Losing oxygen to leakers and the media, Centrelink’s comms fall back to ‘the facts’

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday January 25, 2017

Final notice rubber stamp on letter envelope

The Department of Human Services has rejected speculation that Centrelink’s automated systems generate incorrect assessments of past income and welfare entitlements in 90% of cases, as further serious claims emerge from the agency’s staff.

The new statement is naively headlined “Let’s talk about facts” — ignoring the important context that it’s hard for anyone to know what to believe out of the mix of anonymous claims from staff, the union’s ongoing campaign regarding working conditions and staffing levels at DHS, the online #notmydebt campaign, flat-out denials and semantic arguments from the department, and of course opinions in the media.

Today, the nation’s best-known departmental spokesperson Hank Jongen rejects a guesstimate from The Age economics editor Peter Martin that the rate of mistakes in the initial letters could be 90% or more, and continues to quibble about the use of terms like “mistake” and “error” to describe cases that don’t result in a debt.

According to Jongen:

“This is a figure plucked out of the air that doesn’t serve the public discussion well. It’s absolutely wrong and demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the system.

“When people log on, they are being presented an opportunity to review information and advise whether they agree or would like to provide further detail. No assessment is made before then.”

The department’s latest statement also rejects the idea that there is a 20% “error rate” in the system and repeats the government’s line that the initial letters are not debt letters but requests for information that welfare recipients are bound by law to provide:

“We then use this to make an assessment about whether people have received the right entitlement.

“In 20% of cases, people update their details and it results in them not owing money. That doesn’t mean the letter was sent in error. It just means we’ve received up to date information and the matter is now resolved.

“We have confidence in the system and how it is helping us conduct compliance activity more efficiently.”

Jongen’s latest missive doesn’t address one key complaint that is also at the root of Martin’s speculation — that the online form only asks customers to confirm their earnings across an entire financial year before averaging that across the 26 fortnights, leading to incorrect results and a tendency to assume overpayments have occurred.

Martin also bases his pessimistic assessment on questions that DHS has failed to answer about what proportion of people using the online system are told they were probably overpaid in their initial assessment, and how many have objected to that calculation.

The union, meanwhile, has found plenty more Centrelink staff ready to tell the public what they really think about the online compliance activity, as well as issues like rising customer aggression, reductions in staffing levels and the growth of casual and non-ongoing positions.

A new list of anonymous statements variously blame senior management and pour scorn on the agency’s repeated claims that customers can get all the help they need, including over the phone, and have plenty of time to respond to the letters.

Among the complaints is one describing the issue that Martin refers to: it says the online form only asks customers to confirm they earned a certain amount from a certain employer across an entire financial year, but doesn’t allow them to explain how much they earned in particular fortnights:

“What it didn’t ask was ‘did you earn xx from them during these two dates’. There is also nowhere a customer can even check what they have reported.”

One statement says there have been more than 200 freedom of information requests related to the online compliance initiative, another says staff are unable to keep up with “record numbers” of appeals and a third claims:

“I can verify that while there are issues – none of them have occurred through ICT technical fault. This system works as 100% to specification. This whole debacle is stemming from bad policy not our Online Compliance System.”

The Victorian government’s Legal Aid centre has asked the federal government to suspend the initiative and says it has resulted in many Victorian residents receiving “inaccurate debt notices” from Centrelink.

“We are calling on the government to suspend the system until it can comply with legal requirements, principles of good governance and decision-making, and fairness,” said acting executive director of civil justice, access and equity Joel Townsend in a statement today.

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