Judgement Day for robo-debt

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James Riley

Centrelink’s robo-debt fiasco was the result of a lack of planning and poor usability and transparency, rather than bad digital transformation, the Commonwealth Ombudsman has found.

The national watchdog released its report into the Department of Human Services and Centrelink implementation of the automated debt system on Monday, placing most of the blame on the department’s planning and communications, rather than the tech systems underpinning the robo-debt process.

Many of the issues the automated debt recovery system has faced this year could have easily been avoided by the department, acting Commonwealth Ombudsman Richard Glen said.

“We found there were issues with the usability and transparency of the system. There were deficiencies in DHS’ service delivery and communication to customers and staff when implementing the system,” Mr Glen 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’s report included a series of recommendations to government, such as more thorough user testing, improved communications to stakeholders and staff, and a more incremental roll-out in future.

Both sides of the political spectrum welcomed the report, and both sides pointed to specific sections that supported their positions.

Human Services Minister Alan Tudge confirmed that government had accepted all of the recommendations, saying that some had already been implemented.

“The Ombudsman’s report shows that the online compliance system is reasonable in its data-matching and can accurately calculate debt owing,” Mr Tudge said in a statement.

“Our compliance system is aimed at ensuring there is integrity in the system and the Ombudsman supports this goal, and the reasonableness of asking welfare recipients to explain discrepancies between tax office data and self-reported income data,” he said.

“We want to be fair and reasonable to welfare recipients but also fair to the taxpayer who pays for the welfare payments. The Ombudsman’s report will help us to continue to achieve this.”

Opposition Human Services spokesman Linda Burney said the report was “damning” and put the blame squarely on the government.

“The Minister has no-one to blame but himself. According to the Ombudsman all of these issues could have been avoided with proper planning and consultation,” Ms Burney said.

“The Ombudsman has confirmed that the system is not ‘working well’ despite Mr Tudge’s insistence otherwise. It is reckless and arrogant for the minister to insist that this program is ‘working well’ when it clearly isn’t – everybody knows it but him.”

The report include findings that backed the government’s use of an automated process and data matching, but criticised the planning and implementation of it.

The Ombudsman’s investigation was instigated in January this year, and looked into the automated process of debt recovery, known as Online Compliance Intervention (OCI), that was implemented by Centrelink in July last year.

The report broadly supported the use of this digital system in collecting debt from welfare recipients.

“We are satisfied that if the customer is able to collect the income information required and enter it properly into the systems, the OCI is capable of accurately calculating debt. In our view it is entirely reasonable and appropriate for DHS to ask customers to explain discrepancies following its data-matching activities as a means of safeguarding welfare payment integrity,” the report said.

The Ombudsman also backed the government’s claim that the initial letters sent to individuals were not “debt recovery letters”, and the fact that 20 per cent of these are incorrect is in line with the previous manual process and does not equate to an “error rate”.

“We are satisfied the debts raised by the OCI are accurate, based on information which is available to DHS at the time the decision is made,” it said.

But the investigation found that due to the department’s lack of planning, along with poor usability and transparency, customers were “unclear” about their own reporting responsibilities, which lead to much of the controversy.

“DHS’ project planning did not ensure all relevant external stakeholders were consulted during key planning stages and after the rollout of the OCI. This is evidenced by the extent of confusion and inaccuracy in public statements made by key non-government stakeholders, journalists and individuals,” it stated.

This flies in the face of the claim made by senior DHS staff at a Senate inquiry that the robo-debt system’s failures are due to recipients themselves not engaging properly with Centrelink.

The robo-debt controversy is an example of a poorly communicated digital transformation project, something that resulted in poor public administration, the report found.

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