Whistleblower or misguided luddite? Centrelink rejects serious allegations

By Stephen Easton

Thursday January 19, 2017

A Centrelink office in Sydney on Monday, May 28, 2012. (AAP Image/April Fonti) NO ARCHIVING

Centrelink says concerns reportedly emanating from some of its staff — via their union and a left-leaning activist group — are the result of misunderstanding the complexity of the welfare system and personal disagreements with policy and technological change.

In response to the most serious allegations since the “#notmydebt” campaign began to push back against the agency’s letters asking people to clarify differences between information about past welfare payments and tax data, spokesperson Hank Jongen implies that some employees either don’t understand or don’t agree with how the system works.

The long list of allegations, attributed to a “compliance officer” with Centrelink, were published today by Fairfax Media and The Guardian, which both received them through GetUp! and the Community and Public Sector Union.

In volume, the terse response to Centrelink’s brief summaries of “the five main allegations” in the document pales in comparison to the lengthy and detailed set of allegations, which run to nearly eight pages and have been published in full online by Fairfax Media.

Jongen accepts the complaints are the result of some staff disagreeing with the new policy of asking customers to clarify data that doesn’t match, to cut down the agency’s administrative workload:

“In the past, staff did this work for the recipient. This was very time consuming and meant that a relatively small number of overpayments could be addressed.”

The spokesperson concedes some Centrelink employees “believe that intensive one-on-one management of recipients is always required” when the agency is trying to shift customers into self-service online channels. He adds:

“As with other online initiatives in Centrelink, this intensive support is still available for those recipients who need it and complex cases.

“Many recipients prefer to manage through an online system, in their own time, rather than dealing with a staff member.”

Jongen said “some staff do not welcome technology driven change” but their superiors would continue trying to explain to them “how the system operates and the role they play”.

The agency suggests claims of “fictitious payments” are incorrect and result from a lack of expertise about the finer points of the welfare system:

“This is a very complex payment system and where there are particularly intricate cases we have in-built processes to involve an expert to resolve the case.”

Another claim in the document about extra “false recovery fees” being unfairly added to debts was “an error that was identified and rectified in the testing phase involving 1000 people” and fixed before full roll-out, according to Jongen.

There are various reasons why a public servant might want to go straight to the media rather than through official channels. Such complaints are meant to go to the agency itself in the first instance, under the Public Interest Disclosure Act, or to the Commonwealth Ombudsman if the employee thinks there are “reasonable grounds for believing it is not appropriate” for the agency to handle it. However, the ombudsman’s website explains:

“In most cases, even where we do accept a PID, we will work closely with the discloser and the agency to allocate that matter back to the agency for investigation. Generally we will only investigate a matter under the PID Act where we think that the relevant Australian Government agency cannot handle the matter appropriately.

“For example, there may be a conflict of interest, confidentiality or reprisal issue that cannot reasonably be managed by the agency, and which would warrant intervention by the Commonwealth Ombudsman.”

Whistleblowers who take the official route — which means they are legally protected from any backlash — can also complain to the ombudsman if they are not satisfied with the agency’s investigation. They can only take their allegations to the media if the investigation has taken more than 90 days, or they “reasonably believe that the investigation or its outcome was inadequate”.

And while they can make a disclosure anonymously, the ombudsman’s advice suggests this could be used as a reason to ignore their information:

“You can remain anonymous. However, in some circumstances this may make it difficult, or even impracticable for the agency to investigate your disclosure. If you do not provide a means of contact, it will be difficult for the agency to communicate with you throughout the process.”

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