back to article Australia: Stop blaming Centrelink debts on its IT systems

Australia's welfare agency Centrelink is embroiling the government in a hugely damaging controversy, raising incorrect debts and auto-issuing threatening letters to citizens. The “pay up” letters are genuinely terrifying when the sums involved are often thousands of dollars, especially when even government officials admit that …

  1. TReko

    Blame aversion

    A great new term for 2017 - bureaucratic "blame aversion"

    “It is literally blame aversion, it is not risk aversion,” Shetler said. “They’re trying to avoid the blame, and they’re trying to cast it wide.

  2. Wilt McCracken
    Thumb Up

    Good Article

    The following parts are the only informed analysis of this whole to-do that I've read anywhere:

    "This isn't a bug in an IT system: it's an executive giving developers instructions to implement a malicious system.

    Before this blew into a social media sensation, Centrelink already knew that averaging annual earnings isn't a good guide to point-in-time entitlements."

    And, re cross-agency data matching:

    "Each of those systems will have a view of the citizen that's relevant to the interaction between agency and individual."

    If people could understand just those paragraphs, faith in IT might be somewhat restored. Faith in management and politicians will remain as is.

    Keep up the good work, Richard. Australian journalism needs you.

  3. Magani

    It wasn't liked then... or now

    "Part of the rationale for the Office of Eternal Beta... is to create a single digital identity for Australians. "

    Oh, you mean like the information that was to be held on the Australia Card that was roundly thrown out about 30 years ago?

  4. Dean666

    Centrelink and Gov data share streamlining

    To successfully administer all aspects of government services, our distinguished leaders need to incorporate data share with banks and employers. Additionally, we should move immediately to a cashless society therefore eliminating the cash in hand income industry.

  5. Yusefbloe

    We know what's going on here!

    It's very obvious even to the blind that this particular Liberal government hates poor people and especially those on government assistance and all this nonsense about the legitimacy of cracking down on welfare cheats in the way they have been going about doing it is laughable except for the fact that the vast majority haven't been cheating and have declared their earnings as required. Of course there will always be some people who rort any system and the biggest rorters are often those who are running the government itself and by adjusting the rules to suit can make a nice little feathered bed for themselves at a cost of millions to the taxpayer. Lifetime pensions for a start and convenient public funding journeys, like a helicopter trip as an example. the list goes on and is truly endless. If the poor 'cheat' it's about cents, if the rich and or powerful 'cheat' then it's often about millions of dollars

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: We know what's going on here!

      ... this particular Liberal government hates poor people ...

      Not only the present one, but the previous one as well (headed by Mr A. Bbott).

      <slightly off-topic rant follows>

      As a self-funded retiree and now not-a-part-pensioner-since-Jan-1st, Messrs Turnbull, Morrison, Porter, et al have seen fit to give me and my wife a 25% pay cut because they seem to think that having assets and super of around $800K makes you 'wealthy' and therefore unfit to receive any government assistance despite having coughed up income tax for some 50+ years. I will leave as an exercise to those readers who know how to use a calculator to figure out what sort of risk-averse return you can get on that sort of money given the current interest rates and dividends from blue chip stocks. For those of you unable or too lazy, lets just say that if you get 5~6%, you're doing really well, and that in turn equates to an income of about $45K per year. WOW, talk about living high on the hog!

      I wonder how the aforementioned pollies would like it if they were given a 25% pay cut (yes, we lost a $12K/yr pension)? How about they don't get their super until they're 65 or older?

      Getting back to something approaching the topic, the Centrelink debacle is just one of the 'let's squeeze those who can't fight back' options the government is trying on. The one good thing about losing the pension is that we don't have to kowtow to Centrelink any more!

      Thank you for your patience and forbearance.


    2. anonymousI

      Re: We know what's going on here!

      "It's very obvious even to the blind that this particular Liberal government hates poor people and especially those on government assistance"

      A stirring statement, which might have even more impact if it wasn't for the fact the policy was introduced by the last Labor government.

      So the Labor party's crocodile tears are about something they created themselves.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Garbage In → Garbage Out

    In this case, the "Garbage In" was in the form of a design spec, and blind faith that the flawed calculation would produce correct results 100% of the time.

    It might be okay to use that "average" to perhaps signal an alarm of possible infringement, and to ask questions, but to assume that infringement is taking place and to immediately demand payment before confirmation of alleged infringement is confirmed, THAT, is going way too far!

