Centrelink 'big data' system built without consulting taxman

Bad requirements make bad systems, episode 1,001

Parliament House Canberra

When Australia's Department of Human services decided to create its now-notorious “robo-debt” system, it did so without consulting one of its major data sources, the Australian Tax Office.

The Office's deputy commissioner in charge of its “Smarter Data” program, Greg Williams, told a Senate Committee looking into the disaster that although the office has been sharing information with Centrelink for around 20 years, “we didn't engage with Centrelink” on the data-matching program behind the robo-debt program.

The ATO says it had no information about the design of the robo-debt system “apart from what we knew from what was in the public arena”. Williams said there was “no purposeful conversation” about the system's design.

When the story emerged, the ATO found itself in an unwelcome spotlight, associated with a program it didn't design or oversee.

“We did reach out to them in December [2016]”, Williams said, because it wanted to be clear that its role in “robo-debt” had nothing to do with data-matching. He said its role was restricted to “identity matching and the provision of data”.

As previously reported by The Reg, the Centrelink systems have raised outrage in the community by demanding money from people who didn't have a debt, and by frequently grossly overestimating debts that did exist.

The errors have a simple source: people report their income to the Australian Tax Office on an annual basis, even if they only work nine months in a year, but benefit payments are made fortnightly. Someone decided to calculate debt by averaging income to fortnightly payments and Centrelink therefore accused people of claiming benefits on the basis of annual incomes even if they had zero income while claiming benefits.

It was never possible for the ATO to provide more granular information: Williams emphasised that “all of the data we provide is only annual data”, adding that “we don't hold periodic data”.

"Working as intended"

In evidence earlier this morning, the Australian Council of Social Service and the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) said they had been told by the Department of Human Services (DHS) that the system was working as it was designed to work.

The CPSU says its workers “repeatedly” warned the DHS its “robo-debt” system would fail, but were ignored.

The union also highlighted the risks of a misplaced faith in big data, saying that many issues easily spotted by an experienced officer passed the Centrelink software without raising a red flag.

National secretary Nadine Flood gave termination payments as an example. A chunk of money like a redundancy should not be assessed as income to set against an unemployment payment, she explained, but it might be misreported by an employer and show up as income.

“Automated systems can't read customer records and see the detail that experienced officers can”, she said. Another design error involved paid parental leave being incorrectly assessed.

It wasn't only the Taxation Office that wasn't consulted: the CPSU also said there was no consultation with its members about the design of the system.

The government's enthusiasm to shift citizens to online interactions with Centrelink is also problematic, the CPSU said, because its ageing systems couldn't cope with a high take-up of transactions from the Internet.

Centrelink's applications rest on an ancient IBM Model 204 database that's due for a AU$1 billion replacement under a project begun in April 2015.

If Flood's evidence to the committee is accurate, the DHS not only adopted an “everything is fine” attitude, it worked hard to damp down criticism coming from staff.

She said some employees were warned against bringing their concerns to the union's attention, and told their Facebook pages were being monitored.

“While thy have a right to talk to us about any workplace matter, there has been an increased scrutiny of issues that have an industrial element about them … particularly in relation to instructions not to fix debts or errors on records”, she said.

Both the CPSU and the Australian Council of Social Service have called on the government to suspend and redesign the system, something already rejected by the minister for human service Alan Tudge. ®

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