Tried calling Centrelink lately and got a busy signal? You're not alone. More than 44 million calls to the welfare department were greeted with a busy signal in just ten months, government officials admitted.
In a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday night, staff from the Department of Human Services confirmed there were 44,044,206 "busy signals" between July 2016 and May 2017. That's nearly two calls for every Australian, more than 146,000 calls each day of the ten-month period.
"That's a long number," quipped Greens senator Rachel Siewert as DHS staff answered her questions.
Officials also revealed how actually getting your call engaged, and avoiding the dreaded engaged tone, was only half the battle. DHS staff outlined wait times to speak to Centrelink were frustratingly long, up to 38 minutes in the case of people trying to ring the participation hotline, confirming the frustrations of countless Australians who have struggled to get in contact with the agency.
As of April 30, the average wait time for calls to the disability, sickness and carer's line was 28 minutes; to the employment services line, 30 minutes; the families and parenting line, 16 minutes; older Australians, 18 minutes; and youth and students, 30 minutes.
The long wait time and huge numbers of failed calls back up claims from Centrelink clients about the difficulty in reaching the agency. In January, we reported on people claiming to have called Centrelink hundreds of times in a row, with no success.
DHS staff defended the high number, however, saying the high volume of missed calls was due in no small part to people continually dialling, or using apps or other programs to endlessly keep trying to connect -- a "rotating, call, call, call, until answer" strategy, one said. Officials said the 44 million figure did not take into account unique callers, just the raw number of calls. The Department is conducting research into how widespread this practice is.
The alleged use of these strategies, including third-party apps which automatically redial numbers, feeds into stories shared by Centrelink clients of frustrating, desperate and annoying attempts to reach the agency.
"The early evidence suggests there are robocalls," said DHS chief information officer Gary Sterrenberg.
"The analysis we've asked our provider to do is to strip out those that try less than a number of times per segment of time, because obviously it's reasonable for them within a minute or two to try again, but it's actually not reasonable for them to try a thousand times a day."
"There's a latest app you can buy from one of the stores where it allows a person to set it on redial. It redials every couple of seconds, which is a normal thing people sometimes do if they have a blocked or engaged signal."
DHS official Kathryn Campbell said the Department was hoping to be able to provide a better breakdown of unique calls in future.
"We'd like to be able to do, when we give you a number of 40 million, to break down how many were unique phone calls rather than just repeat," she said.
DHS staff said they were looking into why people were calling, and whether they could teach people to instead use online or other services.
"I can see how you find it frustrating but i can also see how people trying to get through to you would find it frustrating," Siewert said.
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