ANU claims Australians want government to use data for better-targeted benefits

Respondents to its survey said they wanted the data to be used to make sure the right people were receiving the right benefits, the Australian National University has reported.

With Centrelink's robo-debt mess still front of mind for many, the Australian National University (ANU) is reporting Australians want the government to use the data it holds on individuals to better target entitlements.

According to ANU, a majority of Australians also think governments "definitely" or "probably should" use the data they access to "ensure residents aren't claiming benefits they're not entitled to".

The claims from the university follow a poll it had conducted between November 19 and December 3, 2018, interviewing 2,150 people via both the internet and phone on their views on government use and protection of personal data.

The Australian population is generally supportive of government using or sharing data, at least according to ANU's Public Attitudes Towards Data Governance in Australia report [PDF]. However, that does not mean they believe the government is currently doing what it should be doing with the data it has.

The poll asked respondents to "think about the data about you that the Australian government might currently hold, such as your income tax data, social security records, or use of health services".

According to the report, socioeconomic status had an association with the answers given.

"Those with higher levels of education tended to be more supportive (especially for using data for evaluation)," the report says. "Area-level disadvantage also had an association, with those who lived in the most disadvantaged areas tending to be more supportive of government using data to ensure that residents are not missing out on their entitlements and to ensure that residents are not claiming benefits they are not entitled to."

When it comes to trusting the government with data, the most trusted organisation is the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), followed by universities as a collective.

In general, there is far less trust in commercial entities than in public sector institutions; not surprisingly, the lowest level of trust is in social media companies, ANU reported.

Telecommunications companies, online shopping providers, and banks and other financial institutions fall "somewhere in between".

According to ANU, age had a strong association with trust, with the young tending to be more trusting than the old. On the topic of trust, education was again highlighted.

"Those who had not completed high school tended to be less trusting in institutions with regard to their data than those who had completed Year 12, with the difference greatest for non-commercial institutions (government in general, universities and the ABS specifically)," ANU wrote.

"There were also large differences by education, with those living in the most disadvantaged parts of the country the least likely to trust government with their data."

During Senate Estimates last month, the Department of Human Services (DHS) once again faced questions on its controversial Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) scheme that poorly used government data to determine if an individual was entitled to welfare.

This time, however, it faced questions following the release of information on welfare recipients that had passed away since the OCI scheme began.

The statistics, released by the department in response to questions on notice from a previous round of Senate Estimates, did not directly link the deaths with being issued a debt notice, and broke down the deaths into age brackets, with those aged 66 to 80 accounting for 251 of the 2,030 deaths tallied.

"We don't accept that we haven't done our best to look after the needs of vulnerable people when we are aware of their vulnerability. As you know, in relation to online compliance, unlike all of our other debt recovery work, we have exempted vulnerable people from the online compliance initiative and we've established a separate staff-assisted process that we're piloting to manage debt recovery for the income data matching," DHS Secretary Renée Leon said last month.

"I know that there have been people who have died after receiving a debt notice, but, because we have a lot of customers, I'm afraid to say that there are always some who are dying for a range of reasons.

"As far as I'm aware, there haven't been any online compliance initiative matters about which families have contacted us to assert that they think that the person's suicide was precipitated by the receipt of a debt notice."

In 2016, DHS kicked off the data-matching program of work that saw the automatic issuing of debt notices to those in receipt of welfare payments through the country's Centrelink scheme.

The OCI program automatically compared the income declared to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) against income declared to Centrelink, resulting in debt notices -- along with a 10 percent recovery fee -- being issued when a disparity in government data is detected.

One large error in the system was that it incorrectly calculated a recipient's income, basing fortnightly pay on their annual salary rather than taking a cumulative 26-week snapshot of what an individual was paid.

A department spokesperson, however, told ZDNet in October it was inaccurate to say the automated system that came to be known colloquially as "robo-debt" had incorrectly issued debt notices.

"It is inaccurate to say that the system automatically issued debt notices. Letters initiated at the commencement of a compliance review are not debt letters. To refer to them as debt letters is factually incorrect. The letter asks the customer to engage online or call the department to work through a discrepancy," the spokesperson said.

With other government departments extending the use of the OCI scheme into their own scope of work, a spokesperson for the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (Austrac) last week confirmed with ZDNet that Austrac has a joint initiative with DHS that focuses on serious non-compliance issues, including serious fraud, which are handled by specialist investigators.

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