Centrelink is an easy target for complaints but there are two sides to every story
The ABC's Q&A audience laughed at Attorney General George Brandis when he suggested last Monday that people with Centrelink problems could simply contact the agency and sort out the matter.
There are so many accounts of problems with Centrelink that Brandis' view seemed like fantasyland.
Complainants range from ABC 7.30 Report presenter, Leigh Sales, to disability pensioners and victims of Centrelink's debt recovery operations.
But could it be that sometimes the agency is being unfairly castigated?
One of the hardest hitting criticisms came from blogger and writer Andie Fox in an article published in Fairfax media outlets on February 6.
She says she tried calling Centrelink during her lunch hour but "I would end up wandering the streets around work with the phone pressed to my ear, on hold, and be no further advanced in the phone queue by the end of the hour."
Eventually, she took a day off work to go into a Centrelink office.
But the media adviser for Human Services Minister Alan Tudge said that had she called the 1800 contact number on her debtor's letter she would in all probability have gone straight through.
I tried this number and low and behold, I got an instant answer.
This is not to say that all Centrelink calls are answered quickly.
There are far too many complaints for that to be true.
But there are at least two sides to every story.
In her detailed article Ms Fox complained that her problem arose from the fact that she was chased by Centrelink for a debt actually owed by her former de facto partner.
She then detailed the run-around she got trying to resolve the matter.
She says she soon found out that even asking the simplest question about the debt threw her into "a vortex of humiliating and frustrating bureaucratic procedures."
But Centrelink has a different story.
The agency says Ms Fox's debt is a Family Tax Benefit (FTB) debt for the 2011-12 financial year which arose after she received more FTB than she was entitled to because she under-estimated her family income for that year.
The original debt was raised because she and her ex-partner did not lodge a tax return or confirm their income information for 2011-12.
Centrelink says that after Ms Fox notified the department that she had separated from her partner, the debt due to her partner's non-lodgement was cancelled.
But what of other problems Ms Fox says she had in dealing with Centrelink?
"Once inside, you line up to receive a seat at a computer terminal from which you are expected to use the government website to solve your problems yourself. A single Centrelink employee marches the floor providing the occasional terse instruction to what resembles an absolute beginners' tutorial in computer literacy."
Ms Fox says there was no link on the website through which she could explain that she thought the debt Centrelink was chasing was her ex-partner's fine for non-lodgement of tax returns.
There was no box in any window to select to explain that his failure to lodge his tax return was why the Family Tax Benefit she claimed was now seen by Centrelink as fraud.
Having gone as far as she could on the website, she pressed the Centrelink employee and asked to speak to someone directly.
She joined another queue. A different staff member saw her at a counter and, again, she relayed her story, shedding any dignity around discussing the details of her break-up and finances.
But Centrelink general manager Hank Jongen says Centrelink made numerous attempts to get in touch with Ms Fox via phone and letter but many of these attempts were left unanswered. Between November 16 and January 17 Centrelink made four phone calls and sent six letters to Ms Fox.
Centrelink says it was not until 2015 that she informed them that she had separated from her partner in 2013.
Mr Jongen said the experience described by Ms Fox could have been avoided if she had informed the department she had separated from her partner in a timely way, and if she had lodged her tax returns in a timely way.
The Department of Human Services maintains that overall wait times have been reduced this year and social security and welfare average-speed-of-answer is around 12 minutes.
But averages don't help you if you happen to be inquiring at a time when wait times are over an hour.
More staff are needed, particularly during the peak month of July and from December to March each year when there is increased demand for help from families and students.
For years I've thought that, of the three broad public service tasks – policy development, service delivery and regulation – far too many staff were allocated to policy development and far too few to the other two areas.
Policy development is the high status activity, but service delivery and regulation are where people meet the service and rate its performance.
At the very least I believe policy development officers should spend some time every year working at the shop front. This should apply from the head of the Prime Minister's Department, to Treasury and Finance Department budget officers.
Answering pensioners' queries or fronting a Centrelink counter would not only help the service delivery officers, it would give the policy officers real insight into the role of government.
Time for trivialties
Currently senior officers can find time for trivial matters such as the Australian Public Service Commission's Brandit competition.
For years the tagline One APS Career, thousands of opportunities has been attached to public service job advertisements.
I doubt if anyone paid attention to this jabber. It would be no loss if it disappeared.
But with nothing else to do, the commission has run a competition to find a new tagline to "convey the employment value proposition of the APS".
The competition has, of course, included the full bureaucratic kit of judging criteria and judging panel.
Two external judges and the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson and the Public Service commissioner, John Lloyd have found time to ponder the 32 shortlisted entries from over 700 "fantastic" submissions.I'd rather see them down at the local Centrelink helping members of the public.
Is that it? That's all the personal info they released? They are basically just rebutting her story, she decided to make herself part of the story & all I can see centrelink doing is providing their side of the story. revealing why she was being fined, pointing out that she didn't actually tell them she was separated & the fact that she didn't lodge a tax return on time is hardly personal info that needs to be protected. they seem absolutely essential in centrelink providing clarity on the case. Again, she decided to make the case public & I see no reason why she shouldn't have the attention focused back on her particularly if centrelink are correct & I'm more inclined to believe them.