Centrelink staff trawl social media for complaints about the welfare agency and may escalate serious gripes to the Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge.
Senior bureaucrats responsible for Centrelink told Senate Estimates on Thursday that staff at the department sift through print, broadcast, and social media for individual complaints, and decide whether to report grievances to Tudge's office based on the circumstances of each case.
"There would be a number of complaints that would be made, particularly on social media, which would be unidentifiable and indeed may be of a relatively minor nature," Human Services staffer Jonathon Hutson told the Senate. "If there was a substantial article in a newspaper or indeed a substantial article on broadcast media -- that would be a lot more important in terms of how we would deal with it."
The comments come as the Centrelink bosses were grilled about the agency's controversial automated debt recovery system that has seen some letters demanding money repayment sent in error to welfare recipients, as well as the agency's recent admission of sharing private client information with the media.
In the article, Andie Fox detailed the difficulties she had in dealing with the agency after she began receiving calls from a debt collector.
Fairfax Media then published another article over the weekend that cited information provided by Centrelink, including details of her interactions with Centrelink and her claims history.
During Estimates on Thursday, DHS representatives were grilled over why the information was sent to the media in the first place, and argued in response that disclosing private information about a recipient is justified to "correct the record" and maintain public confidence in the system.
The Centrelink heads said the information it released was cleared by government lawyers provided under lawful exemptions and that the minister's office added quotes from Tudge before it was sent to Fairfax Media.
According to Guardian Australia, Tudge's office also accidentally sent the journalist two internal briefing documents, marked "for official use only", which had been prepared by the department.
It is reported that the documents contained additional information on Fox and her personal circumstances, which went beyond the dot points prepared by the department. They included further detail of her relationship history, including when she separated from her partner.
No mention of the documents was made during Estimates on Thursday, however.
On Tuesday, Tudge insisted that the government is allowed to release a person's private information under social services laws in order to correct the record.
"In cases where people have gone to the media with statements that are incorrect or misleading ... we are able to release information about the person for the purposes of correcting a mistake," he told Parliament. "It allows the correction of false information which has been placed into the media."
Also on Tuesday, Australian Information and Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim requested that DHS consider the sensitivity of the information it holds, and said he would be looking into the release of personal information from within the department, but stressed that he was not opening a formal investigation at this stage.
Pilgrim did say, however, that there are particular circumstances where laws that govern the operation of a government organisation are able to override those present in the Privacy Act.
Human Services head Kathryn Campbell also defended releasing personal Centrelink information, saying the agency could "correct the record" to maintain integrity and confidence in the system and had done so for many years.
Campbell said the person involved made a number of unfounded claims that could have a knock-on effect for others.
"It was in the opinion of officers that this was likely to concern other individuals, that they may see this and think that they too had erred and not met their commitments," she said.
"Unfounded allegations do unnecessarily undermine confidence in the department and the social welfare system."
She said the same exemption had been used many times and that releasing the information was "essential" for retaining public confidence in the welfare system.
"Ensuring the integrity of the welfare system is a key focus for the Australian government and for the Department of Human Services. The government considers that Australians expect the welfare payments system to be fair -- this means that people should receive payments for which they are eligible," she said.
"Data-matching is not new; it is a long-standing approach used to detect potential non-compliance since the 1990s. It helps to find potential overpayments ... people have always been responsible for providing the department with correct information."
"Almost half the cases described in public reports did not relate to the online compliance initiative."
Greens senator Rachel Siewert argued there were "errors and omissions" in the information released that undermined integrity in the system.
"If you're going to release something, at least do it properly," she told the Centrelink heads.
In February, the Senate passed a motion to initiate an inquiry into the "robo-debt" system that will be chaired by Siewert.
DHS announced in December it had implemented the online compliance system in July and said it was finding approximately AU$4.5 million that had gone awry each day. With this, the federal government hopes to improve the nation's Budget by AU$2.1 billion over the next four years.