Underfunding: The view from the frontline

Cuts to social services make it impossible for PSA members to do their jobs. This month, we talk to PSA members from the Ministry of Social Development (Work and Income) about why the agency’s simplification agenda isn’t that simple.

Cutting moneyKate* has been with Work and Income for 20 years. When she started she was trained up to help deliver 42 core services including basic main benefits and low-level supplemental assistance (such as the Disability Allowance). Today, she and her team assist clients with more than 100 services as well as navigating the many different qualifying paths to benefits and other assistance.

Kate says the volume of work can be overwhelming: “Today the team deals with a lot. There’s just no way ten years ago we were seeing as many people suffering without mental health support.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the people we need to get through the work. Our biggest challenge is to address people’s problems as we encounter them. With a push to spend no longer than six minutes on the phone, you can’t help but feel you don’t have the time to deliver a quality service,” Kate says.

Lani* from the Work and Income contact centre agrees: “Our process now – which encourages people to go online before coming into an office – means that at least one referral is usually needed, and a lot of times people feel like they’re getting the runaround.”

Lani says the system means it’s common to triple-handle work without meaning to: “There are multiple points of entry for the public now. When I started, you walked into an office or you called the office line. Today, it’s not uncommon for someone to call, come in, email and use an online form. People are using all of the channels they can because they don’t always get the results they are looking for.”

“Technology is supposed to make things simple for people, but our clients have complex problems and complex needs. You can’t get around the fact that for many people, time is what is needed.”

Joe* says he took a job at Work and Income because he was passionate about helping people: “I wanted to support people to get the services they need and educate them about what is available to them.” But he says the balance has tipped away from providing services to focusing on getting people in to work.

“The thing is, you can’t get someone a job when they don’t have a home or food to eat. That’s the reality… you can’t jump from A to Z without at least looking at the stuff in between.”

When asked about staff morale, Joe said the bottom line is that MSD staff want to be there. They want to help those who need it, but their passion and enthusiasm is being exploited.

“The timeframes we’re supposed to work to when we’re supporting someone are far too tight. At the moment people feel like they’re unable to help and make a difference because they are hamstrung by the system.”

“In some cases, we are actually deliberately double-booking people. It’s called “oversubscribing”, and it’s supposed to deal with the high rate of no-shows. It’s disempowering and it’s a false economy because if you aren’t allowed the time to support a person when they first approach you, then they are only going to contact your colleagues a week or two down the track.”

Athol Ringrose, the PSA’s National Convenor for the PSA Lead Team at MSD, said members he talks to are worn out: “I am pleased that we can draw attention to their workloads, and the issues people are grappling with. But drawing attention to the issues is only the first step – we have to value the people delivering our frontline public services.”


*Members names have been replaced with pseudonyms to protect their privacy.