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Department of Human Services says citizens, not systems, to blame

'People won't think we make mistakes if you stop reporting our mistakes'

By Richard Chirgwin, 8 Mar 2017

Australia's Department of Human Services (DHS) has doubled down, telling a Senate Committee yesterday its troubled robo-debt system will continue, and if there's something wrong, it's all your fault.

After the Australian Tax Office threw the DHS under a bus yesterday over the system's design, DHS Secretary Kathryn Campbell's had her turn on the stand.

Rather than the people who designed the Centrelink data-matching program without input from other departments, or decided to push citizens towards an online portal that's repeatedly crashed, he argued that the true culprits are welfare recipients.

Speaking to the Senate inquiry yesterday afternoon, Campbell complained that people receiving Centrelink debt notices aren't “engaging” with the department.

“I think what we underestimated was how many people would not clarify, and would not engage, and so I think if I was to sum up what the problem has been it is that, when we wrote those initial letters, that recipients and former recipients didn’t engage”, she told the committee.

Apparently, journalists reporting on the system's problems are also to blame, because we caused the distress that made people “not engage”.

The complaint about disengagement stands in stark contrasts to claims that tens of millions of calls to Centrelink went unanswered, that the phone system was designed to misrepresent call wait time by resetting its timing log to “zero” any time a caller was successfully transferred from one number to another (for example, reported by 9 News here).

The Department also seems to have seriously underestimated the scale the data-matching program would reach after its mid-year pilot in 2016, as noted by IT consultant Justin Warren:

Figures provided by the DHS to the inquiry showed that 36,000 debts were negated between July and December 2016, and while the department and minister have claimed the program has recovered AU$300 million the money is not in the bank: that figure is the sum Australians have agreed to repay on a periodic basis. Receipts to date are a more modest $24 million.

That would barely pay for the 370 extra staff the Australian National Audit Office recently found were needed to administer the automated data-matching system. ®

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