Digital Transformation Minister talks data, avoids Centrelink robo debt

Talking data: Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation Angus Taylor.
Pic: YouTube. 



The federal government’s Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation, Angus Taylor, put data at the heart of transforming how Australians deal with the government in a speech to public servants this week but he did avoided any talk of how matching datasets can cause mayhem, as it did in the recent Centrelink robo-debt debacle.  

Mr Taylor said data was essential to ensuring “efficient payments or preventative compliance” when he spoke at the Chief Data Analytics Officer Public Sector Forum earlier this week (Wednesday).

The government’s online compliance intervention (OCI), which began in June last year, caused an avalanche of complaints from distressed Centrelink clients, many of whom found it difficult to get through to a Human Services human being to help them resolve the issue.

At one point, up to 20,000 people a week were receiving debt notices. The notices were automatically generated if a discrepancy was found between Tax Office data and benefits paid.

Mr Taylor told the forum: “Now when we mention compliance people immediately think of debt collecting but what I’m talking about is making sure the payment that goes out the door is right.

“It’s a fundamentally important service delivery tool for the citizen and for many years and across both sides of government beneficiaries of payments have been incurring debts which often are unintended.”

He called it “a big problem for citizens and a big problem for government” because every dollar paid out incorrectly to claimants cost more to recoup.

But he steered clear of name checking the Centrelink robo-debt crisis, which blew up before Christmas last year, after thousands of benefit claimants, past and present, received letters asking them to explain a discrepancy between ATO data and their Centrelink benefits or pay back a chunk of money.

A Commonwealth Ombudsman report later criticised the Department of Human Services for placing “unreasonable” expectations on claimants and communicating poorly with them but did not condemn the data matching process itself or question its accuracy.

Mr Taylor extolled the virtues of the government’s Geocoded-National Address File as he spoke, adding that the file enabled correct payments and tackled fraud.

“There can be zero error or fraud from either the beneficiary or the public servant processing the claim. But because of an inaccurate dataset we could make the wrong payment,” he said.

“So improving the quality of our information has immediate and substantial benefit to both.”

After the Ombudsman’s inquiry, DHS agreed to use registered post to contact customers, as some letters never reached their recipients.

Despite the problems caused by robo debt and the online Census meltdown in August, which he said had taught the government ‘real lessons’, Mr Taylor did not resile from putting technology and data front and centre of the government’s service improvements.

One of his top priorities, he said, was “a smooth easy log on experience and the ability to streamline your identities with government”, citing GovPass and my Gov 2 as good examples of achieving this.

 “The way I think about technology transforming customer service is broad. It’s not just portals and services, although those things are important,”Mr Taylor told the forum.

“The delivery of a high quality application programming interface has just as much potential to serve the needs of a customer as any other project.”

Mr Taylor praised, the national open data portal containing over 20,000 datasets, and the NationalMap’s geospatial datasets.

“We firmly believe it is time to build on our initial success and transform how government uses data – from what remains a cottage industry – into a central plank of how government works.”

“To do that we must focus on three main areas: analytics, policy problems and efficient payments.”

He placed ‘smaller agile projects’ over ‘big traditional waterfall projects’ and said that research of 50,000 projects internationally showed that only 3 per cent of large projects were untroubled, compared with 58 per cent of smaller agile projects.

Mr Taylor said the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) had more powers to review and monitor projects than the federal government had ever done before.

“This is a critical point – no government of either stripe has had the strategic overview that this government is now conducting into the Australian people’s multi-billion-dollar investment.”

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