Centrelink sees nearly 16k students head online to report income

In the wake of the 'robo-debt' debacle, over 15,000 students have logged on to Centrelink's online income reporting tool to update their information, instead of waiting on hold with call centre staff.

The Department of Human Services (DHS) has said nearly 16,000 students have opted for a digital channel to tell Centrelink when their income circumstances have changed, logging into an online portal instead of visiting or calling DHS' service centre that Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Nadine Flood previously said experienced 36 million unanswered calls in 2016 [PDF].

The department's online service automatically places students on and off a reporting schedule when their employment status changes, which DHS said makes them "fully aware" of their obligations under welfare provision requirements.

A statement from Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge highlighted the online tool will help students avoid a debt that may be garnered by misreporting income.

"Some students get debts because they do not declare their income on time -- these online improvements make it much easier to report simple changes in their circumstances so they get the right payment, at the right time," Tudge said on Monday.

DHS has been dealing with nearly 12 months in the spotlight, thanks to the Centrelink robo-debt debacle that stemmed from its data-matching system automatically comparing the income people declared to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) against income declared to Centrelink.

The data-matching practice saw letters demanding repayment sent to welfare recipients, sometimes in error, with 19,980 debts revealed as incorrectly calculated.

Instead of calculating a recipient's income based on a cumulative 26-week snapshot of what an individual was being paid, the system had incorrectly based annual salaries off a recipient's fortnightly pay.

Around 200,000 people were sent debt-collection notices between November 2016 and March 2017, with 20,000 letters sent per week.

In June, the Senate Community Affairs References Committee published its report into the robo-debt debacle, saying DHS needed to "immediately" reassess the debts calculated under the automated system. It also asked that DHS be adequately staffed to deliver improved welfare services following claims of severe understaffing.

Tudge on Monday revealed Centrelink now boasts 250 new call centre staff, labelling the new recruits as "digital assistants" responsible for managing online interactions, including an updated website and an online claims process.

The online tools and the additional head count form part of the billion-dollar project that will see the department overhaul Australia's 30-year-old payment system, which processes over AU$100 billion in Centrelink payments each year.

Labelled the biggest digital transformation the government has embarked on to date by Tudge, the Welfare Payment Infrastructure Transformation (WPIT) program is expected to take seven years to complete.

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