Commonwealth Ombudsman Critical of Centrelink Auto-Debt Recovery System
10 April 2017 at 2:12 pm
A report by the Commonwealth Ombudsman into the operations of the federal government’s controversial Centrelink auto-debt recovery program has found that the system had poor administration which failed to communicate adequately with customers.
The ombudsman’s report, which was released Monday, said it had received many complaints about the new online compliance intervention (OCI) system that was established to raise and recover debts or overpayments from welfare recipients.
Acting Commonwealth Ombudsman, Richard Glenn said he acknowledged that the Department of Human Service (DHS) had made changes to the OCI since its initial rollout.
“However, we consider there are several areas where further improvements could be made, particularly before use of the OCI is expanded,” Glenn said.
“In our view, many of the OCI’s implementation problems could have been mitigated through better project planning and risk management at the outset. This includes more rigorous user testing with customers and service delivery staff, a more incremental rollout, and better communication to staff and stakeholders.
“DHS’ project planning did not ensure all relevant external stakeholders were consulted during key planning stages and after the full rollout of the OCI. This is evidenced by the extent of confusion and inaccuracy in public statements made by key non-government stakeholders, journalists and individuals.”
He said a key lesson for agencies and policy makers when proposing to rollout large scale measures which require people to engage in a new way with new digital channels, was for agencies “to engage with stakeholders and provide resources for adequate manual support during transition periods”.
“We have recommended DHS undertake a comprehensive evaluation of the OCI in its current form before it is implemented further and any future rollout should be done incrementally,” he said.
This report comes as a Senate inquiry is also investigating the Centrelink auto-debt program.
More than 100 submissions have been made to a Senate inquiry – with less than half being available for public viewing.
The Senate inquiry, which was set up in February 2017, is looking into the design, scope, cost-benefit analysis, contracts and implementation processes associated with the government’s Better Management of the Social Welfare System initiative.
The Senate Community Affairs Committee has extended the submission period for the inquiry until 19 April 2017.
Inquiry chair, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said: “Submissions to the inquiry so far show that people have found the government’s automated debt recovery system distressing and frightening.
“A lot of the submissions are either confidential or have their name withheld, which I think demonstrates that people feel intimidated about speaking out.”
Shadow minister for human services Linda Burney said the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report confirmed the robo-debt system was “plagued by poor administration and a failure of Centrelink to communicate adequately with customers”.
“The damning report comes despite the minister’s insistence earlier this year that ‘the system is working well’,” Burney said.
“The ombudsman finds that the litany of problems in the robo-debt system ‘could have been mitigated through better project planning and risk management at the outset’, raising serious questions about minister Alan Tudge’s oversight of his department.
“This report makes it plain – customers can’t get clear information, the Department of Human Services didn’t provide adequate staff training and there was a total failure of planning and transparency.”