The Centrelink Robo-Debt Error Rate Is Higher Than 20%

When is an error not an error? According to the Department of Human Services, it’s when

Initial notices request information to explain differences in earned income between the Australian Taxation Office and Centrelink records.

This number has been bandied about a lot in the last few weeks. And the Department has been sticking to its line that

The remaining 20 per cent are instances where people have explained the difference and don’t owe any money following assessment of this updated information.

Centrelink is taking income information from the ATO and matching it with its own records. It sends a letter when it finds the figures don’t line up. Exactly how it does this is something we’re all trying to find out. We know that—in at least some cases—the income information doesn’t line up because the matching process was simplistic and ham-fisted. Income has been counted twice due to the same business having multiple names, or income earned in only part of the year has been averaged over the entire year.

The 20 percent figure is only those who correct Centrelink’s incorrect information and end up with zero debt owing. We have no figures on how many in the remaining 80 percent have some debt, but are wrong in the amount. I’ve asked the Department of Human Services this question on several occasions now and have yet to receive an answer.

This means we don’t know, and I suspect DHS doesn’t know, some really important information:

  • Of all these letters, how many were sent because DHS didn’t catch obvious mistakes like “averaged income over the year for someone working casually/part-time” or “income has been double counted because the business names don’t match but they’re actually the same company”? These are letters that should never have been sent, and so are very clearly errors created by Centrelink.
  • Of the 80% with “some debt”, how many of them, and how much of the ‘debt’ amounts, were wrong because Centrelink made a mistake as compared to customers incorrectly reporting their income (mostly by accident, some on purpose)?

All The Data Is Suspect

We don’t seem to know how many of these “income discrepancies” are there because of the flaws in the the data matching process itself.

Some of the information Centrelink has is likely to be incorrect. When you have humans entering data, this is bound to occur, and trying to fix up those errors is a worthy goal. Indeed, it’s required by Australian Privacy Principle number 10 as part of the Privacy Act 1988. Most of these errors are going to be innocent misunderstandings, forgetfulness, or just typos. Some smaller amount will be deliberate fraud.

But what we have here is the data matching process creating brand new errors! It’s actively making the data Centrelink has worse not better.

And then, to add insult to injury, Centrelink is forcing its customers—citizens, tax payers, because we’re matching data with the ATO let’s not forget—to spend their time and energy dealing with Centrelink to correct data errors that were, in many cases, created by Centrelink while trying to fix data errors.

Without some idea of how often the data matching process is going wrong, we can’t have any confidence that any of the letters are right.

I just don’t see how you can justify continuing to throw money away ($1 a stamp now!) harassing your customers when you know that a lot (20%? 30%? Who knows!?) of your harassment is caused by your own cockup!

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  1. The number of wrong debt notices is almost certainly more than 20%.
    “As Victoria Legal Aid’s executive director of civil justice, Dan Nicholson, points out, according to Centrelink’s own figures, 37.5 per cent of decisions were changed on review before it launched its automated data-matching process.”

  2. On 23 December 2016, The Guardian reported “The department said more than 70% of those who had received a compliance letter since September had resolved the matter online and only 2.2% were requested to supply supporting documentation such as payslips.”

    No evidence required? That suggests no debt existed to be disputed.

    Around that date, both Christian Porter and Hank Jongen repeatedly also stated that 20% of the debt letters had “been issued in error”

    The Govt and Jongen have since altered their position, claiming *that* quoted 20% figure now refers to issues customers have resolved online. Our Government employees and elected representatives are somewhat inconsistent, leaving one to wonder what the actual figures really are.

    All that follows is supposition, but suggests that 72% of these compliance letters have been resolved online. Neither Porter or Jongen have at all suggested that % resulted in any payments due. I suspect ‘resolved’ means no payment., or the government would have been crowing about the amounts agreed to be repaid.

    Then looking at historical figures as I mentioned in a comment on a prior post, statistics revealed by ACOSS “noted that outright fraud detected in the Centrelink system has been at the margins with 0.018 per cent of those receiving payments investigated for fraud last year with 996 cases referred to prosecutors and just 29 cases resulting in indictable charges.”

    Then taking my above comments on board as well as considering the Centrelink Compliance section whistleblower who was reported as saying of the many hundreds of reviews his section has completed, about 20 were found to be genuine debts, it seems to me to be likely that around 90% or more (!) of these letters could have been better reconciled by internal processes before a letter is even sent.

    I’m saying these figures suggest around 90% of these ‘overpayment’ letters are invalid; costing the Govt and the community an unknown amount of money and creating extraordinary fear and division in the community.

    The software, system and government policy is not fit for purpose, our Government is not being transparent, and hence is not accountable to its’ electors.

    Keep digging Justin, your work is appreciated, and refreshing for actually seeking the facts.

  3. Pingback: Errors in Centrelink's debt recovery system were inevitable, as in all complex systems - Artificial Intelligence Online

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