Centrelink robodebt resulted in automation false economy: CPSU

The union representing workers of Australia's Department of Human Services has said the agency is in crisis following years of budget cuts.

It's no secret that during the second decade of the 21st century, governments are loathe to spend a cent more than they have to, and Centrelink is shaping up to be the touchstone for using automation as its salvation and failing badly at it.

One can easily imagine how the powers that be within Centrelink and its overarching Department of Human Services (DHS) ended up taking the decision it did.

According to Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) National Secretary Nadine Flood, after years on the receiving end of efficiency dividends -- government-speak for reducing spending by a single digit percentage and expecting the same level of output and service -- DHS suffered a 10 percent cut in 18 months.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that the Department of Human Services is an agency in crisis, and it's not something I say lightly," Flood told the Senate Community Affairs References Committee on Wednesday.

Flood said DHS is unable to provide Australians with a basic level of service following a reduction of 5,000 permanent roles by governments of both stripes.

Given such a situation, it is hardly surprising that management decided to automate a decades-old process. But there was a catch. The process itself was not sound, as thousands of former Centrelink recipients found out over the Christmas break.

In the pantheon of decision-making, automating an already bad process is up there with drinking two pots of coffee back to back: It will allow you to do stupid things at a much faster rate.

"The department has been put in a position where it has made decisions, with the recent introduction of the automated debt recovery program, to remove or reduce the role of DHS staff in that crucial hands-on element of the work -- investigating suspected overpayments and advising on appropriate debt recovery actions," Flood said.

"This new approach which removes or reduces human oversight of suspected overpayments and reduces employees' roles at a range of elements of the system has been an absolute disaster for many Centrelink users, but also for the workers charged with implementing a system they know to be deeply flawed and unfair."

Copping some flack for its perceived involvement in the data-matching, the Australian Tax Office was at pains to distance itself from DHS, and said it merely provided annual payment summaries to DHS, as it had done for years. If there was any division by 26 in this process to miscalculate fortnight income and generate debt notices, the ATO was not the source of it.

With an environment focused on saving money, and a budget target of collecting AU$1.2 billion from former welfare recipients, it is disturbing but not surprising that DHS took its human process and ported it across to a machine.

"If we want to look at where robodebt has come from, it is a fairly obvious consequence of a department that no longer has the resources to provide effective services," Flood said.

"It has, of course, proven to be a classic false economy -- and has created costly reverse workflows where staff are taken offline to deal with complex and difficult disputes over incorrectly raised automated debts.

"Sadly, I would suggest in the last few years, one of the things DHS has become an expert in is band-aid solutions as it lurched from one crisis to the next -- this is simply the largest of those."

In its defence, DHS told the committee a lot of the trouble was caused by people not engaging with the notices they were sent.

"I think what we underestimated was how many people would not clarify, and would not engage," DHS Secretary Kathryn Campbell said.

"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."

36 million unanswered calls would suggest that when Australians engaged, DHS was wholly unable to cope with what it had unleashed.

Automation has been far from Centrelink's saviour; in fact, it has been a very naughty boy.

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