Some of you have asked, after all the attention in March: what happened next with WINZ? Have they changed? Has Labour done anything with all the stories of mistreatment I collected? How do I get treated now?
As we’re all aware, there’s been some barriers to my advocacy work. My health and all its restrictions, along with the diabolical election and resulting reshuffles, has quietened my voice somewhat in the last few months.
However, I am far from done.
It was a terrible shame to lose Maryan Street in the Nelson electorate. She was a strong supporter of me and a great link into what was happening in parliament and in Labour. She did a lot of grassworks in Nelson and it is sorely missed.
Carmel Sepuloni has replaced Sue Moroney as Labour Spokesperson for Social Development. I followed up with Sue to find out what was happening with all of the stories I had collected and collated for them.
The answer was… a little disappointing. Apparently they were hoping to table some oral questions in the House, but as many of the stories I had collected were anonymous, this was difficult. They tried to contact some people who had submitted stories via the survey on the Labour website, but were unsuccessful.
In many cases, I may have been able to provide contact details for those willing to talk. If you are (especially if you already sent me your story) – maybe let me know?
I have yet to speak to Carmel, but she’s aware of my work. She has sent an email to all regional Labour offices requesting that they suggest anyone with WINZ complaints contacts her. So you could do this too. Here’s her details.
Meanwhile, I’ve started chatting with Jan Logie, the Greens spokesperson for social development and income support. She has been meeting with beneficiary advocacy agencies around the country and has many plans in this area, which makes me feel hopeful. Outside of legislative changes, she said to me; “I am very worried and keen to work on issues relating to the SLP assessment processes and the disability allowance as well as what seems to be an environment of increasing dis entitlement.”
So what’s actually happening at WINZ?
I wrote a few weeks ago about National’s further welfare reforms, which include reducing the number of beneficiaries by 25% in the next three years. This is a terrifying plan and I’ve asked time and again how they plan to achieve it without driving people onto the streets. There doesn’t seem to be an answer for that.
It’s hard to know from the outside of the vast behemoth that is MSD, whether any of the issues I raised in March have really been addressed. I can only report on my own personal treatment, which has vastly improved. (I’m not complaining about this at all, but it makes me distressed to think of the many others who don’t receive the treatment they deserve, and it makes me cynical to know the only reason I am getting it is because I am loud).
You may remember that the Office of the Auditor General are conducting an investigation into MSD practices, particularly how they deal with clients. They have sent me all of their reports so far. The latest – Using a case management approach to service delivery – was particularly interesting.
I grabbed a few statistics:
- The Acting Deputy Chief Executive of Work and Income provided figures that show that Work and Income carries out 1.77 million face-to-face appointments a year and receives 125,000 telephone calls each week.
- In 2013, the Ministry received 8000 complaints.
- Our audit on how the Ministry deals with complaints suggested some potential under-recording of complaints.
- During 2013/14, the Ministry calculated 90.5% of payments correctly the first time, slightly exceeding the performance standard it agreed with the Government.
- We interviewed 11 case-managed clients. We based our interview questions on Work and Income’s service standards. In our interviews, people had more positive comments than negative ones
I’ve highlighted the things that caught my eye.
1. 8000 complaints – and I know for a fact that 90% of the people I have spoken to never complain for fear of repercussion or belief that they will not be listened to. The audit acknowledges the potential for under-recording. I’d say it’s more of a fact.
2. I wonder how many complaints other Ministries receive? Perhaps I should do an Official Information Act request.
3. 90.5% of payments made correctly the first time – and this exceeds performance standards? Woooow. If a bank or a private employer were to make only 90.5% of payments correctly, you can be pretty sure customers and employees would have something to say about that. But as beneficiaries – though we get called, respectfully, “clients” – we’re supposed to accept that?
4. The audit only interviewed 11 people???? I am sorry for my excessive use of punctuation here, but you may remember I was contacted by them as a possible interviewee and I responded keenly. I know several other people who did the same. And they only interviewed 11? Out of 1.77 million face-to-face appointments, this seems like an infinitesimally small number to base a satisfaction report on.
(The report says they also interviewed some advocacy groups, WINZ staff, looked at 20 case files, and reviewed government documentation. I still say this is woefully inadequate. The best way to get information about how a service is working is from the clients. As at the end of September, WINZ had 294,321 to choose from. And OAG chose 11.)
