Robo-debt whistleblowers lift the lid on the controversial scheme

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Centrelink staff have lifted the lid on how the controversial robo-debt scheme operates behind the scenes, and leaked documents revealed by nine.com.au 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 nine.com.au, 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 nine.com.au, 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 nine.com.au.

Staff also told nine.com.au 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

Leon Della Bosca is a voracious reader who loves words. You'll often find him spending time in galleries, writing, designing, painting, drawing, or photographing and documenting street art. He has a publishing and graphic design background and loves movies and music, but then, who doesn’t?

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68 Comments

Total Comments: 68
  1. 0
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    This is only the beginning so watch this space.This Government was put in place by misguided people now sadly they have to wear it for perhaps two or more terms enjoy.

    • 0
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      Pity their alternative was so bad, and has been for years since it divested itself of its true values and became a playhouse for feminists and similar demanding small groups with big mouths.

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      Nobody seems to have noticed what happened to Russia after women were fully ‘equalised’ and became the majority of doctors and such…. a matriarchal society is one totally over-governed by an elitist group, mostly of men, at the top….. and the rest simply starve genteely and quietly since they have no voice…

      Warning given… it doesn’t work….

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      Floss – nonsense the good people of QLD, WA and NSW (to some extent) as well as Tassie and SA knew exactly what they were voting for – and they did not want what labor was offering – and still don’t – ScoMo is far from perfect but is vastly superior to the alternative.
      As for Centrleink robocalls – the goon has recovered over $2b over past couple of years – good – I don’t want taxpayers money wasted.
      Where things stand right now coalition will win next election and QLD will vote out labor at next election. NT labor is on the nose as well.
      The WA labor gown is doing a good job. It beggars belief that Victoria continues to support Andrews socialist govn – they never end well.

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      Good to see Liberal lover Bob Menzies chime in with his normal pro government propaganda.
      I hope he puts good money on his predictions for the outcome of the Queensland and next federal elections.
      The LNP under Yappy Frecklington are nothing without the Courier Mail and Morrison is no solid fixture either
      Given the way Morrison is behaving and the imminent collapse of our economy, his chances of victory will dwindle by the week. All he offers us is what we cannot afford.
      If he keeps his threats up to the Greatest Generation the way he’s currently doing he’ll be tossed by us alone at the next election, forget what the rest of Australia does.

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      yes RED, bob is a believer so will not hear anything to does not fit into his vision of the world, the only reason libs won is because they have the media on their side constantly pushing the fear campaign, as far as I know the only policy that we were told about by the libs was that is was labor fault and that the budget was in the green because it was going to be in the future even though at the time it was not just that it would be so it was now, very Orwellian double-think, for people who have not heard that term look it up, there is lots of information.
      On the other hand not counting that disastrous decision which probably affected 1% of the voter’s, labor had on the cards a universal dental scheme for pensioners, sadly all people could see was the propergander.

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      hi TREBOR, you made a small but significant mistake in your second post …..
      Matriarchy is a social system in which females (most notably in mammals) hold the primary power positions in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property at the specific exclusion of males — at least to a large degree.

  2. 0
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    Centrelink is broken. People like general manager Hank Jongen will never admit what is actually going on, he is the mouthpiece for the government so will deny anything that isn’t positive for the government.
    And when a government refuses to listen to it’s own senate findings & recommendations what does that really say about the integrity of this LNP bunch.

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      Fat Hank the Useless is nothing but a paid lackey for the government, as a contracted employee rather than a vested public servant he is totally at the mercy of any government of the day and will say what is required to keep his sweetened position for as long as possible, all the time putting on a face of righteousness and truth so as to not be forced out by public pressure.

      Contracting senior public servants was one of THE most destructive of democracy moves ever installed by any government here….

      And that’s just me being nice, Paddy…..

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      Karl Marx, Jongen will lie for his $7 Million annual salary plus receives a bonus for every Centrelink knockback.

