'The culture under National was to make it as difficult as possible for people to be able to access what they’re entitled to at Work and Income New Zealand. And now our job is to turn that around.' - Carmel Sepuloni in 2017

Doubts cast over claims of culture change at Work and Income NZ

A former case manager says that his experience working with beneficiaries suggests claims of a ‘complete shift’ in the service’s approach are laughable.

A former Work and Income case manager who now works with beneficiaries engaging with the service has spoken out on a “toxic” culture which he says denies beneficiaries payments they’re entitled to, and persists despite the government’s attempts over nearly three years to effect change.

The social development minister, Carmel Sepuloni, when announcing a culture overhaul at MSD service centres in 2018, said it was the result of nine years of a National government trying to make it as difficult as possible for beneficiaries to get their entitlements. She said she was “frankly embarrassed” at the way MSD had responded to people who had written with concerns and there had been a “complete shift” based on a directive from her.

She said she wanted to create a “friendlier, warmer environment” in MSD service centres, introducing online kiosks, more privacy, a welcoming and inclusive space, and a child-friendly zone. “I have made clear that our staff must explore every other option rather than suspension of a benefit and that the decision to suspend is not to be made by a single person alone.” In the first three weeks of the new regime, she said, daily benefit suspensions dropped 23%.

The former manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and still regularly deals with beneficiaries battling MSD, said “all that’s changed is the letterhead. There is still the power imbalance … people are still not getting everything they’re entitled to.” He did concede, however, that there was better communication and case managers were “a little bit nicer; less harsh and dictatorial”.

He said staff are mostly ignorant of all the potential top-ups to which a client might be eligible, while his experience suggested some case managers are simply malicious, and shouldn’t be dealing with people on the front line.

Excluding superannuitants, around 360,000 New Zealanders receive benefits – more than 200,000 are on jobseeker support, nearly 100,000 on supported living payments because of ill health and 66,000 are solo parents, according to the latest MSD figures. So nearly two years after the government-appointed Welfare Expert Advisory Group recommended sweeping changes to the welfare system, including benefit increases of between 12% and 47%, there has been little movement. (See the full list of recommendations here.)

The former case manager said the way beneficiaries are treated can come down to luck, depending on the culture in the office they attend. “Urban offices have huge numbers so it’s cattle herding. You sort of run out of time to be caring and at some point, you’re just processing. Your smaller rural offices will not be as toxic, hopefully, but in the urban centres it’s about how the managers drive the staff – eventually that’s how the staff drives the clients.”’

He said Work and Income staff deal with those whose self-esteem is already very low and are hypersensitive, and yet “there is no real consequence for rudeness” among the staff they’re dealing with.

“Some people are just short by nature. I’ve worked alongside them and after the client has left, I’ve leaned over and said, ‘That was a bit rough.” And they’ve said, ‘Oh well, I’ve got 10 more files.’” People have brought what they believe is the right paperwork and they just get told, ‘No, that’s wrong, why did you bring that?’ The client should just say, ‘Please tell me what’s right, but don’t bark at me. I don’t know this process, you do.’”

While case managers aren’t rewarded for staying within particular budgets for their caseload, some see themselves as defenders of the taxpayer’s dollar “and everyone has to jump through their hoops”.

“If you’re a dickhead, you’re a dickhead. You’re going to make it tough for people because that’s just your nature. If your own self-esteem isn’t where it should be and you like making people jump through hoops, it’s a perfect job because you control their benefit, you control their life. If you’re having a bad day, everyone is having a bad day with you. It’s like an abusive husband – the house goes dark as soon as he walks into it and it’s the same with these people. The clients walk in and you can almost physically see them getting knots in their stomach because they know the next half hour is going to be really something.”

Around 2012, training times were reduced from around four to six months to six weeks, he said, impacting on the ability of case managers to grasp which top-up benefits might apply. “How can you hand on heart say you are giving everyone their entitlement when you don’t understand it yourself?”

Social development minister Carmel Sepuloni (Radio NZ – Richard Tindiller)

MSD’s group general manager for client service delivery, Kay Read, said training is continually reviewed but the length, duration and focus of that for case managers varied depending on “the learning style and needs of the individual” and the complexity of their work. Maintaining consistency of culture nationally is a challenge for any big organisation but Work and Income was working to address this, she said.

