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Ombudsman report shows Centrelink’s data-matching tool was mostly a waste of time

A report from the Commonwealth Ombudsman has made a number of recommendations and a handful of comments on the handling of Centrelink’s online compliance intervention (OCI) program — which became colloquially known as robo-debt — by Services Australia.

After a pilot of 2,600 individuals in 2015, the OCI program went live in 2016.

The data-matching elements were meant to automate a lot of the manual work performed by staff.

The system automatically compared the income declared to the ATO against income declared to Centrelink, which resulted in debt notices, along with a 10% recovery fee, being issued whenever a disparity in government data was detected.

The system, however, didn’t account for how the ATO handled income — as an annual figure. As such, Services Australia would “average” the ATO amount over the fortnights in the relevant period in order to compare it against the individual’s reported income.

The federal government paused the automated data-matching element of the initiative in November 2019 and in May 2020 confirmed “it was legally insufficient to use ATO income averaging either fully or partially” to raise debts, estimating refunds to the tune of AU$721 million would be paid to individuals caught up in robo-debt.This would see around 470,000 debts […]

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