Centrelink’s debt recovery system: automation without good public administration

By Stephen Easton

Monday April 10, 2017

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

Centrelink’s notorious method of contacting citizens and suggesting they might owe a debt to the government is an example of poor public administration that fails to meet the requirements of administrative law, according to the Ombudsman’s office.

“We found there were issues with the usability and transparency of the system,” acting Ombudsman Richard Glenn said in a brief statement. “There were deficiencies in DHS’ service delivery and communication to customers and staff when implementing the system.”

The oversight agency has been prodding the Department of Human Services into making incremental “positive changes to the system” since it began its investigation into the much-maligned system in mid-January. But its final report, published today, backs up complaints about the Online Compliance Initiative and says more improvements are needed to fix a list of problems that could have been prevented through better planning, testing and risk management.

There should have been “more rigorous user testing with customers and service delivery staff, a more incremental rollout, and better communication to staff and stakeholders” about the changes. The report states:

“DHS’ project planning did not ensure all relevant external stakeholders were consulted during key planning stages and after the full rollout of the OCI. This is evidenced by the extent of confusion and inaccuracy in public statements made by key non-government stakeholders, journalists and individuals.”

DHS and government ministers, supported by some journalists, have not seen “confusion and inaccuracy” as a result of ineffective communication. Instead they have disputed the accuracy or applicability of the most public complaints, attracted more opprobrium through their defensive communications, and blamed hostile political activists for making the obvious move of tying the complaints to their wider campaigns.

To clear up the situation and show there are plenty of completely legitimate complaints about the implementation, the report includes a few case studies from actual complaints that demonstrate rushed and defective implementation, not a political conspiracy.

The report also offers a piece of advice for all government departments as they try to emulate the best offerings of the private sector in their digital transformations:

“A key lesson for agencies and policy makers when proposing to roll out large scale measures which require people to engage in a new way with new digital channels, is for agencies to engage with stakeholders and provide resources for adequate manual support during transition periods.”

The Ombudsman has asked DHS to put the brakes on its continuing roll-out of the OCI system to different groups of citizens who’ve received entitlements from Centrelink, undertake a “comprehensive evaluation” of current arrangements and pursue any further expansion of the project in a more incremental fashion.

System vindicated. Implementation, not so much

The investigators came down on the side of the government in the argument about whether it is a system “error” if the agency sends a person one of the initial letters asking for more information, and later agrees they do not owe a debt after they provide more information.

This happens in about 20% of cases, which is “consistent with DHS’ previous manual debt investigation process” according to the report, which points out the general process for identifying debts has not changed under the OCI initiative.

Finding no evidence to support the theory that Centrelink is relying on a fundamentally flawed computer system to impugn innocent citizens, the Ombudsman’s office is “satisfied” that the debts calculated are accurate, as long as DHS has all the right information.

But since Centrelink relies on the clients themselves to provide that information in many cases, the investigation focused on “the accessibility, usability, and transparency of the system, including quality of service delivery and procedural fairness”.

While Centrelink regularly reminds welfare recipients to provide accurate information and update the agency when their circumstances change, the Ombudsman felt it should still help by using its powers to ask former employers or other third parties for records, which it decided not to do under the OCI:

“Many complainants had problems collecting evidence about their employment income, particularly for periods from several years ago.

“We have recommended in certain circumstances, DHS should further support customers to gather employment income evidence to maximise the accuracy of possible debts.”

Centrelink has also increased the period to respond to the first information request to 28 days, with the possibility of an extension, following the Ombudsman’s finding that 21 days was not fair and reasonable in all circumstances.

Despite the recent adjustments, for the Commonwealth’s biggest front-line service delivery department to be pinged for repeated “poor service delivery” should certainly be accepted as a wake-up call by the current government:

“Poor service delivery was a recurring theme in many complaints received by our office. Customers had problems getting a clear explanation about the debt decision and the reasoning behind it.

“As the compliance helpline number was initially excluded from letters and was not obvious in the system, customers called general customer service lines resulting in long wait times.”

“They could not always get clear information and assistance to use the online system. Service centre staff did not always have sufficient knowledge about how the OCI system works, highlighting a deficiency in DHS’ communication and training to staff.

“In some instances, a more thorough manual intervention by a compliance officer would have saved the customer time and effort.”

The department needs to make it considerably easier for citizens to understand the process, and vastly improve the ability of staff to help guide those who still need help with it. This work will be critical when it rolls out the OCI to clients marked as “vulnerable” on their file, which does not necessarily cover all those who have a really good reason to need extra help.

DHS told the investigators that its officially “vulnerable” customers would be assisted by a staff member and would be able to choose to review the request for information themselves or have the department do it for them, when the OCI turned to them.

The Ombudsman has told DHS those clients must be able to get help through “alternative channels particularly telephone services” and that it should expand the “vulnerable” group.

A failure to automate good public administration

The Ombudsman’s report makes the point that “good public administration” principles must still apply when decision-making is automated. Citizens need to clearly understand why a government agency made a particular decision, including any “findings of fact” it relied upon and “the issues the person needs to address” if they want to challenge it:

“Our investigation revealed DHS’ initial messaging to customers through its letters and in the system itself, was unclear and did not include crucial information such as a contact phone number for the DHS compliance team.”

Centrelink should have explained that an annual figure for income could be averaged across each month of that year, producing a wildly skewed result in some cases where the person’s work fluctuated over the year. A lot of those who complained to the Ombudsman didn’t realise this was happening, and it would not have been hard to flag this as a potential issue right from the start. According to the report:

“In some cases this was a more favourable outcome for the customer and in others, the debt was overstated.”

The department “cannot say how many debts may be under-calculated or over-calculated and by what margin” because it has not done any modelling. The Ombudsman recommends it goes back and checks a “sizeable sample” of debts raised through the OCI, making sure “people who did not respond to the initial letter, as well as people who went online and people who contacted DHS via other channels” are included:

“The risk of over-recovering debts from social security recipients and the potential impact this may have on this relatively vulnerable group of people, warrants further consideration by DHS.”

Adding an explanation of income averaging is not one of the “positive changes” Centrelink has already made over the course of the investigation, but it is among the recommendations that DHS and the Department of Social Services have cheerfully agreed to.

The Ombudsman’s office is sympathetic to those people whose initial request-for-information letter never turned up at their correct address, and those who had the mandatory 10% debt recovery fee added to their debt automatically by the OCI system.

The report explains this was one of the changes made in February (all of which are detailed in an appendix to the report):

“In response to concerns raised by our office, DHS no longer applies the fee automatically for customers who respond to DHS. It has enhanced the OCI to make it easier for customers who have a reasonable excuse to notify the department so they will not be charged the fee. It now provides clearer information and further invitation to provide a reasonable excuse in debt notification letters.”

The Ombudsman’s recommendations will make DHS go a step further and review a lot of debts, paid or unpaid, that had the recovery fee applied, giving those people another chance to offer a reasonable excuse.

DHS secretary Kathryn Campbell agrees to all recommendations in a letter included with the report, says “in most cases implementation is already underway” and provides specific comments in relation to each separate point. DSS secretary Finn Pratt has also agreed to add clear guidance for agencies like Centrelink on using their powers to request evidence of income from employers in its Guide to Social Security Law.

The eight multi-part recommendations contained in the report probably won’t completely satisfy all the #notmydebt campaigners, public service union members and political activists who are fighting the OCI implementation as part of their wider political causes.

But if the department had been able to cool the minister’s hunger for more debt repayments and increased compliance to the point where it could do the appropriate staging work before it put the OCI into action, perhaps the controversy could have been avoided.

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