Work and Income attitudes slammed

An audit into how Work and Income deals with complaints has found the most common issue was with staff attitudes and interpersonal skills.

Labour said the report's findings were "damning", but the Ministry of Social Development welcomed the "positive" comments about its complaints process. The Office of the Auditor General examined how the ministry, including Work and Income, StudyLink, and Senior Services sections managed complaints.

The office interviewed staff and commissioned a telephone survey of 669 people who had complained about Work and Income and StudyLink.

In its report released this week it found 30 per cent of Work and Income complaints last year were about interpersonal skills/staff attitudes.

Action taken by a staff member that caused hardship or distress made up 29 per cent of complaints, 18 per cent related to the information provided and 15 per cent were about timeliness of response. The survey found 49 per cent of respondents (Work and Income and StudyLink combined) were dissatisfied with the complaints process and 36 per cent satisfied.

Nelson-based Labour MP Maryan Street met Work and Income earlier this year after she spoke to Nelson writer and beneficiary Sarah Wilson who had criticised the organisation, calling for change from the top.

Wilson, who documented her appointments with Work and Income Nelson on her website, said they were "frustrating, depressing, anxiety-inducing, dehumanising and debilitating".

She called on other beneficiaries to share their experiences with the agency.

Labour vowed to take the campaign nationwide through its online Fair Treatment campaign.

Street said the audit report was "damning".

"Only 36 per cent of those surveyed were satisfied with how the ministry handled their complaints, that's an indictment. Only a third satisfied is pretty damning, they clearly have work to do." She said her meeting earlier this year with Work and Income Nelson was "inconclusive" but she hoped the report would get the office to "focus on the reasons why people are dissatisfied, and they will train their staff and support them".

She said she acknowledged Work and Income staff were under pressure, but so were their clients. "They are there to support those people, so I hope they take this report from the Auditor General and learn from it." Controller and Auditor-General Lyn Provost said the audit report found it was "reasonably easy" for people to complain, the ministry dealt with problems early and at an appropriate organisational level and staff acted professionally and gave people the opportunity to say all that they wanted to say, as well as correctly understanding the person's complaint.

However, Provost said the survey found the ministry needed to improve its communication with complainants, including by explaining more clearly the process and timeframe for resolving complaints, and keeping them informed about how their complaint was being dealt with.

It also found the ministry managed complaints inconsistently and monitored and reported on information about complaints inconsistently.

She acknowledged the ministry was working to remedy this.

Ministry of Social Development acting deputy chief executive Liz Jones said she was pleased with the Auditor General's "positive comments about our complaints process".

She said Work and Income staff often dealt with complex and difficult cases.

"We don't always get it right, and when that happens we fix it.

"Work and Income has 1.7 million face to face appointments with clients every year - that's around 400,000 client interactions per month. We receive 125,000 phone calls every week. In 2013 we received only 8000 complaints - that represents less than half a percentage of all appointments."

Jones said Work and Income Nelson's client satisfaction survey from December 2013 showed 84 per cent of people were happy with the service.

Beneficiary Advocacy Federation of New Zealand spokeswoman Kay Brereton said that because of the inconsistency in dealing with complaints many would not have been recorded.

"Many complaints are dealt with ‘in house' and not recorded in the system - I believe the true numbers of complaints are not recorded for this reason I advise people to complain by email to the national office." She was also concerned that there was "no real change" when the complaint was about interpersonal skills; that the person complained about received no training, just a "word from the manager".

"My experience is that how people are treated at Work and Income has a greater ‘impact' than the actual entitlement decision, this is significant in that the psychological impact of being treated ‘like a second-class citizen' is a significant impact on a person's self confidence, and hence impacts on their ‘work readiness'."