​The Australian government and the loose definition of IT projects 'working well'

Straight-faced, a Department of Human Services representative told a Senate committee its data-matching 'robodebt' project went well, because it produced savings.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Department of Human Services (DHS) found itself in the spotlight last year after kicking off a data-matching program of work that saw it automatically issue debt notices to those in receipt of welfare payments through the country's Centrelink scheme.

The Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) program had automatically compared the income people declared to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) against income declared to Centrelink, and the debt notice -- along with a 10 percent recovery fee -- was subsequently issued when a disparity in government data was detected.

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.

Read more: Senate Committee recommends Centrelink reassess previous robo-debts

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 "robodebt".

The response from the Australian public was less than pleasant. Halting the system had been requested at length by the federal opposition, and a Senate Community Affairs References Committee reported to the government in June it had repeatedly heard from individuals that the OCI system had caused them feelings of anxiety, fear, and humiliation, and dealing with the system had been an incredibly stressful period of their lives.

But all of that aside, DHS acting deputy secretary of Integrity and Information Jason McNamara told the Finance and Public Administration References Committee on Friday the data-matching program went well.

"The department's view would be, we wouldn't agree with the proposition that it didn't go that well," McNamara said with no hesitation.

"Yeah ... We've made it quite clear that we think the project has gone quite well. We've delivered lots of savings. We have quite a number of reviews already undertaken and we have changed some aspects of the system, we've improved aspects of the system but I don't think we'd agree with the proposition that the project hasn't gone well."

Committee chair Senator Jenny McAllister was gobsmacked and gave McNamara an opportunity to correct his response.

"Mr. McNamara, it was a disaster. It produced incredible anxiety for a very large number of citizens," McAllister explained.

To McNamara, the most important metric the committee should use in determining the success of the data-matching program is the cost savings.

"People are always being required to tell us [of a] change in circumstances. That's always been the case. The fact that some people have not, and the fact that our data-matching has shown that, and that is some period of after which they didn't tell us, we still have a responsibility to assess that and understand that," he continued.

According to McNamara, AU$900 million has been recognised as "due" through income matching, with DHS having recovered AU$270 million to-date.

In recent times Australia has seen the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) unprepared to fend-off the smallest definition of a DDoS attack, resulting in shutting down the 2016 Census; and a string of outages experienced by the ATO, from "one-of-a-kind" SAN outages to mainframe reboots.

The Australian Electoral Commission also recontracted Fuji Xerox to deliver a "similar" ballot scanning system for the next federal election to the one the Australian National Audit Office recently called out for lacking on the security front.

The same committee also heard last week that 54 Australian government websites were pulled for maintenance on one 2017 weekend, without an interim solution put in place.

There's also been newly shaped entities such as the Department of Home Affairs that has a range of IT problems as a result of a "mish-mash" merger and a lack of understanding of the "cyber" in cybersecurity; departments killing IT projects after spending the cash; and those holding critical citizen information happy to fend off cyber attacks by themselves.

But it's going to be fine because the Australian government has a Digital Transformation Agency that can provide assistance to departments on IT-related projects if they're called upon.

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