Revenge of the robodebt contractors: Centrelink fends off further claims with risky media strategy

By Stephen Easton

Friday August 30, 2019

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Centrelink continues to duck, weave, and occasionally throw a defensive jab as former contractors speak out about their experiences of working on the robodebt system, this time accusing the media spokesperson of lying in response to their previous anonymous accounts.

The issue is whether contractors work to specific targets for finalising income reviews. The process comes before the agency informs a person they might have been previously overpaid, and will owe a debt to the government if they can’t prove otherwise.

The Department of Human Services seems to think it is important and highly relevant to point out the first estimate of the potential over-payment is not actually a debt at that stage, but it is not clear why. However you look at it, more income reviews means more debts to recover.

The contractors, whose identities are shielded by senior journalist Emily McPherson, came out swinging in round one with tales of being pressured by their bosses to hit challenging targets for the number of reviews they could finalise each week, being openly ranked on performance against these targets and “publicly shamed” for missing them.

The department denies this. The contractors say not only were there targets, but falling short led to performance management and eventually, termination. They have shared pages from their performance reviews to back up their claims. One said they didn’t mind having targets but found these ones impossible to meet.

DHS said these labour-hire staff were “not required to finalise a prescribed number of reviews each week” in a dismissive response to the first article.

It says the second article “misleads readers by continuing to claim the department sets targets for staff based on the number of debts raised” and complains that chose not to report all of its official version of how things work.

One contractor called the first claim “a straight-out lie” and said every day they were reminded of the targets and their performance against them. “It was three finalisations per day we needed and 15 per week. They stressed that every day to us.”

The latest denial is technically correct if you accept the argument that these staff were “finalising income reviews” rather than raising debts.

Opposition human services spokesperson Bill Shorten says the government and the department have both repeatedly lied to the public about how robodebt is administered, but DHS maintains it is the anonymous contractors who are telling porkies.

“There are no targets set on the outcome of an income review and importantly, an income review finalisation may result in no debt,” says DHS in a second statement labelled as a “correction” of a “misrepresentation” on its website.

There is a trend of agencies presenting the government’s official lines as nothing but the facts, the pure truth in a world of fake news, but this seems like a high-stakes strategy that could easily backfire. Being seen as trying too hard to bolster one’s credibility can easily have the opposite effect, especially with a statement that could be hard to believe and very easily taken as spin or damage control.

The contractors labour under a team management system called BOOST. In the happy world of the official messaging, these teams “come together each day to share learnings and resolve any issues that affect their work” and this gives them a chance to ask for help or raise concerns.

The department is keen to stress it did not come up with BOOST and says it 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.”

A whiteboard appeared to be used as an open ranking system for the contractors based on the number of reviews each had finalised; the above statement probably aims to suggest they were partly responsible for that system being in place.

DHS is keen to stress performance management is totally separate from BOOST. “BOOST is a team-based approach intended to help staff work together and build a positive team culture to improve the quality of the services to our customers.”

McPherson’s article says contractors from two different labour-hire firms were subject to very similar performance management processes overseen by a DHS team leader. This reportedly includes targets for quantity as well as strict management of time spent on calls and the language they use:

“I would say, ‘I’m sorry they told you that,’ but I was supposed to say, ‘I’m sorry that’s what you heard’. You were supposed to put the responsibility back on the customer.”

DHS says it up to the labour hire companies to determine whether their staff are failing to meet performance requirements and they use “tailored individual arrangements and include goals in line with the staff member’s individual learning and development needs”.

“We strongly reject the portrayal of our management practices as encouraging staff to short cut fair and mandated quality customer experience processes. This is neither the intention nor the effect of the BOOST program. On the contrary, by facilitating a team-based approach to identifying and addressing issues that arise, programs like BOOST help improve the quality of the service we provide to customers.

“Finalising reviews is a key point of discussion for compliance teams because we want reviews to be completed fairly and as quickly as possible, so that people have certainty about the outcome.”

One of the anonymous sources said the robodebt system they used could produce wildly different results from the same inputs, but “there is no questioning what algorithm is behind the system” for people working to finalise the income reviews.

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