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Friday, January 6th, 2017 09:00 am
Centrelink crisis 'cataclysmic' says PM's former head of digital transformation

The notion that the current Centrelink crisis is a result of a culture of "don't want to hear bad news" in Centrelink management doesn't surprise me at all. Centrelink management has long had a culture of shooting the messenger bearing bad news, because it doesn't agree with the glossy picture they're trying to sell their Minister (not to mention themselves). It really is one of the main ways the particular algorithm being used (compare total incomes reported against the ATO total for the financial year to determine whether income has been reported accurately, then average the ATO total across 26 fortnights to determine whether there's a debt) could have survived even cursory testing.

I suspected the whole thing was developed in-house, and it's nice to have those suspicions confirmed, but the point to be raised here is Centrelink's programming staff are not sourced from within the group of people who have worked on the customer contact end of Centrelink's operations. Instead, they're sourced from within the IT industry, and generally from a group of people who have had next to no contact with what could be considered the bulk of Centrelink's business (their parents may have received Family Tax Benefit for them while they were in school, but that's pretty much it). This is where a blind spot in the bureaucracy intersects with a blind spot in the IT industry - the bureaucratic insistence on "no bad news" intersects with the IT industry article-of-faith that if you can figure out programming, you can solve any problem at all with no additional knowledge required (and if you did need extra knowledge and didn't get supplied with it by the client, this is the client's fault for not knowing you'd need it).

So basically, what's happened is a programmer (or group of programmers) in Centrelink's IT section has been handed the job of figuring out how to automate the process of debt recovery sparked by income data matching, and they've done this effectively starting from scratch (and probably reinventing several wheels along the way) with absolutely no reference to existing processes and procedures, or to the knowledge bank of staff who were doing this job at the time. When the program was tested, it passed all the standard tests to see whether it would break the Centrelink desktop environment (this is mandatory for all products on the Centrelink network, whether they're being rolled out to all staff or not), so it was assumed to be Just Fine! If someone in the debt recovery section raised the problem of "we know this is going to raise a lot of false positives - something like nineteen out of twenty of the issues data matching raises aren't actually valid debts" with their manager (assuming they found out about it ahead of time), the caution would be buried, because nobody wants to hear bad news in Centrelink's upper management.

And thousands of people across Australia got asked to justify their receipt of social security benefits they were legally entitled to, because they made a typo in their income reporting once (or because the business they were working for made a typo when they created their record with the ATO), or because they got a good job after having been on social security (and this averaged out over the course of twelve months to be higher than the fortnightly cut-off limit), or whatever. Things which probably could have been picked up very quickly and resolved with minimal fuss and bother to the person affected if there had been any efforts at inserting a human element in the whole process to just double-check the results of the first couple of weeks, and then remove the bugs.