Process for fixing Centrelink data-matching discrepancy revealed

A Freedom of Information request made by a concerned citizen has returned a copy of a document explaining how Human Services talks Centrelink customers through the steps required for proving their income after being issued a 'robo-debt' letter.

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The process for conducting an Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) review on the information held by the Australian government of individuals that receive welfare through the country's Centrelink scheme has been revealed, with a document detailing how individuals can confirm their income and have their benefit entitlements automatically calculated.

Revealed under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by Posty, the document outlines how customers can complete the Employment Income Confirmation (EIC) activity.

The EIC process allows customers to upload information including payslips and bank account statements to have their "debt" recalculated. 

In the compliance review document [PDF], the Department of Human Services says EIC interventions are triggered by an external data-matching activity with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). The EIC allows customers to confirm or update employment income information -- it's an activity individuals can undertake to confirm the debt notice they received is accurate.

See also: Why Australia is quickly developing a technology-based human rights problem (TechRepublic)  

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 Centrelink scheme.

The OCI program automatically compared the income declared to the ATO against income declared to Centrelink, resulting in debt notices -- along with a 10% recovery fee -- being issued whenever a disparity in government data was 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 last year that it was inaccurate to say the automated system, which 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.

The compliance review document also detailed how the customer could work through that discrepancy.

As the process is automated, it is to be conducted online. If a customer does not have an active Centrelink online account, they can call to have a letter sent that contains a URL and confirmation code. The letter also outlines the "consequences" for failing to complete the intervention by the due date.

Customers are required to provide information such as payslips and bank statements, often dating back many years.

"If a customer does not confirm or update their employment income details online by the due date specified in the reminder letter, the information received from the ATO will be used to update their Centrelink record," the document explains to Human Services staff. 

"This may result in a debt that the customer will need to repay." 

Customers, the document continues, would then be advised of any debt via an employment income review outcome letter and a further accounts payable advice.

If the online system is unable to automatically assess the outcome due to documentary evidence being required, a manual handoff would occur; similarly, if the online system could not automatically assess the outcome due to an assessment check, a manual handoff would also occur.

Welfare recipients are also advised that if they did not contact the department, it could potentially apply the ATO information to their record, resulting in a debt. 

Where the assessment outcome resulted in a debt, the customer would be provided with the amount they owed and they would receive a letter stating the debt amount. Where the customer believed the assessment result was incorrect or Human Services had made a mistake, they would be told to contact the department to have their decision explained.  

Read also: Centrelink's new data-matching project targets Medicare fraud

Checking and updating past income -- an activity referred to as CUPI -- requires the customer to have past payslips and bank statements handy.

"We need to make sure you received the right amount of payments from us in the past. The Australian Taxation Officer (ATO) has given us information about how much income you earned from work in the past. The information from the ATO is different to the information you reported to us. We need your help to check and update your information. Documents like payslips and bank statements will help with this," the welfare recipient is told."

Where past payslips or bank statements aren't available, Human Services uses customer details it already has, such as information from the ATO.

"We'll divide the ATO amount by the number of fortnights you worked. This will give us an average of your earnings for this time," the document says.

If the hours an individual worked or the amounts they earned changed each fortnight, the customer would need to provide this information, including the exact amounts they were paid.

"You should also tell us if you only worked for part of the year, or if the employer names we have don't match your records," it continues. "If you end up owing us money, not providing this information may mean you pay back more than you need to."

If the online CUPI service is unable to automatically assess the outcome due to an assessment check, a manual handoff is required. 

If it can be automatically issued, the customer would be presented with a message that reads: "Thank you for checking and updating your income details. We've worked out you were overpaid $XXXXX in Centrelink payments. We used the information you've told us to work out this result. You don't need to pay back the amount you owe all at once. You can set up a repayment plan that works for you".

Customers are also advised, when a recovery fee is included in the debt amount that: "A 10% recovery fee is included because, based on the information from the ATO, you did not tell us about all of your past income and we have no explanation for why this happened".

Where the assessment resulted in no debt, the customer would be advised that they have been paid correctly. 

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