​Human Services works with Plain English Foundation to overhaul welfare website

Following feedback on its robo-debt woes, the Department of Human Services has pushed live its beta website overhaul that focuses on the use of simplified language.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Department of Human Services (DHS) has announced an overhaul to its website, working with the Plain English Foundation to ensure the online experience for people seeking information is "simpler, clearer, and faster", as well as with the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) to improve aspects such as the readability of payment information.

The Website Reform project started in January, with an alpha trial site pushed out alongside the existing website on June 28. It is expected the beta version, now in public trial, will give DHS a better understanding of what its consumers need from the government entity.

In a statement, Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge explained the site's revamped design is the result of engagement with web, content, and service design specialists, as well as more than 2,500 community members, staff, and third parties from a "broad spectrum of social and cultural backgrounds".

"Many people call Centrelink for basic information that is available online -- simple and user-friendly online information will help them find this info online next time and the positive responses we're receiving through early testing is very encouraging," said the minister, who has previously been labelled as "out of touch" by Shadow Minister for Human Services Linda Burney.

"We're looking forward to starting the public trial which will give people the opportunity to share their thoughts before we go live."

A Senate Community Affairs References Committee recommended last month that DHS re-write its Centrelink documentation in simplified language, to allow its welfare recipients to better understand what their requirements and entitlements under Centrelink actually consist of.

The recommendation was coupled with 20 others, and was made by the committee following its probe into the Centrelink robo-debt debacle that has plagued the agency since the summer break.

The agency's data-matching system had automatically compared the income people declared to the Australian Taxation Office against income declared to Centrelink. When it detected a disparity, Centrelink was automatically issuing a debt notice along with a 10 percent recovery fee.

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

Between November 2016 and March 2017, at least 200,000 people were affected by the system. During this period, the department sent approximately 20,000 letters per week generated by an automated system that came to be known colloquially as "robo-debt".

In a statement on Tuesday, Tudge explained the website overhaul is just one element of DHS' service delivery transformation, which also includes the billion-dollar Welfare Payment Infrastructure Transformation (WPIT) program that involves the transformation of the 30-year-old payment system which processes over AU$100 billion in Centrelink payments annually.

The transformation also includes a new AU$600 million telephony system, claiming processes streamlining, 250 new call centre staff, and other measures Tudge expects will reduce call wait times.

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