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Centrelink hits trouble with information matching

10 February 2017
Charles Mabbett
Office of the Privacy Commissioner, New Zealand

The controversy embroiling Centrelink, the Australian government agency that provides welfare payments, shows no sign of abating as a public and political backlash continues over its apparent mishandling of a debt recovery programme.

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The process of sending out assessments of amounts owed by individual clients had also been changed to take out the manual checking done by staff. An internal process has been credited with correcting 37.5 percent of the notices generated in the previous system.

Claims have also been made in various news media suggesting Centrelink has not been using all of the information available to it, and it seems a major part of the inaccuracies in the system is due to the income earned by an individual in part of a year being averaged out over the entire year.

Instead of taking reasonable steps to make sure the information was correct before issuing debt notices, Centrelink appears to have shifted the onus of correction onto its clients. While this might have up-front savings in terms of staff processing time, the change in approach will certainly have added other costs to the agency.

Centrelink had planned that any problems with the notices would be handled through its website. But the website has proven unreliable and often crashed under the increased workload, increasing the stress on clients trying to dispute their debt notices.

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There is a substantial reputational cost. The latest loss of public trust and confidence is another blow to the agency’s reputation after this earlier Ombudsman’s investigation in 2011.

But the most significant damage is the avoidable waste of expense, time, and stress imposed on clients and staff because of the new error-filled process.

By comparison, New Zealanders fare better. Various protections for individuals were designed into the information matching provisions of the New Zealand Privacy Act in 1993. 

Information matching programmes by government agencies are approved by statute and the Privacy Commissioner has a regulatory role to monitor the use of this data matching. There are several steps to get right when matching information held by one government department with information from another.

These protections continue to matter. As the Government invests more in automating its processes and in making greater use of data sets, our Office has a role to play in ensuring that the risks and benefits are assessed up front. This is done by using privacy impact assessment and privacy by design principles to prevent New Zealand agencies from stumbling into the same sort of problems experienced at Centrelink.