Since Christmas, media has been flooded with stories of people apparently wrongly subjected to Centrelink debt recovery processes. It seems that Centrelink, Australia’s department responsible for assessing and dispensing social security payments, is suffering from a bad case of big data. Consequently, its customers are being wrongfully threatened with legal action for failure to pay debts that do not exist.
Since mid-2016, Centrelink has matched its data with data held by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). Ideally, this would allow it to uncover inconsistencies between what a person declares to Centrelink, and what they declare to the ATO. Centrelink can then use this information to recover any overpayment. What has occurred instead is a large number of discrepancies that are readily explainable. Unfortunately however, Centrelink requires payment first, explanations later.
As you would expect, there are processes available for review of Centrelink debt assessments. However, customers have been told to commence repayment of the debt while they collect the evidence to disprove Centrelink’s debt claim. This may consist of gathering pay slips from former employers, for example.
Centrelink’s approach does two things: first, it places an immediate (and in many cases, incorrect) financial burden on the customer while secondly, placing the onus of proof of the absence of debt on the customer. In light of the likely vulnerability of so many of Centrelink customers, this is a heavy burden indeed.
The Department of Human Services, responsible for Centrelink, has a service commitment of ‘respect, quality information, integrity, and efficiency’. If the litany of complaints published so far in media and social media is any indication, the Department’s service does not seem to have met any of these indicators. More importantly however, it fails to meet criteria of natural justice and transparency that are a hallmark of good government. Natural justice requires a government decision-maker to make decisions that afford procedural fairness in carrying out their legislated responsibility. This does not mean necessarily that the resulting decision is fair—the focus in natural justice is the process by which that decision is made.
Considering the number of claims Centrelink deals with annually, it is entirely likely that the Department or its algorithm will make mistakes. Procedural fairness then, would require that the customer have a clear process for having that decision reviewed according to law. Unlike the possibility of the odd human (or computer) error, what differs about the current Centrelink situation is the scale of the issue.
In the first place, Centrelink is now finding 20,000 debts a week instead of its previous (manually-determined) average of 20,000 debts a year. Additionally, one Centrelink source is reported to have said that of ‘the hundreds of cases they had reviewed, only about 20 (at a “generous estimate”) turned out to be genuine debts.’ A huge increase in the number of debts and a significant proportion of those apparently ‘false positives’ points to a significantly flawed system, rather than a few outliers.
Because of the scale of the problem, it might be said that the source of procedural unfairness likely lies within system for determining the debt in the first place. Despite this, government continues to back the Centrelink data matching process, without even acknowledging that there may be a problem.
To compound the issue of procedural fairness, the National Audit Office has found that ‘nearly a quarter of the 57 million phone calls made to Centrelink [in 2014] went unanswered and that Australians spent 143 years waiting in vain to speak to Centrelink in 2013-2014, before simply hanging up…’ In other words, it is not easy to get in touch with the department if you have been issued with a demand to pay. For citizens who through disadvantage of one kind or another do not have the knowledge, resources, or resilience to battle the system, the consequences of an absence of procedural fairness are compounded.
Australian government departments are increasingly dipping their toes into ‘the cyber’ with variable results at best. The current Centrelink debacle is simply the latest example. Big data managed properly is entirely likely to bring benefits for government and citizen alike. But blindly following the lure of data without recognising the effects on human services and the foundations of the rule of law, interferes with the purpose of government itself.