Bosses MIA on Centrelink’s robo-debt

c3poSENIOR BOSSES at Centrelink are not taking responsibility for the welfare agency’s “robo-debt” debacle and leaving their department’s junior leaders to pick up the pieces, according to front line workers.

Centrelink staff have told their union, the CPSU, that waiting time for reviews of “debts” raised under the controversial data-matching compliance program have now blown out to 50 days when the the agency is demanding that the money is repaid in less than 28 days.

One union member says the Department of Human Service’s freedom of information unit has been inundated with more than 200 requests for information about the “Online Compliance Intervention” program since it began in July 2016.

The latest internal dissent against the system comes as a fresh warning was issued on Tuesday about the possible consequences for vulnerable Australians of a government department demanding large sums of money accompanied by the threat of legal action.

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The department’s swipe last week at Centrelink workers who have spoken out publicly about the robo-debt crisis seems to have provoked a backlash, with furious public servants supplying comments to the union which has posted them on its website.

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Centrelink’s media unit was contacted on Tuesday for comment on the latest staff comments and Fairfax has requested an interview with Human Services secretary Kathryn Campbell but the request was ignored.

“Staff are back to being a commodity that is being used to represent, excuse and justify abysmal management of a flawed system. I must praise the team leaders and TSOs [team support officers] who have and continue to guide us – a tremendous effort,” wrote one worker.

“Also, the lower senior management who add value to the process.

“There needs to be responsibility taken by senior management regarding the accuracy and integrity of the [Online Compliance Intervention] systems.

“Every customer who is requested to pay a debt that doesn’t exist, or who cannot be given an assured review outcome within a reasonable time, now over 50 days I believe, walks away with a negative image that adds to the impact of the system.”

Another public servant from one of the giant department’s IT units wrote that the data-matching effort was working as it was intended and the bogus and the crisis had been caused by a policy failure rather than any technical shortcomings.

“I can verify that while there are issues – none of them have occurred through ICT technical fault.

“This system works as 100 per cent to specification.

“This whole debacle is stemming from bad policy not our Online Compliance System.”

An employee wrote that the lack of human oversight in the massively expanded data matching effort, which uses an automated system to compare a client’s information given to the Tax Office against that provided to Centrelink, was to blame for many of the problems.

“There once were staff who were trained to do this work,” they said.

“Debts were raised based on staff (human interaction) because these people knew our computer systems to prevent incorrect decisions being made.”

How the Centrelink debt debacle failure rate is much worse than we all thought
Analysis by Peter Martin

It has become the most widely cited figure in the Centrelink robo-debt debate: that 20 per cent of the debts identified by its data-matching machine are wrong.

But the figure itself is wrong. The true number of mistakes is almost certainly higher, perhaps as high as 90 per cent.

Twenty per cent has become the accepted truth in part because the figure is big – big enough for critics to use to condemn the data-matching program and big enough for Centrelink to use to fob off requests for the truth.

Even Malcolm Turnbull’s disenchanted former digital transformation chief Paul Shelter embraced it.

“All I can say is, if they were a commercial company, you would go out of business with a 20 per cent failure rate, a known 20 per cent failure rate, you would go out of business,” he told The Guardian this month.

Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese backed him up, wrongly saying that “on the government’s own figures, 20 per cent of people who’ve been sent debt letters, often accompanied by threats of debt collection agencies being involved, have been sent them on a false basis”.

The 20 per cent isn’t the proportion of debt letters sent out that are false. We won’t know that for a long time, if ever. Some people have been paying up even when the debt letters are wrong, sometimes because they don’t have the records to argue otherwise, sometimes because they trust the government, and sometimes because they can’t be bothered dealing with Centrelink.

A Centrelink whistleblower alleges that, disgracefully, staff have been ordered not to use information in Centrelink’s possession to correct false debt notices. Another says that of hundreds of debt notices reviewed, only a few dozen turned out to be correct.

Here is where the 20 per cent figure comes from. Between July and December, Centrelink’s computer sent out 232,000 letters asking people to log on to a website to confirm or update their income history. Around 169,000 did so. (An email to Fairfax Media from the office of Human Services Minister Alan Tudge implies that none of the 63,000 who did not log on have been issued with debt notices. Their cases are “are still active and in progress or require further review”.)

When the 169,000 logged on and ticked a box or corrected the income information, they were presented with an instant, on-screen estimate of money owed. Despite weeks of requests, the minister’s office has been unable to tell Fairfax Media the proportion who were told they owed money. It’s likely to be extremely high. The software can’t account for income that is exempted from the Centrelink tests and it averages annual income to often falsely conclude that the averaged income is received in the weeks when the recipients are on sickness or other benefits, among other flaws.

But the online estimate isn’t a debt notice. That is sent later, after a human assesses the machine’s conclusions. A whistleblower says staff are instructed to only lightly assess those conclusions, letting most of them through.

Eighty per cent is the proportion of the 169,000 who are eventually sent letters with demands to pay. Twenty per cent is the proportion who are not. There’s no reason to think the proportions who have been wrongly assessed by the computer and wrongly issued debt notices are not much, much higher.

Fairfax Media asked the minister’s office three weeks ago for the proportion of computer debt assessments that those who logged on objected to, but despite repeated reminders, still hasn’t been told.

The error rate may be even higher than the objection rate. Given what’s known about the design of the system, there’s no reason to think it is not north of 90 per cent. Twenty per cent would be bad enough (as the Prime Minister’s former digital chief says, enough to put a private sector firm out of business) but it’s probably far short of the truth.

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