Ombudsman slams robo-debt scheme

The Commonwealth Ombudsman has savaged Centrelink’s automated debt recovery system as unfair and lacking transparency and has made several recommendations to improve the process in the future.

Acting Commonwealth Ombudsman Richard Glenn, who released the 113-page report on Monday, said while the debts raised by the Department of Human Services (DHS) were largely accurate there were issues relating to communications with customers.

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

“Many of these problems could have been reduced through better project planning, system testing and risk management,” Mr Glenn said.

The report found the system was rolled out on a large scale in a short time frame, and that problems were inevitable under such conditions.

Those problems could have been avoided by including customers and other external stakeholders in the design and testing features.

The report was also scathing about the way the department dealt with complaints and the 21-day timeframe given to respond to their debt letter.

The report stated that given the complexity of collecting historical information, the 21-day timetable “was not reasonable or fair”.

The report found many welfare clients didn’t know they had to call the compliance helpline, and so flooded Centrelink’s general customer service line instead.

But Centrelink staff did not fully understand how the new system worked because they had not been trained properly.

The Ombudsman’s report recommends placing the compliance helpline number on the first page of the initial letter and advising people that they can ask for an extension of time online or by calling the compliance helpline number.

Other recommendations include:

  • reassessing the 10 per cent recovery fee applied to some debts already discovered by the system
  • ensuring the 1800 compliance number continues to be adequately resourced
  • providing comprehensive training as required to specialist compliance staff
  • capture record information obtained from complaints and internal reviews
 

Human Services Minister Alan Tudge said the Government had already implemented some recommendations and says the latest suggestions will also be implemented.

“He (the Ombudsman) notes that we have made a lot of improvements already, but offers some very practical suggestions for further improvement which we will implement,” said Mr Tudge.

Read the Ombudsman’s full report.

Opinion: Public service cuts make Government sloppy

Automation is meant to make things easier, but any move to a new system needs rigorous planning and foresight for potential problems. This is something that has been sorely lacking from this Government, not only with Centrelink’s automated debt-recovery system but also with last year’s disastrous online Census.

Instead, what we have seen are major and costly projects released with a ‘close enough is good enough’ approach. The Ombudsman’s report highlights how the automated debt recovery system was released in a short time frame and on a large scale, when it could have benefitted from a more incremental roll-out.

In the past, projects the size of an online Census and the debt-recovery system would have had significant supervision, but the Abbott Government elected in 2013, and this Government, have been hell-bent on public service cuts without acknowledging the intellectual property that is being lost as senior bureaucrats leave Canberra.

Since 2012, Australian Public Service staff levels have dropped from 153,466 to 137,848 at 30 June last year, with suggestions from some members of Government that they would still like to make further cuts.

What the Ombudsman’s report does not reveal is the human cost of some of the country’s most vulnerable people dealing with the frustration of this poorly-delivered system.

When the automated debt-recovery system was introduced, the Department of Human Services was swamped with complaints and people were panicking with the lack of assistance they were receiving from Centrelink staff. If all Centrelink staff had received adequate training ahead of the release of the automated debt recovery system, a great deal of heartache could have been avoided.

Do you think the robo-debt debacle was avoidable? Were you affected? Do the Ombudsman’s recommendations go far enough?

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Written by Ben

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