If the government was a private company it would go out of business or be shut down by regulators for fraud over the Centrelink debacle, says former Digital Transformation Office head Paul Shetler.
Speaking on RN Breakfast this morning, Shetler said the fiasco, in which potentially thousands of Centrelink payment recipients have received erroneous debt review letters, was “entirely preventable”.
“I’ve got to say I’m not really surprised. I do have to say I am shocked by this, I think it’s pretty appalling that this kind of stuff happens,” he said.
The letters are the result of Centrelink’s new automated system which cross-references income information from the Australian Taxation Office and Centrelink, and sent when a discrepancy is identified.
There have been numerous stories over recent weeks of people who say they have been sent inaccurate debt notices from Centrelink. Some say they had paid the debt, even though they believe they do not owe it.
Despite the claims, social services minister, Christian Porter defended the system last week, telling the ABC that the system was working “incredibly well”.
Shetler criticised the government’s line, saying: “I certainly couldn’t say why the government is saying its working well when it’s manifestly not working well. I think you just have to look at it and say that it’s not. It’s quite clear that it’s not working well”.
Launched in July, the system aimed to better detect overpayments made to welfare recipients – replacing manual checks by staff – and automate the issuing of letters when a discrepancy was found.
Human services minister, Alan Tudge, told the Guardian last month that the new system had a huge increase in the number of “compliance interventions”, from 20,000 per year to 20,000 per week.
“The problem with this one was quite simply you had an algorithm, which frankly wasn’t working properly, that was trying to match really disparate data sets,” said Shetler. “You’re trying to match fortnightly data with yearly data you’re trying to extrapolate on the results. And it fails.”
The issues spoke to “incredible incompetence which is just absolutely unacceptable”, Shetler added.
Shetler was personally appointed by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to lead the government’s digital transformation as head of the Digital Transformation Office (DTO) in July 2015. Last October the DTO was relaunched with a new name, the Digital Transformation Agency, and Shetler was demoted to chief digital officer. Within two months he had resigned.
Speaking out on the latest in a line of government IT fiascoes, Shetler said continual failures were “not OK”.
“We’ve seen this happen repeatedly with myGov, we’ve seen this happen repeatedly with other DHS systems we’ve seen this happen with census fail, we’ve seen this happen with the ATO, all in the course of about a year,” he said.
“In any other government this would be viewed as a really bad thing. For some reason – and I’m not really quite sure why – in Australia people just sort of say ‘well OK, it’s alright’. It’s not. It’s not OK. It’s not OK when the government cannot deliver the basic services that people are paying for. We are paying for these things. Any other kind of service that we were paying for, if things were just failing like this, it would not be OK.”