dependency; have low levels of literacy or numeracy; have a mental health condition; are Indigenous; and/or come from a diverse cultural and linguistic background.
4 ANAO Audit Report No.31 2004–05, Centrelink's Customer Feedback Systems – Summary Report.
5 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 Complaints 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.
6 Centrelink, Memorandum—Business Intelligence Framework (BIF) Outline, 9 October 2003.
7 Centrelink, SRT 2004 Conference, 1–2 September 2004, Day One Workshop–Systemic Issues Group 4–Qualitative Reporting across all Areas, scribe notes.
8 ‘Fear of retribution' is a term used by both the Commonwealth Ombudsman in the guide, A Good Practice Guide for Effective Complaint Handling, and by other stakeholders whom the ANAO interviewed during audit fieldwork.
9 The ANAO interviewed 28 stakeholder organisations, including advocacy groups, peak bodies representing various customer groups (ranging from the aged to the homeless), and organisations that provide services directly to customers (including assisting customers in their dealings with Centrelink). Accordingly, the stakeholder groups interviewed varied from national peak bodies with substantial resources and high level access to Centrelink through to customer advocates and groups that provide assistance to Centrelink's most vulnerable customers. The results of these interviews have been used to inform the findings of all of the audits in the Centrelink Customer Feedback Systems series.