Centrelink's lack of data integrity

commentary Centrelink mandarins and their government masters may be feeling a tad red-faced. The government's mail and television campaign warning welfare recipients to report changes of circumstance has been neatly skewered by revelations an audit report found the social security agency's core customer database was riddled with errors.

commentary Centrelink mandarins and their government masters may be feeling a tad red-faced.
Iain Ferguson, News Editor, ZDNet Australia

The government's mail and television campaign warning welfare recipients to report changes of circumstance has been neatly skewered by revelations an audit report found the social security agency's core customer database was riddled with errors.

An investigation by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) between April and October 2005 listed a litany of problems with the so-called Income Security Integrated System (ISIS), including:

  • Up to three percent of Centrelink customers "appear to have been registered more than once [on the database]";
  • Centrelink's failure to properly use or update ISIS' data integrity error detection and reporting system;
  • Keeping records of around 1.5 million deceased people on the production environment of the database, "risking the integrity of Centrelink payments";
  • Up to 7,000 customer records -- 3,500 pairs of records -- showed the same Tax File Number (which is meant to be exclusive to an individual) and;
  • Up to 30 percent of recorded details on being "insufficient or unreliable" in identifying customers.

The ANAO softened the blow slightly by giving Centrelink a pass mark overall.

"ANAO concluded that Centrelink's electronic customer records are, generally, sufficiently accurate and complete to support the effective administration of the range of social security programs for which Centrelink is responsible".

Despite the less-than-ringing overall endorsement, the report has identified glaring omissions in management of records determining how AU$60-odd billion in welfare payments are made each year.

The campaign catchphrase "Supporting the System that Supports You" rings a tad hollow when that system is clearly flawed and needs extensive work.

To Centrelink's credit, it has moved to address some of the ANAO's findings -- for example, it has established a team to develop a longer-term data quality strategy and improvement program -- but questions need to be answered about how the problems arose in the first place.

The report is a timely reminder to organisations about the need to commit to applying strict rules governing the collection, input and maintenance of data. The alternative is wastage, embarrassment and firefighting. No manager wants to be in that position.

Have you or your business ever been compromised by poor data integrity? What are the keys to ensuring data is kept accurate and up to date? E-mail us at edit@zdnet.com.au and let us know.

Iain Ferguson is the News Editor of ZDNet Australia.