back to article Australia to refund $720m in 'debts' determined by dodgy algorithm

Australia will refund more than AU$720m (US$480M) to residents adjudged to owe the federal government a debt that did not exist. The "debts" were raised under a program to identify and recoup excess welfare payments. But the algorithm used to assess the debt averaged income over a year, a poor decision because someone whose …

  1. aberglas

    Apauling policy

    This was really bad. People living on the edge often with limited intelligence were expected to provide documentation going back years. It was very difficult to contact the department. And the department did nothing to help, even when they had documents.

    This was very nasty right wing policy. Deliberate, and nasty. And it went on for years and years. It is only when it looked like losing spectacularly in a court case that the government eventually backed down.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Apauling policy

      And yet Scott from marketing refuses to apologise despite the court loss because he still believes it to be the right thing to do. Mainly because he’s an arsehole who panders to certain groups and hates the poor. Strange how he announced plans to support the construction industry with some handouts despite workers in the sector earning nicely above the average income, tax deducting their accessorised touring vehicles and seemingly putting nothing away for a rainy day. Fuck you Scotty.

    2. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

      Re: Apauling policy

      Shitting on the vulnerable and underprivileged is just a normal day for the coalition. I'm positive that it gives them a tingly feeling in the pants.

  2. douglasac10

    I've had many, uh, "fun" dealings with whatever name Centrelink are going by this time. They tried to slap me with a robodebt, picking a financial year where for the first six months of the year, I was away from home at university, was recieving a payment and only worked four weeks (during uni breaks). Once uni finished, I went back home and worked full time and stopped receiving the payment.

    Of course, they averaged out the income from all 7 months I was working over the 12 months, and reached the conclusion that I was some kind of welfare cheat. I was able to get my payslips from my employers, so off I toddled to their website, where I was presented with a form that split that year into their fortnights. Their fortnights started and ended on a Wednesday, so I had to sort my pay information into their buckets because I wasn't paid fortnightly on a Wednesday.

    Naturally, once I'd done this and submitted the form (no more than 15 minutes) it timed out, so start again - fortunately I had the good sense to keep the spreadsheet with the info in it.

    In a move that should surprise precisely nobody with more than two functioning braincells, no debt existed.

    In this case I was lucky in that I had the resources, time and ability to get the payslips, sort the information out and send it to them and that my employers still existed so they could retrieve that information. Not everybody had this, particularly when they got one of the first versions of the letter that said "by the way, you owe us $10000 plus 10% for being a dirty welfare cheat" years after the fact.

    It also didn't help that they themselves frequently couldn't calculate the debt properly. Here's an article where one person went from a debt of just over $1300 to a debt of nothing: https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2019/august/1564581600/robert-skinner/how-i-fought-robodebt - tl;dr, after several recalculations, each spitting out a new supposed debt (including one where they owed him money), they reached the conclusion that no debt existed.

    This was purely an ideological system, solely to punish those who dared to be poor or unemployed and needed help from the government. I don't believe they ever got more back from it than they ever spent on it even before this, and if they don't settle with the class action for compensation, I expect there's going to be some very dirty laundry come out as a result.

    1. Vin

      Just read that themonthly.com.au link.

      Humorously written, great article.

      Thanks.

    2. Schultz Silver badge
      Coat

      "...the conclusion that I was some kind of welfare cheat."

      For some, the fact that you received welfare payments is enough to make you a welfare cheat. Righteous citizens collect tax credits and subsidies, not welfare benefits!

      It's funny how 'class warfare' is no longer waged by the poor and suppressed, but by the rich and influential. They developed an acute understanding that every dollar going into the welfare system is a dollar that could have (should have) lined a deserving pocket nearby.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Yup!

      Yup! I had a Centrelink debt that multiplied by almost ten times. The bastards chased me down, haunted me for many years. At one time they ordered my employer to garnishee my wages. My employer pulled me aside and asked whether I was illegally ripping off the Government(!!!).

      Eventually, they realised their mistake and I was paid back everything, in financial numbers. I got nothing for everything else.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "No minister with responsibility for the scheme has resigned or apologised. Current ministers this weekend told media the government has nothing to apologise for."

    Like fuck they don't, they have a lot to apologise for.

    "Legal action is ongoing, leaving open the possibility that the government will have to pay damages."

    I hope they pay big time.

    1. Fading Silver badge
      Flame

      Governments don't pay for anything...

      Unfortunately the only ones that end up paying are all tax payers - so unless the ministers pay with their jobs there is no justice. The first ones that should be paying with their jobs are those that continued to apply the algorithm even after they suspected it to be unlawful. This kind of unthinking adherence to procedures that reverse the principles of law without adequate oversight and a proper appeals process really boil the blood.

      Cutting down on fraud is a worthy goal but using the easy option of assuming everyone is committing fraud unless proven otherwise is not the way to do it and should have rung alarm bells.

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

        Re: Governments don't pay for anything...

        It's not often I invoke the "extreme prejudice" option, but putting those responsible in a three-metre-deep pit, dousing them in petrol, and lighting a slow fuse which may or may not end in the pit seems appropriate. They would get a taste of the fear and helplessness their victims felt.

    2. Alan Brown Silver badge

      "I hope they pay big time."

