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    Winz -- Select Committee Concerns

    from The Jobs Letter No.104 / 3 August 1999

    IN THE MIDST of the Winz media feeding frenzy, the PARLIAMENTARY SOCIAL SERVICES SELECT COMMITTEE released its report on the 1999/2000 Winz estimates. In the report, the committee listed a number of "serious concerns" about the running of the department. Some key points:

    The integration has encountered some difficulties in the initial phase but the department is well ahead of schedule with the merger of former Income Support and NZES sites. Sixty- four sites have been integrated to date and it is expected that 71 more sites will be integrated by 1 October 1999. This will leave approximately 10 remaining sites to be integrated.

    A total of 113 staff have been made redundant as a result of the merger. This included 42 managers, 53 frontline and frontline support staff and 18 corporate staff.

    While we believe that personalized customer service is a good concept, we are concerned at the high level of case-manager turnover. This can work to undermine some of the major benefits that result from the case-manager model. Another problem that can result from this model is a lack of flexibility in the service. Customers can experience difficulties in receiving satisfactory service when their own case-manager is not available due to illness or for other reasons.

    Anecdotal evidence suggests that there have been a number of problems in the area of customer service within Winz, particularly since the integration. This was greatly exacerbated early in 1999 when Winz took over the processing of student allowances. The type of problems that appear to have been occurring routinely have included lost files and/or parts of files, long waiting times at call centres and customers receiving conflicting information from different staff members.

    Winz deals with a large number of clients with a range of different needs and it is inevitable that there will be some human error. However, we are concerned about the high level of error that seems to be occurring in the organisation. We urge Winz to address these issues and look at ways to minimise these problems.

    We have had concerns in the past about the average level of caseload staff have been carrying and asked if this issue had been addressed in the new department. The department stated that caseloads are dropping across the country although there is some regional variation in this. In some regions the case-load average has decreased to around 195 clients per staff member and the department feels that this is a realistic level for all regions to aim at in the short-term.

    The quality of the service delivered by Winz rests largely on the quality of the staff and the level of training they receive. We therefore stress the need for WINZ to address the issue of reducing case-load levels over the next year.

    We are concerned about one particular issue that has arisen concerning the administration of the childcare subsidy. Winz pays the subsidy directly to the parents who are then required to pay the child-care centre. This has the potential to lead to overpayments if, for example, the child cannot attend the child-care centre due to illness. The onus is then on the parents to repay Winz and this can lead to an accumulation of debt owing to Winz from parents. We encourage Winz to explore other ways of administering this scheme to avoid difficulties that could arise in this area.

    A performance standard of $177 million has been established as the target for recovery of current debt. Current debt is classified as debt belonging to people who are currently receiving a benefit from Winz. It includes both fraudulent and non-fraudulent debt, including overpayment as a result of departmental error. The department told us that this figure is based upon historical collection performance and forecast impacts which may influence current debt recoveries during 1999/2000. The purpose of a debt recovery standard is to ensure a focus is maintained on Crown debt recoveries.

    The department records fraudulent and non-fraudulent debts separately, but does not record the separate amounts recovered because customer's debts are aggregated when collected. We have urged the department in the past to consider recording these two categories separately because it has been misleading in terms of the public perception that all of this debt is the result of benefit fraud. We again encourage the department to consider separating these categories.

    - —Committee members are MPs Joy Quigley (chairperson); Gerry Brownlee (Deputy Chairperson); Arthur Anae, Rev Ann Batten, Lianne Dalziel, Taito Philip Field, Laila Harre, Steve Maharey, Dr Muriel Newman and Tony Steel.

    Source - Report of the Social Services Committee 1999/2000 Estimates Vote Work and Income

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