    • 0
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      Centrelink is definitely broken, and their boss is both incompetent and a liar, and is clearly a major reason for this situation as he doesn’t admit it. Even the Minister admitted that a massive unacceptable 20% of the debt notices were incorrect, which is also surely an underestimate as many would not have contested it either given the power of Govt or due to the size of the debt being small in some cases, or difficulty to contest for some with lack of old records. I assume these amounts incorrectly reclaimed by bully-boy tactics are included in the $2Billion claimed. Jongen’s $7Mill salary (and bonus?) is absolutely disgusting for someone who has delivered such a poor result for it’s “customers”.

      I hope all who can prove the claims were incorrect also write to their MPs and insist on the robo-debt system to be shut down / suspended as the Senate recommended. People need to build up such pressure.

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      The 20% error rate with robodebt is consistent with the error rate pre the introduction of the matching software. The issue is the scale at which Centrelink is now able to issue its notices so that more people are caught up in the reviews. And those caught up must share some responsibility for the gaps in data that resulted in the averaging of incomes to fill in the missing data.

  3. 0
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    I’m not at all surprised. My niece worked for Centrelink some years ago and was questioned about the length of time she spent in the toilet. They had set a ridiculously small amount of time for toilet breaks which didn’t allow for an individual’s bowel habits or women’s essential ‘monthly’ hygiene. In a Telstra call centre they were suspicious as to why she got through so many calls & thought she was cutting corners. They had someone sit with her to see what she was doing ‘wrong’ and discovered it was because she was a fast touch typist & could get all the information down as the customer was talking,

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      Got punished either way. She will get to higher places with efficiency skills.

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      You are right Lippy. She got tired & disillusioned in working in these types of places, became a primary school teacher, loved it, worked her way up and now works in the Education Dept developing educational programmes for primary schools & gets to travel around her state visiting schools. She also has the option of returning to the classroom at any time.

  4. 0
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    Having listened to Hank Jongen on the radio I now realize he is a liar !!

  5. 0
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    Hank van Jongen is a liar!!!
    He works for a Minister who knows the truth and he lies too.
    This entire government is full of liars, who find it easier to lie than tell the truth.
    Is this what we wanted when we voted this mob back in?
    I think not.

  6. 0
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    How much is Hank Jongen Total Rumination Worth {;-(0)
    Now tell me Why He Has Set Answers {;-(0)
    No Way you would say anything but Positive Comments.
    Just like the Ex Boss of Australia Post.

  7. 0
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    Private companies routinely demand that employees do the job for which they were hired and a system of checks and balances are in place to confirm that the employee is complying with company policy. Why shouldn’t a government department also ask that employees do the work for which they are paid? Remember, this is a system devised by Labor and the legislation was proposed by Shorten & Plibersek. What is continually forgotten in all of this is that the government is asking people who have been overpaid to repay the money, taxpayers’ money.

    • 0
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      Only if there is a genuine debt – it’s been pointed out times countless that the paradigm used is totally wrong and generates mistakes.

    • 0
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      Yes TREBOR, we keep hearing that but we are also told that the initial contact invites the accused to get in touch with Centrelink to discuss the matter. Now, someone is telling little porkies but we are left to decide which one is the more honest and we don’t seem to get enough information. I tend to lean on the side of Centrelink for one reason only; if Centrelink is taking money off people without telling them, if they are accusing people of enormous debts without discussing it with them, why haven’t Labor and the Greens made it an issue to wedge the government?

