The Senate inquiry into Centrelink’s automated debt recovery system has found that the system has not kept track of how many overpayment errors were caused by the agency itself.
Greens senator Rachel Siewert has called for greater clarity from the government service on the functionality and reliability of the new automated system.
“I think it remains very unclear what is the percentage of errors from Centrelink itself that have resulted in overpayments,” said Siewert.
The inquiry, set up to assess the viability of the automated debt-handling service, comes after thousands of Australians were wrongly asked to repay debts after a mid-2016 switch to a fully computerised service.
The service is designed to detect discrepancies in debt repayments and automatically issue notices to the payee informing them of the error. However, evidence presented to the inquiry by the Australian Council for Social Service (ACOSS) expressed concern over the vast quantities of false discrepancies being filed.
“On the Government’s own figures, at least 20 per cent of these so-called ‘discrepancy notices’ have been incorrect,” said ACOSS chief executive Cassandra Goldie. “You would not see this kind of debt collection process in any other kind of corporation environment.”
The new system was described as a “diabolical” failure by Paul Shetler, former head of the Digital Transformation Agency. He also highlighted the recent botched Census collection and temporary outage of the Australian Tax Office website as evidence that changes are needed in the public service.
“We need to have radical, radical upskilling of the public service so it can feel comfortable with 21st-century technology,” he said.
Despite changes made to the system in January by Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, many are now calling for a complete redesign of the system.
“As far as many people are concerned, it is like moving chairs on the Titanic for a better view, whereas what people want is a completely different system,” said Senator Siewert about the changes.