Services Australia wants a one-stop shop for data to verify welfare claims

Services Australia wants to continue maintaining the integrity of the country’s welfare system, turning to the market for help with its information searching and data-gathering capabilities.

In a request for tender (RFT), the department said it conducts searches for customer-related information under the relevant Acts, including social security and child support-related Acts.

“Services Australia has the power to seek and obtain information related to the circumstances of its customers to: Ensure the integrity of programs and services of Services Australia; and determine customers’ ability to pay debts owed to the Commonwealth, and to pursue recovery of these debts,” it wrote.

The department said there are a wide variety of identity verification, financial, asset, and income information searches it undertakes, typically via a range of internet sites belonging to information providers.

In the 2018-2019 financial year, the department completed in excess of 106,000 searches.

To that end, Services Australia is looking for a solution to provide it with access to a “wide variety of identity verification, financial, asset, and income information search services” as well as a facility for electronic reports to be generated from the results of these searches.

See also: Why Australia is quickly developing a technology-based human rights problem (TechRepublic)

There are dozens of information types the department wants access to, under the headers of business and company information, financial, identity check, insurance, licences, property, transport, and phone numbers.

The department wants a website to be built containing the information, available for use by up to 600 individuals.

In 2016, the Department of Human Services cum Services Australia kicked off a data-matching program of work that saw the automatic issuing of debt notices to those in receipt of welfare payments through the Centrelink scheme.

The Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) — robo-debt — program automatically compared the income declared to the Australian Taxation Office (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.

One large error in the system was that it incorrectly calculated a recipient’s income, basing fortnightly pay on their annual salary rather than taking a cumulative 26-week snapshot of what an individual was paid.

Centrelink’s OCI program from 1 July 2016 through 31 August 2019 saw 1,159,662 assessments be initiated using the automated data-matching technique.

The federal government in November paused the automated data-matching element of robo-debt, but Services Australia is still using income information from the ATO to identify “significant discrepancies” with income information.

The minister responsible for Services Australia, Stuart Robert, previously warned that if his department found any discrepancy at all, it has a legal obligation to contact the citizen concerned and seek to explain the deficit.

He’s also previously held firm that data-matching and the averaging process the department used was entirely appropriate.

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee on Friday asked the federal government to put more thought into automated decision-making.

“The committee recommends that the Australian government ensure any further projects that involve automated decision-making are not pursued if automation reduces service quality, impacts upon fairness, or reduces equity of access,” the committee said.

“Just relying on a computer algorithm was a stupid idea,” former Labor leader and now Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten said previously.

The tender closes 3 April 2020.

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