Justin Reads The #notmydebt Centrelink Senate Inquiry Report: Part 3

This series was originally posted to Storify and has been reproduced here after Storify was shut down. Unfortunately a lot of the inline images I originally tweeted have been lost, but you can still get the gist of which paragraphs of the report I’m talking about.

In this episode of Too Long; Justin Read, Justin reads chapter 4 of the #notmydebt Senate inquiry report.

Chapter 4: Challenging Debts

This episode of Too Long; Justin Read begins with Chapter 4 of the #notmydebt senate inquiry report. #tljr

This chapter is all about how you have to prove you don’t owe the government money. #tljr

You’d think that DHS would have to prove you owe them. Ahahahaha. No! #tljr

Let’s chat about this ‘discrepancies’ idea.

Let’s first address this notion of a ‘discrepancy’. #tljr

In many cases, discrepancies exist because the computer program is stupid. #tljr

This was a conscious choice. Someone wrote this program. It’s not a naturally occurring phenomenon. #tljr

Computers are not magic. They are fancy rocks. #tljr

The right thing to do here is to branch out as a “not enough information” case and do additional processing. #tljr

You don’t just go “well, I don’t know if this person worked all year, so I’ll just assume they did” #tljr

Particularly when ATO data shows that 50% of their records are for people who didn’t work a full year. #tljr

This is baking in a 50% chance at being wrong. That’s just stupid. #tljr

But, as we’ve established, doing stupid things appears to pretty much be DHS’ mission statement. #tljr

Malicious Design Choices

And now for some more examples of deliberately malicious design choices… #tljr

You can ask for a review, but only if you chance upon the magical incantation DHS requires. #tljr

Young people are more likely to be targeted, and less likely to be aware of their rights. #tljr

A cynical person might look at the statistics around voting behaviour and wonder if that has anything to do with it. #tljr

Even if you do the right thing, DHS will still fuck it up, and it’s your problem, not theirs. #tljr

DHS has lots of practice at losing paperwork. #tljr

And just more examples of utterly shithouse system design. #tljr

“We don’t even track when we make mistakes.” How is that remotely acceptable? #tljr

Remember that the Committee explicitly asked DHS how many cases were being reviewed, and DHS didn’t answer. #tljr

DHS pointed to the reviews that were completed, not how many were started. I reckon because they don’t even know. #tljr

What’s The Magic Word?

Note well: a reassessment is not a formal review. You have to use the magic words. #tljr

DHS will settle for less money rather than go to AAT, it appears. #tljr

That might be because AAT won’t accept the debt calculations DHS has done. #tljr

AAT has seen a “marked increase in the number of Centrelink related cases lodged in the current financial year.” #tljr

DHS says the increase isn’t due to OCI. #tljr

That just makes me wonder why there’s been an increase then? DHS is just generally worse across the board this year? #tljr

No one knows how DHS calculates the debts, and the public hasn’t been able to figure it out. #tljr

Not for lack of trying. FOI to get the info out of DHS, and then it makes no sense. #tljr


Excel! With Macros! OMG!

The calculator tool DHS uses to figure out the debt amounts is an Excel spreadsheet.

Yes. Really.

The ‘system’ DHS uses is an Excel spreadsheet. I want to talk about how scary and wrong that is. #tljr

The big problem is testing. Modern software uses a full automated test suite, often several, that checks for bugs. #tljr

The reason for doing this is twofold: 1: To make sure that new code actually does what you want it to… #tljr

…and 2: to make sure that new code doesn’t break old code. #tljr

Writing software is about 80% writing new bugs, and another 80% taking the bugs out again. #tljr

In Excel, the bugs are in formulae that are embedded in the spreadsheet. Macros are VBscript or similar layered on top. #tljr

A better solution is to separate the presentation (the spreadsheet look and feel) from the data and logic. Model-View-Controller. #tljr

None of this is new, but Multical was first written about 17 years ago (from memory). #tljr

Excel sheets with macros are hard to test because it can’t be easily automated. You have to use a GUI thing like Selenium. #tljr

I’ll bet Multical has no automated tests whatever because it’s too hard. #tljr

Another big issue is updates: Excel is single user. If you want to change the spreadsheet, no one else can be using it. #tljr

If it’s stored centrally, that means everyone has to have a read-only copy all the time or they’d lock everyone else out. #tljr

And if it’s read-only, you can’t save your progress. Imagine that for a complex set of client calculations. #tljr

If you do save it, it’d have to be saved locally, or you’d overwrite the central copy, breaking everyone else’s work. #tljr

Uh oh! Now my copy is different from everyone else’s! What if the calculations need to change? Like if legislation changes. #tljr

And that means that all my old calculations (that I’ve saved somewhere) are all wrong now, because the formulae are out of date. #tljr

The operational maintenance issues of Excel as a production application are immense. Don’t do it. #tljr

If Multical really is the tool used to calculate debts, it should be independently audited for correctness. #tljr

Back to the report. #tljr

You’re On Your Own

DHS doesn’t want to help people. #tljr

DHS also reckons the reverse onus of proof situation is not new. #tljr

That doesn’t make it right. #tljr

That DHS has a shit phone system isn’t new, for example. #tljr

Centrelink is an abusive system. #tljr

and it’s undermining its own purpose for existing. #tljr

How is this not a shakedown? #tljr

DHS has created a negative externality (in economist terms). It’s designed to make you pay up. #tljr

Again, the program was written by DHS staff, and they chose to not cross-check with data DHS already has. That’s deliberate. #tljr

They could have written a better program, but decided not to. #tljr

DHS will cross-check, but again, you have to use the right magical incantation. #tljr

Is This Legal?

Who knows?

The whole OCI thing may not even be lawful. #tljr

Personally I’d love to see it all tested in court, but that costs money, and no one with money cares about poor people. #tljr

And even if you wanted to, there aren’t enough lawyers in this area. #tljr

Why? Money. Again. The government doesn’t care about poor people. #tljr

Actually it looks to me that a lot of the current government actively hates poor people and wants to hurt them. #tljr

Tories gonna Tory. #tljr

Lipstick On A Pig

The report now acknowledges the tweaks DHS has made to the system since we all started yelling at them. #tljr

And the concluding committee view is thus:

4.104 The committee considers that the current process of review is opaque. It is clear that many individuals remain unaware of their rights when dealing with the department. The committee considers that considerable work could be done to clearly promote an individual’s rights of review and right to request a pause while the purported debt is reviewed.

4.105 The reversal of the onus of proof in respect of these purported debts has had a substantial impact of the individuals concerned.

4.106 The committee understands that the department is attempting to identify discrepancies and overpayments and that it may need the individual’s assistance in some circumstances. However, the committee considers that the department should consult its own records, or design a system capable of checking its records to ascertain what the recipient previously reported to the department.

4.107 Where a purported debt is raised against an individual, the committee considers that the department should be forthcoming with the calculations that demonstrate how the debt was arrived at.

4.108 The committee considers that these factors contributed to the increased number of requests for assistance received by community legal centres. Funding for these legal centres remains a substantial issue.

4.109 The committee acknowledges that the department has worked to make some improvements to the overall system. However, the committee considers that more needs to be done.

Here endeth chapter 5 of the report. #tljr

Read part 4 of this TL;JR here.

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