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Issue #1771      March 29, 2017

Dehumanising Human Services

Part 2: “Fix the system”

Earlier this month the Community and Public Sector Union’s national secretary Nadine Flood and deputy president Lisa Newman addressed the Senate Inquiry into the Centrelink robo-debt debacle. Their analysis of developments in the Department of Human Services gives insight into the profound human effects of the government’s cuts. Last week we ran Ms Flood’s address. Below is the address by Ms Newman.

The introduction of the automated debt processing system has been done without any consultation affecting staff or their union. We have not been consulted about the design of the system or its potential impact on staff. We have watched the introduction of the system rolled out with increasing levels of alarm and distress. In January we started to have contact from members who were reporting that average incomes could lead to incorrect debt calculations and customers could end up paying money that they did not owe before a debt was proven to exist.

A mismatch in employer information could also lead to double counting of income and therefore generate false debt statistics. Customers would be unable to get the documentation they required to prove that the debt did not exist, and customers would not be advised of their appeal rights.

We have also been told by our members, as Nadine said, that the customary oversight has been removed from the system before contact with customers has been initiated and, instead, that oversight has been limited to queries and requests for reassessments once notices have been issued and received by customers. Members have been particularly disturbed by reports of managers instructing frontline staff not to correct errors that they find and instead push customers onto self-service mechanisms and/or refer them to a different part of the department – namely, the OCI (Online Compliance Intervention) teams.

This week I was contacted by a member with over 20 years experience in the department and extensive knowledge of debt management processes. She described the distress she felt at seeing the integrity of the debt management process that she has worked with for many years being sacrificed to the point where staff know that customers are going to incur needless debt.

As she described it, the department has an obligation to pay the right person the right payment at the right rate at the right time. She told me that people are complex, with messy lives. The department has moved the burden of proof of a debt to customers, who in many cases struggle to find the required evidence to prove that they do not owe the alleged debt.

The system has had a significant impact on staff working with it. People have reported increased stress levels, increased absences from work, lack of sleep and increased customer aggression. And I would just note to the committee that in our previous survey on client aggression directed towards DHS staff, financial stress was one of the primary triggers to incidents of aggression. Staff are also very concerned and very angry about what they see being done to some of the most vulnerable members of the community, and many feel morally conflicted in their role in this process.

In January we contacted the department to raise the concerns our members had contacted us to relay and also asked for a meeting with the department. We were given the advice that has generally been given to other organisations, which was that the system was working as it was designed to work and that there was no need to meet and talk about any issues about the system in detail.

DHS staff – our members – want to help customers, and that is why they find it so distressing to see their department putting customers at an increased risk of depression, decreased motivation, self-harm and even suicide. There have been anecdotal reports about increased levels of customer aggression directed at Centrelink workers that includes swearing, threats, physical aggression and spitting.

We would make the case that the Turnbull government needs to suspend this system. It needs to fix the system so that before it contacts a person over an alleged debt it has skilled and experienced staff assessing that person’s records holistically, because automated systems cannot read customer records and see the details that experienced officers can.

The department should also undertake an urgent risk assessment of the process to ensure that the risks to both the physical and mental health of both customers and staff are taken into consideration in the design of the system. And there needs to be immediate action to reverse the damage done by cutting 5,000 permanent jobs from DHS. Any new approach has to ensure that properly resourced human oversight in this agency occurs so that the government and the community can be confident that overpayments are identified and are correct.

DHS must also immediately convert current casual workers to permanent roles through a merit selection process so that they can be properly trained and provide the full range of services to support the communities in which they live.

As Nadine mentioned, the culture in DHS is one of the most significant barriers to our members’ voice and input into systems like this. There are many things that should have been taken into consideration in the design of this system that we believe constitute a current risk to our members’ health and safety as well as the health and safety of the community that uses that system.

Next article – The forces of evil are gathering

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