DHS RoboDebt project ‘went well’

James Riley
Editorial Director

The Department of Human Services showed it was everything but human during a Senate Committee hearing on Friday delving into the digital delivery of services.

The DHS came back into the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee after lunch having spent some time before the break talking through upgrades to its child support systems.

After lunch, Senator Jenny McAllister who chairs the committee, asked how the Online Compliance Intervention Program (OCI) – more commonly known as the RoboDebt system – came to be forged in terms of policy development and project management.

Jenny McAllister: Digging into the early planning for the RoboDebt scheme

Ms McAllister was attempting to inform a view of how digital service delivery should be handled in government.

One of the larger questions of the committee was should digital transformation be driven from the centre of public service administration, or from the business units

“Is it a top down process that comes from the centre of government like DTA or is something that’s initiated in the operational areas,” Senator McAllister asked.

“Where does OCI fit in the spectrum between a very centrally driven process and something that came out of an operational agency?”

Jason McNamara, the DHS acting deputy secretary of integrity and information said Robodebt was very much a child of DHS.

He said it was designed to support measures in the 2015/16 Federal Budget and intended to sharpen up welfare compliance. It was trialled from July 2016 with a pilot looking at 1000 cases and then rolled out fully in August and September of 2016.

There’s a number of budget measures that underlie the income data matching process and the first relevant measure would have been the strengthening of the welfare payment measure in the 2015/16 budget”

That was a process that led to an increase in compliance reviews.

He said the decision to automate compliance reviews was a Coalition government decision.

Senator McAllister wondered where the ‘idea’ for RoboDebt came from, given that Ministers rely on advice.

Mr MacNamara said DHS had been data matching for a long period of time with the Tax Office, but that the ability to act on cases where data matching had thrown up anomalies was limited by DHS’s resources.

“We had a large log of discrepancies that weren’t being actioned,” he said.

The design of RoboDebt occurred before the Digital Transformation Office (which itself transformed into the Digital Transformation Agency) laid down its initial Digital Service Standard.

The DHS obviously believed it had a goldmine – estimated at about $300 million – of overpaid welfare cases that had been thrown up by the ATO data matching exercise and just needed an automated system to mine the cases.

Mr McNamara told the committee the motivation for building Robodebt was to crunch through the backlog of unactioned discrepancies.

“That’s always been the key motivation. To examine what the differences between the Tax Office and the Centrelink data are telling us.”

Senator McAllister and other committee members kept probing for detail on how the RoboDebt project idea first got floated in front of a government minister and what checks and balances the pubic service has in place

Senator McAllister said the committee wasn’t trying to “re-prosecute” RoboDebt or carry on a blame game, but better understand the processes behind projects that “didn’t go that well” to try and inform better ICT decision making in the future.

It was then that Mr McNamara dropped his bombshell that landed squarely on the heads of those thousands of people who were hounded by the RoboDebt system.

“The departments view is we wouldn’t agree with the proposition it didn’t go that well,” he said.

Senator McAllister was incredulous.

“You think it went well?”, she countered.

“Yeah, yeah,” said a smiling Mr McNamara.

“We’ve made a submission to the Senate inquiry and made it quite clear that we think the project has gone quite well. We’ve delivered lots of savings

“We have quite a number of reviews undertaken. We have changed some aspects of the system and we have improved aspects of the system.

“But I don’t think we would agree with the proposition that the project hasn’t gone well,” said Mr McNamara, with a sterling disregard for the public outcry that saw the DHS RoboDebt system score a deluge of critical press coverage, its very own Senate inquiry and a report from the Commonwealth Ombusdman that backed the Senate committee’s line of inquiry around how to do sensitive public systems a whole lot better in the future.

“We found there were issues with the usability and transparency of the system,” said a report from the Commonwealth Ombusdman Richard Glenn when the report was released in April 2017.

“There were deficiencies in DHS’ service delivery and communication to customers and staff when implementing the system,” the Ombudsman said. “These issues affected the quality of decisions made by the OCI.”

“Many of these problems could have been reduced through better project planning, system testing and risk management,” the Ombudsman said.

“Mr McNamara it was a disaster,” said Senator McAllister. “It produced incredible anxiety for a very large number of citizens,” she said.

Committee member Senator Rex Patrick tried to help Mr McNamara out by asking by what metrics he thought the project went well.

“I’m looking at savings,” said Mr McNamara.

Senator Patrick questioned whether DHS had looked at how it project had “interfaced” with the broader community.

“Was the effect on the community included in your metrics when you made your submission to the Senate inquiry?”, he asked.

Mr McNamara said DHS could have improved the “communication aspects” of the system before it was rolled out.

“The key change that we made was in relation to some of our letters. While we did extensive testing with our letter processes, things could have been clearer. That’s why we made changes to some things in February 2017.”

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