The former manager said Work and Income can make “as many mistakes as they like” without consequences but a client can’t make one. “If they do, their benefit gets suspended, their life gets put on hold and bills are not paid. Winz can lose one of your documents and say, ‘Bring me another one’ and nothing happens if they lose your personal details. But if you give one wrong piece of paper, it looks like you are being fraudulent or there are major inferences around your character. In an unhealthy office the imbalance is really definable.”

Part of MSD’s culture change efforts involved introducing client satisfaction surveys and Read said results showed “clients are appreciating the changes we’ve made”. The average rating from July 2019 to March 2020 was 8.5 out of 10 out of more than 71,000 responses, but Read added, “while we’ve made good process, we know there is always more work to do.” She urged anyone who has received service they aren’t happy with to contact MSD through their complaints system – phone and email contact details are online.

Nelson-based beneficiary advocate Kay Brereton, a former member of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, said although the case manager left more than five years ago, his assessment rings true. “He’s on the nail.”  She agreed that the “ad hoc” training staff received left them ill-equipped to understand the full range of entitlements. In the past, case managers were specialists in particular benefits so had a better grasp on related supplements.

The survey results Read quoted can’t be trusted, Brereton said. Beneficiaries are wary of giving honest feedback about their experiences because they’re frightened they’ll be punished for complaining. “The people who have something bad to say just hang up.”

Brereton, co-convenor of the National Beneficiary Advocacy Consultative Group which meets with MSD every three months to discuss issues raised by beneficiaries, said there seemed to be some movement pre-Covid towards a more client-focused approach.

During lockdown, MSD made it easier for clients to access services online to reduce pressure on its overwhelmed 0800 number. “They took a lot of the rules away so they made it much easier for people to get on a benefit and for their staff to approve things. They added another $400 to everyone’s food balance which enabled a whole lot more people to use the online facility to apply for food grants – to make bureaucrat’s lives easier.” But since then, she said, that money has been taken away again. “If you used that extra $400, you’re now negative $400.” She did not believe it was clearly explained to beneficiaries that the money wasn’t an extra entitlement.

“Government departments get very scared and risk averse that they have been giving out too much money. There has been a backlash… a culture change of ‘We looked after them really well during Covid and now everyone has got it tough so they have to bear a bit of toughness too.’”

Brereton, who received the QSM last year for services to the welfare of beneficiaries, said the advisory group was “absolutely stunned” at the level of income that people on benefits were trying to survive on and the recommendations they made for increases were realistic. “The government told us to make recommendations so that people could live adequately and in dignity on the benefit. Ignoring them means they don’t want people on benefits to live adequately with dignity.”

In his current organisation, the former case manager assists dozens of beneficiaries every week. Beneficiaries we spoke to who were seeking help through advocacy groups such as Auckland Action Against Poverty said they were routinely left feeling humiliated and degraded by the invasive and judgmental questions they’re asked when applying for help such as food grants. “Every day we see people who are disempowered and dehumanised by Winz and the system,” said AAAP co-ordinator Brooke Stanley Pao. Advocates say beneficiaries are often declined grants to which they’re entitled but it takes intervention from groups such as AAAP to have them reinstated. The group’s training manual advises: “Our advocates will come in direct opposition with Work and Income, having to use their knowledge and guts to fight against the constant no’s from the case managers.”

Stanley Pao says case managers will pore through people’s bank statements and demand to know why some transactions happened. “They’re asking ‘Why did you spend money on takeaway’, or ‘You should have known your registration for your car was coming up so you should have put money aside, you should have been saving for that’. But we are big believers that if you give people enough they will make the right decisions for themselves.”

She says more people are being denied emergency help such as food grants over the phone. “If you need a food grant, they shouldn’t be making people jump through hoops. Former co-ordinator and new Green MP Ricardo Menéndez-March said food grants are being refused in a way that does not require case managers to lodge them as having been declined. “For example, someone will say they called a contact centre and they told me they’d run out of food grants and to come back next week.”

People who are homeless, without the internet or have English as a second language often have difficulty navigating online access to services, he said.

Although the people AAAP deals with are obviously those who feel poorly treated by Work and Income rather than those who had a good experience, their numbers aren’t small – Menéndez-March says the organisation assists 6,000-8,000 households a year. AAAP, which describes itself as a political organisation pushing for liveable incomes for all and the end of all sanctions, wants an immediate and significant boost to benefits – something the Ardern government has ruled out. “The Labour Party needs to own up that they are a handbrake on themselves,” he said.

When approached for comment on this story, Sepuloni’s office referred us back to the comments she made in 2018.




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