Of their four Recommendations, these three interested me:
1. encourage the development of a cross-agency response to support working-age adults with the highest levels of complex needs into work, through its role on the Social Sector Chief Executives Forum;
2. develop an approach to assessing and supporting case manager performance that reflects the importance of soft skills, such as effective client engagement, as well as the technical skills that case managers need to have;
4. include full and clear financial information in suitably worded letters to clients, including letters sent after a change in a client’s circumstances.
YES to a cross-agency response to complex needs clients. YES to developing effective client engagement. And YES to better communication, which is exactly what I wrote about a couple weeks ago here – WINZ bureaucratic-speak.
I wonder if the OAG actually monitors their progress against these recs?
I’ve noticed that, over the past couple of months, my local WINZ office has changed their signage. Where it used to say ‘Work and Income’ it now says, in a much more official and intimidating way, ‘Ministry of Social Development.’
I asked on Twitter and discovered this was happening elsewhere across the country.
So, I rang my local office to find out what the deal was.
This was their statement:
“The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) is refining its logo by updating the font and layout to make it clearer and more readable, particularly on signage.
We started the refurbishment in April 2014 and the signage on all 46 Work and Income service centres across New Zealand has moved to the MSD brand. Other Ministry offices, including our Community Link sites and regional offices, will gradually be updated over the coming year.
Other MSD services like Child, Youth and Family, Senior Services and Studylink are co-located at 36 of the 46 sites.
We’re making these changes because as MSD we’re all working for many of the same people. Our clients often use more than one of our services.”
I really should also have asked them how much it’s costing. Another OIA to make?
Obviously, security has been tightened at WINZ offices across the country. At my office, there is a police officer at the door who greets you, then a security guard immediately inside who asks if you have an appointment. If you do, you’re allowed to go up to the desk. All appointments are conducted either in the open or in rooms with all windows. Not privacy possible. Several security guards move around the office.
I understand why this is being done.
That doesn’t make me feel any less intimidated, anxious, or like a criminal.
I am lucky. I am lucky that I have a strong voice and a PR background and a place in the media. I was lucky that I had enough support to take my story to the media back in March, and get listened to.
Since then, I’ve been given a new case manager who is competent and pleasant. She tells me about all my entitlements and she’s pretty straight up. She answers all my emails with 24 hours. If she can’t help, she directs me immediately to someone who can.
In my capacity as a writer, I get quick responses from the community liaison and communications people.
I feel like I am taken seriously and treated with respect. This is so much more than so many others get. Those are they people I care about. If I’m lucky enough, I’m going to get well enough to go back to work next year – though I’m probably going to need WINZ on and off my whole life, because that’s how my illness works. So I want the system to get better.
I don’t want to see 25% of beneficiaries cut. I don’t want to see current beneficiaries mistreated and denied their entitlements. I don’t want to see people choosing homelessness over being a beneficiary, because that’s a preferable experience. I don’t want to see people crying with distress in those offices.
I want to see minimum of standard where case managers are taught not only technical skills, but how to work with anxious and unhappy people.
I want to see the “Jobseeker Benefit” abolished and the Unemployment Benefit and the Sickness Benefit reinstated, because it is ridiculous that these two entirely different situations are treated in the same way. There are seperate case managers for people who are ill, but they have no specialist health training. And even though I am on “Jobseeker Support (with medical exemption)” I am still required to: A) prove that I am doing things to reduce my living costs in order to maintain my Disability Allowance, and B) Be available for work.
(Which is why, while I am in Australia, my benefit will be stopped and I am going to struggle to pay my bills, which of course do not stop. Because I don’t qualify for my benefit unless I am available for work.)
What can you do?
Both Labour and the Greens are interested in action in this area. If you or someone you know has been mistreated by WINZ, adding this story to the database of evidence is a really powerful move. It’s up to you how you feel about sharing your story for this purpose, and who you’d prefer to work with.
You can send stories to Carmel Sepuloni, Labour Spokesperson for Social Development.
You can also contact Jan Logie, Green Spokesperson for Social Development and income support.
If you are having problems with WINZ, there’s some options on this page – Having Trouble With WINZ?
This needs to be a public issue, now and in the next election. I encourage you to do what you can, when you can, while looking after yourself first.