Increased automation and digitisation in government welfare services had “shifted the burden” onto the community sector and hurting Australia’s most vulnerable citizens, a new report has found.
The Anglicare Australia report, Paying the Price of Welfare Reform, looked at the impact of the automation of Centrelink services on its staff and clients, involving the surveying of nearly 300 workers.
It found the automation of these essential services caused stress and anxiety for welfare recipients, and placed the financial burden on the community sector.
“Centrelink might believe that it’s saving time and money, but what it’s really doing is shifting the burden onto its clients and the services that help them,” Anglicare Australia executive director Kasy Chambers said.
“Our research found that people are falling through the cracks as Centrelink services become more and more automated,” she said.
The government is in the process of moving the bulk of welfare services online, through the the MyGov platform, and the major Welfare Payment Infrastructure Transformation project.
Its robo-debt scheme, where ATO data was cross-checked with data reported to Centrelink by welfare recipients and debt notices automatically sent when a discrepancy was found, has resulted in huge backlash and several inquiries.
“Australia is in the midst of a major reform to the way the income support system is delivered. This involves automation and a move towards self-sufficiency for customers, as well as changes to eligibility criteria, assessment processes and the compliance framework for a number of different payments,” the Anglicare report said.
Two thirds of surveyed Anglicare workers said the automation of services had increased the amount of support their clients needed due to stress and anxiety.
The report found that over two weeks, support workers are spending the equivalent of 6.6 full-time positions on dealing with Centrelink issues.
“If the automation agenda is going to work, we need to stop cutting Centrelink and resource their staff to identify and support vulnerable clients,” Ms Chambers said.
While the digitisation of these services has made the process quicker and simpler for many Australians, the report found that this has been “fraught with difficulties” for many, especially vulnerable members of society.
These issues include a lack of access to the internet and a lack of digital literacy.
“These difficulties were not restricted to older people and a common comment was that Centrelink’s apparent assumption that young people would be able to use the online system was not necessarily borne out of reality,” the report said.
“Being pressured to use computers was a common experience reported by clients and support staff and generated high levels of frustration and stress for clients, especially those with low levels of literacy, computer literacy or both.
“Workers reported witnessing situations where this process was not supportive and Centrelink staff who had no concept of how stress was affecting people’s ability to absorb information.”
The report included several accounts from support workers on the issues that automation has created for welfare recipients.
“For someone with a disability, low literacy, older people, a fully automated service is so difficult to negotiate. It is for people who are educated and don’t have barriers to services,” a support worker said.
“I know our society is moving towards online but there needs to be personal faces for people. Many of us have to deal with Centrelink and it’s a huge, complex beast,” the worker said.
“Centrelink is moving more and more to a de-personalised service when all my experience in the community sector says the more disadvantaged a person is the more face-to-face options they need to navigate the system,” another worker said.
“Anything else just sets them up to fail and not comply which means extra penalties.”