Centrelink Robodebt: Human Services off the hook?

Commonwealth Ombudsman investigation into the Centrelink Robodebt fiasco has found the Department of Human Services (DHS) guilty of poor service delivery and inadequate planning but it has stopped short of condemning the automated debt collection push, saying it was no more inaccurate or unfair than the manual process.

Acting Commonwealth Ombudsman Richard Glenn said that the online compliance intervention (OCI), which DHS launched in July 2016 and was expected to clawback up to $4 billion, could have been delivered and planned for better but that it was not fundamentally flawed.

The OCI matched Tax Office employment data with Centrelink data and sent debt notices out when discrepancies were flagged. 

What went wrong

The Ombudsman’s report said poor service delivery was ‘a recurring theme’ in many complaints he had received.

“Customers had problems getting a clear explanation about the debt decision and the reasoning behind it,” Mr Glenn said in the report.

He noted that the compliance helpline number was not included on the initial debt letters and was difficult to find online, resulting in  long wait times because customers flooded general customer service lines instead.

Once customers were through to a human being the response was not always helpful.

“Service centre staff did not always have sufficient knowledge about how the OCI system works, highlighting a deficiency in DHS’ communication and training to staff.”

The investigation concluded that DHS should have done better preparation before the scheme was rolled out and expanded, including speaking to staff and Centrelink customers.

“The OCI is a complex automated system that was rolled out on a large scale within a relatively short timeframe. There will inevitably be problems with the rollout of a system of this scale,” the report said. 

“In our view, many of the OCI’s implementation problems could have been mitigated through better project planning and risk management at the outset. This includes more rigorous user testing with customers and service delivery staff, a more incremental rollout, and better communication to staff and stakeholders.”

Mr Glenn said DHS’ did not consult all the relevant external stakeholders during key project planning stages and after the full rollout of the OCI, which he said was reflected “by the extent of confusion and inaccuracy in public statements made by key non-government stakeholders, journalists and individuals”.

Mr Glenn said there should have been more manual support available to customers when they had questions, once the OCI was in motion, particularly for those most vulnerable.

“A key lesson for agencies and policy makers when proposing to rollout large scale measures which require people to engage in a new way with new digital channels, is for agencies to engage with stakeholders and provide resources for adequate manual support during transition periods.

 “Good public administration requires a transparent and open decision making process that clearly sets out the issues the person needs to address to challenge a decision and the findings of fact on which the decision is based. This principle continues to apply when decision making is automated.”

The Ombudsman was also squeamish about the DHS automatically charging a ten per cent debt recovery fee to customers who had a debt and did not have a reasonable excuse for it.

While acknowledging this practice was legal, Mr Glenn raised concerns for those customers who may not have had an adequate opportunity to provide a reasonable excuse, for example if they did not receive the initial letter, or did not understand the connection between having reasonable excuse and being charged a recovery fee.

DHS no longer applies the fee automatically where there is no contact from the customer, or the customer says personal factors affected them and the fee is suspended while a review is under way. Letters are now sent by registered post.

“[DHS] now provides clearer information and further invitation to provide a reasonable excuse in debt notification letters. We have recommended that, in certain cases, DHS review those debts where the recovery fee was previously applied,” the report added. 

But although the Ombudsman said the process could have been easier to navigate, more transparent and decisions made easier to challenge he did not attack the reasoning behind the program.

Mr Glenn said that although one-fifth of Centrelink Robodebts were later challenged successfully by clients after they supplied extra information, this should not be called an ‘error rate’. He said this figure was consistent with that associated with manual debt investigation and the data matching process was not at fault.

Neither did he criticise the ATO practice of averaging income out over a person’s employment period, which could result in some people’s income being overstated and debt notices being issue by Centrelink, although he said this should be explained to Centrelink customers.

 “We are also satisfied that if the customer can collect their employment income information and enter it properly into the system, or provide it to DHS to enter, the OCI can accurately calculate the debt.

“After examination of the business rules underpinning the system, we are satisfied the debts raised by the OCI are accurate, based on the information which is available to DHS at the time the decision is made.”

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