Key findings from the Ombudsman’s Report on Centrelink

The Ombudsman’s report confirms what TasCOSS, our friends, family members, neighbours and fellow Tasmanians have experienced: the Centrelink robodebt system must be halted immediately.

It has hurt vulnerable Australians and created a situation in which:

(3.45) ‘In some instances customers may become vulnerable because of the debt raising and recovery process itself.’

Overview

The Ombudsman calls for a halt to any further rollout until a comprehensive evaluation of what has happened is undertaken. (Recommendation 8)

The Ombudsman has also called for further roll out to be done incrementally.

Critically, the Ombudsman:

  • States the process itself may have caused vulnerability because of the stress it put people under.
  • Calls for a review of those cases where a recovery fee has been applied when a person had not made any contact after the issuing of a letter.
  • States the principle of transparent and open decision making should apply—even in automated processes—and that this did not occur. It notes that prior to changes in January, the initial letters during 2016 and some parts of January 2017 did not supply appropriate or transparent information.
  • States six years is an inappropriate period of time for people to have to maintain their payslips. It notes the ATO requires two years’ worth, and this could be considered a benchmark.

About the rollout

The Ombudsman’s report notes the following regarding the robodebt rollout:

  • There are major issues with the system and the rollout that are not in line with administrative law values of lawfulness, fairness, rationality, openness, transparency and efficiency.
  • There was a massive project planning failure – particularly in consultation with external stakeholders – before and during the rollout.
  • No stakeholder engagement, briefings or communication
  • No resources to support key stakeholders who would be impacted by a broad scale rollout of a new system
  • There was no planning, no testing, and no risk mitigation strategies
  • Letters requesting information from individuals provided an inadequate time to respond.

 

About the system

The Ombudsman notes the following:

  • Transparency of the system and the usability of the system was and still is, seriously flawed.
  • The system does not clearly communicate and therefore has led to confusion and misunderstanding – for staff and clients.
  • No modelling has been done on how many debts were likely to be over-calculated by the online system – they don’t know.
  • The accuracy of the automated information needs to be validated by a human
  • The capacity for the system (DHS) to respond was inadequate and the communication and actions by DHS staff was not appropriate as they had not been adequately trained in how to check/validate/respond.
  • The cost impact of providing income evidence is unreasonable and needs to be reconsidered.

About the impact of the system on people

The Ombudsman notes the following:

  • The risk of over-recovering debts from vulnerable people and the potential impact should have been considered
  • The system has been so confusing for people to use they have in many circumstances, not engaged with the system, or given up on it and this has had an impact.
  • The DHS underestimated the complexity of requirements it was shifting on to people in order to comply – and did not offer adequate assistance to people.
  • That an expansion of the criteria for vulnerability should occur and the type of support offered to clients who are vulnerable should be enhanced.