Lifting the lid on robo-debt

Centrelink staff have lifted the lid on how the controversial robo-debt scheme operates behind the scenes, and leaked documents revealed by appear to show how staff are performance managed based on strict targets, such as how many debts they raise each week.

Six formerly contracted compliance officers spoke to, moved to speak because the Department of Human Services (DHS) insisted staff were not set weekly debt targets.

The former staff members, however, claim targets for debt finalisations were set and if not met, compliance officers were effectively fired.

“The department can deny targets for debt-raising all they like, but the reality is the team leader sets it. They want a minimum of 15 debts raised a week by each person,” claimed one former compliance officer.

Backing up this claim was a photo taken earlier this month by, of a whiteboard taken inside one of Centrelink’s debt-raising offices.

“Individual staff are named on the board, alongside figures which show how many debt closures they achieved, and how long it took them to do it,” reported

Staff also told that they were “publicly shamed” daily if they had not finalised enough debts.

The targets, implemented by the department on the paid advice of external consultants, are said to be part of a management system known as ‘BOOST’.

Whistleblowers claimed the pressure placed on them to meet these targets led to cutting corners and resulting mistakes.

However, DHS general manager Hank Jongen maintained that “staff working on income reviews are not required to finalise a prescribed number of reviews each week”, adding that the whiteboard had been misrepresented and that “the numbers do not refer to debt targets”.

“What the department is saying, it’s a straight-out lie. It was three finalisations per day we needed and 15 per week. They stressed that every day to us,” said a compliance officer on an external contract.

“At every daily meeting they would stand there and say Kate has only done one today. Or Mary has done four. And they would really home in on that.

“They actually said to me your targets aren’t where they are supposed to be. They said we want you to go through re-training so you can get your targets up.”

Another compliance officer claimed that the targets created unrealistic expectations that, if not met, meant being “performance managed out”.

“As soon as you hung up from one call you were expected to do another call. We might have had notes we had to make from the previous call, but you only had 40 seconds to do that,” she said.

The high-stress environment created by these targets may have led to unfair treatment of welfare recipients.

“I was too empathetic, and my calls went on too long, I know I got failed on quality for a couple of those,” said a former NSW compliance officer, who was also penalised for using the “wrong phrases” during a call.

“I would say [when referring to a recipient receiving incorrect information], ‘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. Sometimes it was hard to do that if they had obviously been told the wrong thing. To me they were trifling things, but that’s what they failed you for.”

But Mr Jongen stood by claims that staff working on income reviews were not required to meet weekly targets.

“Individual performance recovery plans and the BOOST program are completely separate processes,” said Mr Jongen.

“Performance recovery plans are tailored individual arrangements and include goals in line with the staff member’s individual learning and development needs.

“Labour hire providers initiate performance recovery plans if their employees are not meeting the expectations of their employment.

“Our focus is to support staff to deliver the best possible service to our customers.

“We expect all staff working on income reviews to prioritise the quality of their services to customers, and to demonstrate positive workplace behaviours.”

One compliance officer said the system would lead to mistakes being made, which she would bring to her manager’s attention.

“You start noticing more things and you think that’s not right. When things didn’t add up I would take it to my team leader and get it checked,” she said.

“Well, I swear others wouldn’t do that, because you are under pressure, you need the job.”

“It’s not necessarily their fault. They would just think, ‘Oh, I don’t know, it looks okay,’ and send it off. And some people are prepared to do that, and others aren’t.”

Still, DHS defended its scheme and the assertions that corners were being cut.

“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.”

Are you surprised by these assertions? Should targets take priority over accuracy?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Publisher of YourLifeChoices – Australia's most-trusted and longest-running retirement website. A trusted voice on Australia's retirement landscape, including retirement income and planning, government entitlements, lifestyle and news and information relevant to Australians over 50. Leon has worked in publishing for more than 25 years and is also a travel writer and editor, graphic designer and photographer.

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