The Department of Human Services’(the DHS's) controversial ‘robo-debt’system lacks usability and transparency, according to a Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report released on Monday, 10 April 2017. This report follows behind a string of complaints about the Centrelink Robo-debt program. These complaints have also resulted in a reference to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs (which is scheduled to report back to the senate by 10 May 2017) and a Private Member's Bill introduced by Mr Andrew Wilkie MP (namely, the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Debt Recovery) Bill 2017 (Cth) which, after its introduction on 13 February 2017, is still sitting in the House of Representatives at second reading stage) [for more detail on these matters see our article Centrelink's Robo-debt Fail Provokes a Senate Inquiry and a Private Members Bill].
Broadly, what the Commonwealth Ombudsman's investigation revealed was that the DHS was ". . . guilty of poor service delivery and inadequate planning". The report stopped short of condemning the automated debt collection process, saying it was ". . . no more inaccurate or unfair than the manual process".
In the report, the acting Commonwealth Ombudsman, Mr Richard Glenn is reported as saying, that the online compliance intervention (the OCI), launched by the DHS in July 2016, which was expected to claw back approx $4 billion, ". . . could have been delivered and planned for better" but "was not fundamentally flawed". The way the OCI was intended to operate was to match Tax Office employment data with Centrelink data and send debt notices out when discrepancies were identified and flagged.
The recurrent theme, according to the Ombudsman, in the numerous complaints received, was poor service delivery, Mr Glen saying:
A lack of clarity in the initial debt letters was another problem identified by the Ombudsman. The "compliance helpline number" was not included on the letters and was found to be difficult to find online, the result being long waiting times because Centrelink customers then directed their calls to the general customer service lines and tended to flood them. Further, it was found that once customers got through to a "human customer service" the assistance provided was "not always helpful", the report stating:
These types of fails resulted in the Ombudsman concluding that the DHS should have better prepared before rolling out the scheme and enlarging it, and that such should have included speaking to staff and Centrelink customers about the scheme:
Other areas identified in the report are:
The Ombudsman was not supportive of the DHS automatically charging a ten percent debt recovery fee to customers who had a debt and did not have a reasonable excuse for it - and while acknowledging the practice was legal, raised concerns for those customers who may not have had an adequate opportunity to provide a reasonable excuse, where say, they did not receive the initial letter, or did not understand the connection between having reasonable excuse and being charged a recovery fee. [Note: this process has since changed and 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. Further, letters are now sent by registered post.]
Although the Ombudsman in his report indicated the process could have been ". . . easier to navigate, more transparent and decisions made easier to challenge", the Ombudsman did not attack the reasoning behind the OCI program. He found in the report that even though a fifth of the "Centrelink Robodebts" were later successfully challenged by clients on the supply of extra information, such a rate of successful challenge should not be referred to as an "error rate" - the figure being consistent with that associated with manual debt investigation and therefore, the data matching process was not at fault. Nor was the Ombudsman in the report critical of the ATO practice of averaging income out over a person’s employment period, a practice which could result in the income of some people being overstated and the issue of debt notices by Centrelink. The Ombudsman did indicate though that this should be explained to Centrelink customers. The report concluded:
The Human Services Minister Mr Alan Tudge, is reported as having welcomed the report and indicating the Government would seek to improve its communication with the public:
The Opposition's spokeswoman for Human services Ms Linda Burney, is reported as saying the Government's approach was a essentially a fail:
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