    There's a reason why I've told people: "I'll die a pauper in the gutter before I'll talk to Centrelink". I realise I'm fortunate enough to not have needed to deal with such a grossly incompetent bureaucracy. This is a bureaucracy is both opaque to external auditing and seemingly unwilling to take responsibility for its bad decisions.

    Turkey has a saying, "the fish stinks first at the head". This isn't a decision of the people that answer the phones, or man the desks, but they for sure will bear the brunt of the disgruntled public. Management decided the behaviour of this IT system, and developers duly implemented it as requested.

    It would not surprise me if someone raised concerns about the validity of the calculations being done, and were duly dressed down for such "insubordination".

    I think it fair that in cases where people have been wrongly accused of claiming benefits they're not entitled to due to such flawed decision making, they should be entitled to a full refund of any and all funds confiscated, with interest, as well as reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses incurred in the process of defending their case.

    Ideally, this money should come from the management teams that made these flawed decisions. I'm not holding my breath though … expect a light pat on the back side as punishment that might as well equate to a handshake for all the good it'll do.

    1. Badge

      Re: Garbage In → Garbage Out


      ... blind faith that the flawed calculation would produce correct results 100% of the time.

      Sorry but, there was never an intention or desire to be 100% correct. They would have got legal advice that there is no requirement to be 100% certain of a debt before asserting that it is payable (as long as you provide a way to challenge the assertion). The lawyers would not have even looked at the instructions regarding the year => fortnight calculation. They would have advised that the although the calculation of entitlement must be correct in law, the calculation of a debt is not so restricted - as long as it's an assertion which, I think the letter wording could be interpreted to be.

      So, armed with the ability to assert a debt (on a much larger number of people), they proceeded to implement the system. Someone else figured it wouldn't hurt for the letters to be authoritarian in tone (to dissuade bludgers). Someone else remembered that there was a facility to impose a debt collection fee and there was provision in law for some reversal of onus proof (Minister says he likes that so let's do it !). But, someone forgot to tell the system developer to allow time in the process for appeals, complaints and challenges. So, you have to pay the money to Centrelink even while appealing or the 'system' will send the debt collectors. Put all that into the mix and out comes yet another public service disaster.

      Knowing some of the people involved I'm not surprised they've gone into defensive mode. Those who disagree with defending will be subtly made aware of the "possible" damage to their career.

      1. Trixr

        Re: Garbage In → Garbage Out

        A retired senior Centrelink worker wrote a post that says that the former process (after the data match) was manual precisely because they KNOW that tax figures are yearly, and their payments are fortnightly. And they did the work of following up with employers and so on - I sure as hell don't keep 6 years of my pay slips!

        But you know, they save staff costs by scaring the sh*t out of people, and by ensuring people who are already "disempowered" in many ways (sorry for the wank word, but it's true - people who are on the dole often aren't the most technical, and the challenge process is online-only) are more likely to simply pay up rather than go through an opaque and challenging process. It's challenging even for people who have been in reasonably-skilled work for years and who have the pay records! (See The Guardian for the pieces written by the guy who started kicking up a fuss last month.)

        Also, I don't actually believe the govt spin that 80% of the debts are genuine - I think it's 80% that haven't been challenged, which is something else.

        Finally, from a technology point of view, there is some room for improvement. There is no means of recording a fortnightly breakdown of your earnings (assuming you have the proof) on the form that they've provided to challenge the debt.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Sorry but, there was never an intention or desire to be 100% correct. They would have got legal advice that there is no requirement to be 100% certain of a debt before asserting that it is payable (as long as you provide a way to challenge the assertion).

    By demanding that the alleged overpayment debt is payable immediately and engaging debt collectors, they are asserting that the alarm received by this calculation is 100% correct.

    Whether that is their intent or not is immaterial: the end result is the same.

  8. aberglas

    Multiple points of incompetence

    Just because the rules set up by the executives were incompetent, does not mean that the programmers did not also stuff up in other ways.

    Given that this is an IBM project, it is safe to simply say that the natural incompetence of the IT department was, in this case, overshadowed by the even grosser incompetence of the management.

    Mind you, one should always be wary of claiming that management is incompetent. In this case, I presume that many senior managers got promoted precisely because of their ability to say "Yes" at the right times, without being burdened by facts. Competence is the ability to achieve one's goals.

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