Ombudsman: Centrelink OCI lacking usability and transparency

Report finds data matching underpinning system working well, but notes poor planning, testing and risk management.

The Department of Human Services’ controversial ‘robo-debt’ system lacks usability and transparency, according to a Commonwealth ombudsman’s report released today.

Acting Commonwealth Ombudsman Richard Glenn highlighted poor project planning, system testing and risk management in the implementation of Centrelink’s widely criticised online automated debt system, in the findings published this morning.

However, the ombudsman said the data matching underpinning the system was working well and that “the online compliance intervention (OCI) is capable of accurately calculating the debt”. The number of ‘discrepencies’ produced by the system was not significantly higher than it had been under the previous manual process, the ombudsman said.

“We are also satisfied that if the customer can collect their employment income information and enter it properly into the system, or provide it to DHS to enter, the OCI can accurately calculate the debt,” the report reads.

“After examination of the business rules underpinning the system, we are satisfied the debts raised by the OCI are accurate, based on the information which is available to DHS at the time the decision is made.”

Complaints spike

The DHS launched its OCI system for raising and recovering debts in July last year. The main efficiencies of the approach arise from placing the onus of providing information on the individual, rather than the DHS requesting it from employers. Moving the debt management and calculation process online, and having individuals enter information directly, also saved on the time and cost of manual processing.

Between November and January 2017, the ombudsman’s office received 241 complaints about OCI debts. The office received 1563 ‘approaches’ about Centrelink matters, compared to 835 in the month before the system was implemented: an 87 per cent increase in complaints.

While the system resulted in thousands of debt recovery notices; in a significant portion of cases there was no debt or the amount had been overestimated.

The ombudsman questioned the DHS on whether it had done modelling on whether debts were likely to be over-calculated by the system, however the department said no such modelling had been done.

“The risk of over-recovering debts from social security recipients and the potential impact this may have on this relatively vulnerable group of people, warrants further consideration by DHS,” the report says.

“We suggest DHS test a sizeable sample of debts raised by the OCI. The samples should include people who did not respond to the initial letter, as well as people who went online and people who contacted DHS via other channels. We also suggest DHS re-evaluate where the risk for debts calculated on incomplete information should properly lie and investigate whether there are ways to mitigate this risk.”

Poor service recurring theme

Poor service delivery was a “recurring theme” in many of the complaints about the OCI system received by the ombudsman, including individuals “being required to go online to resolve their situation when they had already indicated they were having difficulties”. Centrelink staff were found to lack sufficient knowledge about how the OCI system worked.

“A key lesson for agencies and policy makers when proposing to roll-out large scale measures which require people to engage in a new way with new digital channels, is for agencies to engage with stakeholders and provide resources for adequate manual support during transition periods,” the report read.

The report made a series of recommendations, covering clearer letters and system messaging to customers, more help for customers when gathering income information, improving service delivery and communication, more assistance and support for vulnerable customers and reviewing automated recovery fee decisions.

“There were deficiencies in DHS’ service delivery and communication to customers and staff when implementing the system. These issues affected the quality of decisions made by the OCI,” Glenn said.

Since the Ombudsman’s office began its investigation in January 2017, DHS has made positive changes to the system, in response to the office’s feedback, the ombudsman noted.

‘However more improvements are needed to ensure the system meets minimum administrative law requirements and reflects good public administration,’ Glenn added.

In September the Senate backed an inquiry into the Centrelink data-matching program. The inquiry is due to report by May 10.

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