Centrelink returns fire after latest robodebt claims: ‘there is no questioning’ the algorithm


Love the algorithm. Getty images

The Department of Human Services is defending the robodebt system once again, this time from damning claims made by anonymous contractors who say they worked in teams whose managers treated the collection of funds by government much like sales revenue to be maximised.

The department says the well researched investigative report by Nine reporter Emily McPherson, which has echoes of the claims made by former Tax Office staffer Richard Boyle, contained “errors and misrepresentations” in a response posted on Tuesday.

Partly, it seems DHS is again running what could be seen as a semantic argument about when and how a compliance-checking exercise becomes debt collection, and how much human control is really involved.

The department says the work described in the article is not part of what it calls debt-recovery operations, which are handled by separate teams after the compliance reviews are finished.

“The latest coverage continues to wrongly refer to online compliance as automated debt-raising,” says the department. “While data matching is facilitated by automation, the oversight, review and debt raising process is undertaken by our staff.”

But the contractors reviewing potential overpayments — and being openly ranked according to how quickly they finalised income reviews — certainly have a clear view about what their role in the system was. “The department is just a debt-raising machine, and that’s all they care about. They say that they care about the customer, but they don’t,” said one.

According to the department, what we should take from the bitter reflections of the contractors on their role in the controversial system is that they demonstrate there is “human involvement” in the process.

“Our compliance review teams work closely with customers — through a dedicated phone line — to explain, check and review income reporting discrepancies,” says DHS. “Finalising a review does not always result in a debt.”

After about 20% of these income reviews, which seem a lot like an effort to find as many debts as possible, the person is able to prove they were not overpaid and no actual debt is raised.

This is “the system functioning as it should” according to DHS, and it is about the same rate that this occurred under the previous system for searching out potential overpayments, which robodebt enhanced through a data-matching algorithm.

One of the anonymous contractors told Nine this computer system that combines Tax Office income data with Centrelink welfare payment records and calculates a maximum possible overpayment could get different results from the same numbers on different days, sometimes varying by hundreds of dollars.

“The team leader would say, I don’t know why, just put it through. There is no questioning what algorithm is behind the system.”

The department did not address this claim directly but says the article unfairly portrays management practices in the teams finalising income reviews, which are guided by a system called BOOST. The article showed a whiteboard reportedly used as a leaderboard, something like a high-pressure commercial sales team ranking the number of deals closed by each member.

“How the department and the teams use the information contained on the whiteboards has been entirely misrepresented,” DHS says. “The numbers do not refer to debt targets. As we advised the relevant journalist, our staff working on income reviews are not required to finalise a prescribed number of reviews each week.”

If any of these teams are being managed something like how the article describes, the department’s response suggests their managers do not understand how to do their jobs properly.

It says BOOST is “a common methodology used in many industries” that “works by creating visual links between data and people” and team members like those who spoke to Nine’s reporter are simply being encouraged to share lessons with each other, seek help from colleagues and raise any concerns in daily huddles.

The department’s rebuttal statement describes a very different style of management to the damning anonymous claims.

“The focus is on improving the overall quality of decision-making, ‘Naming and shaming’ has nothing to do with our process. Staff names are only displayed on the whiteboard where individual team members choose to have their name displayed. BOOST is a staff led process. Staff are included in the implementation of BOOST in every compliance site from the ground up. This includes the development of the team vision, through to the whiteboard content and daily stand ups.”

DHS adds a few other counter-claims. It says it does not refer current welfare recipients to external debt collectors and nor does it dock their tax returns; that is for former recipients only. It describes a process that is supposed to be followed all the time but, according to Nine’s report, is not.

“We only take this action when other attempts to recover money owed have failed and we notify the person with a letter prior to any action occurring. We make at least three attempts to contact people via letter. An initial letter is followed by two reminders.

“After the three letters, a compliance officer is required to check the first one was received and make at least two genuine contact attempts by phone, before they finalise the review.”

A lot of people ignore calls from the department and debt collectors alike as they come from private numbers. The article suggests a text message service that is supposed to warn people of an impending call from the department is rarely used and the pressure to quickly finalise reviews leads many compliance staff to do the bare minimum.

Some would “just let the phone ring one or two times and hang up” and others do not call at all but say they did, one source claims.

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