    • 0
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      Heavens Horace – I certainly hope YOU are never targeted with a Robodebt! I had to intervene and help an 87yo aunt when she received one of these scam letters. Her letter stated they had made numerous attempts to contact her and had sent correspondence to her MyGov account. Wonderful! – but she as not registered for MyGov as she does not have a computer, nor even know how to turn one on! And being home nearly 24/7, with the phone beside her, she had never received a phone call from them. They were chasing an amount supposedly overpaid to her, and the stress and upset this caused her was appalling to see.
      I made numerous visits to to the local Centrelink office with my aunt (not an easy task with her being wheelchair bound) and I can only say we were met with blatant lies. When I said she does not have a MyGov account, we were met with ‘well it would make it easier if she did’. CL had made NO attempt to contact her. They could not and would not provide any breakdown or proof of any so called over payment. It was only after I pushed and pushed that I found (meaning I found the error, not them), the error had occurred after her husband had to go into nursing home, thus they both received the single aged pension. The Aged Centre he had moved into had not completed the paperwork correctly. Had Centrelink bothered to read the form completely, they would have easily seen the correct date he had moved into the centre, but no, they conveniently looked at a date they wanted to. So the debt was cancelled. I then had to push to get this in writing – they HATE to put anything in writing where it confirms that they made the error.
      This is a major reason why I – on the Aged Pension – will not do any part time/casual job as I don’t trust them to calculate payments correctly, or to come back in years to come with a Robodebt. This whole Robodebt system is a farce. So they have got back 2billion? – I would love to know how much of this is a false repayment, because people have just paid up without questioning it. Either too ignorant, or too scared, to appeal and or question these blackmail letters.

    • 0
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      I had a communication from Centrelink asking me to contact them so they could review my earnings. I phoned them, got through immediately, gave them the information that they asked for and that was the end of that. Whilst I don’t agree with virtually ‘automating” a debt collection system, how many of the people who got demands ignored the initial request for information updates I wonder?

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      Older&Wiser what a terrible story about your Aunt, why are they putting old people in such stress, are they trying to kill them? I would make sure you write this all out and send to as many politicians as you can and any organization that is fighting this ie: https://www.
      otmydebt.com.au/

    • 0
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      Horace Cope, let’s hope you are next to receive a robodebt & have to PROVE your innocence, let’s hope that you have kept every piece of paperwork from day one.
      Let’s hope you at some stage have some empathy for those easily persecuted & least able to defend themselves from a system which demands guilt without having to show one sceric of evidence.
      This government is determined to keep this disgusting system & ignore the senate recommendations to fix it.
      Big Brother with a big stick at its meanest.
      Maybe the LNP did devise this system but this disgusting government & an unchristian PM Morrison are in control & making sure it’s not fixed & now expanding a broken system to encompass the most vulnerable.
      Australia, hang you head in shame

    • 0
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      The error rate with robodebt is consistent with the manually determined error rate pre the introduction of the matching software. The issue is the scale at which Centrelink is now able to issue its notices so that more people are caught up in the reviews. There is little doubt the review process has been clumsy and could have been implemented better. That said, those caught up must share some responsibility for the gaps in data that put them in the firing line.

  8. 0
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    That lid has been lifted so many times now it has hand prints worn into it, and is somewhere in solar system orbit near Uranus……

    It obviously sucks, is a propaganda tool to make out that ‘welfare’ recipients are a pack of low-life thieving bastards and thus facilitate the abolition of social security, suffers an inordinately high rate of withdrawal or reduction upon being confronted all of which costs money, is a useful tool for installing a Reign of terror over the peasants who must live in fear of an arbitrary imposition for cash being made upon them at any time with or without reason, and in reality recoups Sweet Fanny Addams for the government.

    Apart from that, it is the best thing since sliced heads on the guillotine…

    • 0
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      80/20 rule … works well for the 80% kept Centrelink informed so no gaps in their data but obviously some catch-up with the remaining 20%. There will be some genuine mistakes just as there will be genuine fraud and then there will be the gamut of circumstances in between. Much of this could have been avoided if recipients were case managed with regular reviews to ensure data was complete and unlikely to be flagged by the matching software.

  9. 0
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    I know lots of people ripping the system of for years, would be nice if they payed you to dob them in!

  10. 0
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    Watch this space definitely.
    I enjoyed the bank fiasco, now sit back for a comedy of errors, that has been responsible for many a person losing it at the Centrelink office, through no fault of their own. Having had dealings that nearly got me arrested, its a wonder I coped with it all.

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