How often is the Centrelink data-matching scheme getting it wrong?

How often is the Centrelink data-matching scheme getting it wrong?

Thursday, 12 January 2017

This is a copy of a LinkedIn post published by Executive Director Civil Justice, Access and Equity Dan Nicholson on 6 January 2016. 

There has been significant public commentary about how often Centrelink is getting it wrong in generating tens of thousands of letters to people about their social security entitlements, followed in many cases by raising debts that require people to pay Centrelink back, either through reductions in entitlements or by passing debts onto private debt collectors.

On 3 January we were assured that there was no problem, as only 0.16 per cent of cases were generating complaints. (Of course, the complaints figure on its own doesn’t give a sense of the accuracy of decision-making).

By Wednesday, the government had conceded that in 20 per cent of cases, issues raised in letters were being resolved through provision of information.

This 20 per cent figure was the basis of significant criticism, with Paul Shetler, a former Commonwealth government digital transformation office head, saying that 'if they were a commercial company, you would go out of business, with a 20 per cent failure rate, a known 20 per cent failure rate.'

I think the error rate with Centrelink’s automatic data-matching is likely to be much higher than 20 per cent. Here’s why.

Looking at the Government’s public statements, the 20 per cent figure appears to refer to the number of letters that are generated but, when further information is provided, no debt is raised.

We know that in a significant number of cases, people who have done nothing wrong have a debt raised against them because they are unable to resolve the matter at the letter stage.

This may be because the system doesn’t allow it, because they don’t receive the letter, because they have trouble navigating Centrelink’s inaccessible processes, or because they can’t find the relevant documents (like 5-year-old payslips).

Where people can’t resolve the issue, debts are raised by Centrelink. But this doesn’t make the decisions to raise debts right.

These are the decisions with the biggest human consequences – no doubt getting a letter is stressful – but it’s incorrectly levied debts that wrongly impoverish people.

We know that many of these debts that are raised are being challenged, and in many cases decisions to raise debts are being changed, see This is what happened when Centrelink called to review my false debt accusation and Centrelink debts slashed after welfare recipients speak out in media – apparently starting with some of the high-profile cases reported in the media.

So how many of these decisions are wrong?

It’s a question that should be asked – specifically, what percentage of debts raised through automatic data-matching that have been challenged have been changed on review.

Last financial year, 37.5 per cent of Centrelink decisions challenged were changed on internal review. Decisions challenged at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (the next stage of the review process) were changed in about 25 per cent and 20 per cent of cases at the first and second stages of merits review.

But this was when these complex decisions were being made by people at Centrelink, not by a blunt and inaccurate system of automatic data-matching. We have every reason to expect that a higher proportion of so-called 'robo-debt' decisions are wrong and would be changed on review.

So, the error rate is likely to be significantly higher than 20 per cent, and questions should be asked so we can better understand how much higher.

If you have been told you have a debt by Centrelink as a result of automatic data-matching, you can ask for that decision to be reviewed, and here’s some information about how.

And, as I have said before, this data-matching system should be immediately halted until the mistakes are fixed. Letters sent should not be acted on. Debts raised should not be enforced. Quite simply, we can’t have confidence that these decisions are being made correctly, and these are decisions with real human consequences for hundreds of thousands of Australians.

How we can help

Find out how to get help if  you have received a letter from Centrelink advising that you owe a debt and you disagree with it or are unsure about it.