      Given that there has been at least one suicide, the words "contributory manslaughter" could be raised

  4. This post has been deleted by its author

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Latest Tech Fail

    The only thing missing is an insecure gov't site letting people get scammed.

    Oh ... https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-01/scammers-stealing-thousands-through-coronavirus-super-scheme/12301010

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

  6. steviebuk Silver badge

    They need jail time then

    " it emerged that bureaucrats had understood the scheme was not lawful for some time."

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: They need jail time then

      I am a bureaucrat working to sort out benefits payments.

      I've nothing but contempt for the management and politicians that said or did nothing while this program steamrollered over the vulnerable.

      Proper, actual prison time would be well warranted for such a shambolic clusterfuck of non-decision-making.

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

        Re: They need jail time then

        This is a case where not making a decision constitutes a decision.

        1. Paul Herber Silver badge

          Re: They need jail time then

          You are Jim Hacker and I claim my 2c.

  7. aaaashy

    this all sounds very familiar

    IT and Govt never seems to work properly, and i can only assume it is because no one who is in charge actually understands just how it should be used, and the information it receives i not the correct information for the task at hand.

    Why does this story sound so bloody familiar?

    And why does it never end well?

  8. Mike 137 Silver badge

    Why single out the Aussies?

    "a symbol of the Australian government’s seeming inability to execute technology-led initiatives"

    Australia is not alone. I can't immediately think of a government technology initiative that has delivered as desired, or even as expected. Governments aren't alone in this either. I can't immediately think of any technology initiative that has delivered as desired or even as expected. Until IT becomes a real engineering discipline, this will remain the order of the day.

    1. Denarius Silver badge
      Meh

      Re: Why single out the Aussies?

      fair call. In Oz the basic reason is simple enough. The tertiary miseducated managerial wannabe elites (term used loosely) believe anything technical is simple. Most of them seem to still believe the myth of computers as magic. ie using a computer does not require the sort of thinking and planning as any other complex tasks. It just happens.

      As a result, outsourcery to the smoothest talking. lowest prices vendor (perhaps with a donation here or there) and a cheap ill-trained and equipped staff take on the task with the usual results. With all the IT knowledge gone, the bureaucrats are entirely at mercy of the suppliers so they are frightened or gulled into not enforcing contract conditions. Perhaps the usual golf course conversations occur. Add in indifference and near complete lack of understanding of the consequences of wrong financial conclusions you get robodebt stuffup. That some of the Cabinet ministers were unable to grasp that 4 hours on hold demonstrated completely inadequate staff levels in Centerlink simply shows the levels of incompetence in managing the country that all major parties demonstrate in and out of power. Spent decades in the system, watching it get worse as Howard and successors like Rudd screwed the nation over.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why single out the Aussies?

      It's gradually getting better in the UK I think with the Digital Marketplace. This is specifically designed to level the playing field between large outsourcers and small local consultancies.

      I've seen the other side of a few of the newer projects (hence the anon) and from what I've seen I'm reasonably impressed. Take Universal Credit for example. Forget the policy behind it, as a system it's stood up really well in the wake of the pandemic, with the only issue really being the identity check in the first week, which is a 3rd party system anyway.

      It's a nice modern microservice architecture, hosted on the cloud for scalability, with a NoSQL backend and queues for inter-service communication. The exact opposite of what a gov project traditionally looks like

  9. batfink Silver badge

    Half a million people?

    Out of a population of, what, 25 million?

    FFS.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The IT worked

    This is not an IT issue.

    That they didn't have a team check the possible overpayments to confirm each one actually was an overpayment is outrageous.

    That this is STILL being defended by the politicians is unforgiveable. This is a serious failing at pretty much every level.

    You can bet this was flagged up by the people doing the actual work, but each link in the chain of 'the buck stops below me or above me' failed miserably to do their job and put a stop to it.

    I'm trying to get my head around how anyone could continue defending such a broken and injust system.

    Even Universal Credit didn't get to this level of incompetence and malice (things had to get on the front pages of newspapers before things changed but at least things changed when the hit the front pages).

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Interesting

    In the legal system that I am familiar with and from what is written here, this would seem to constitute a repeated crime of falsifying a public document. Amongst other things that I can think of.

    Also, I wonder how it works in Australia. Surely you cannot just fire off an email and say "you owe the government $$$". Where I live, administrative notifications are delivered by registered post (or secure electronic comms for businesses) and anything official comes signed by the person in the civil service who takes legal responsibility for it. It keeps everyone remarkably honest.

    1. hitmouse

      Re: Interesting

      In some areas, you get an automated letter from the department of revenue or "debt recovery" and there is no human you can talk to other than going to court. It enables the government to reap in money in installments just under the level at which someone can take time off work to go to court to get it back. My solicitor calls it legislated corruption,

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Interesting

        God! I am glad I live in a comparatively civilised part of the world. Here, if it is not signed by the person taking responsibility for it, it's not legal.

        And when I say "taking responsibility", that means the lady or gentleman who is getting sued if they try to pull a fast one, but honestly, they are super helpful and always trying to make things work out for everyone concerned.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What happens what that happens

    "No minister with responsibility for the scheme has resigned or apologised. Current ministers this weekend told media the government has nothing to apologise for."

    That sort of thing went on for a long time in 'Merica. That's what got Trump elected. I need say no mo'.

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