How did this happen? I’ve been getting asked a lot of questions about Centrelink recently. ‘Why is this happening?’ ‘What were they thinking?’ ‘How did they manage to cock this up so badly?’
The reason they’re asking me is that long before I was a blogger, before there even were blogs, way back in another lifetime called the 90s, I was a Social Security officer. And not just that. I was also a union delegate, chair of the Victorian delegates committee, and a National Councillor with the CPSU. And, most pertinently, for over a year I was a data matching officer. So I know the system, I know what’s gone wrong, and I feel I should explain. My past has collided with my present, because this calls for a Babel Fish translation.
Before I do that however there’s something else I need to deal with. A fellow blogger writing on this subject, Andie Fox, has had her personal information released to the media in order to, it was claimed, ‘correct the record.’ She has responded here. This claimed ‘legal right to correct the record’ does not exist. This was unethical, immoral and highly illegal. I am intimately acquainted with the privacy provisions of the Social Security Act (1991). They drummed them into us in basic training. Later, in my capacity as a union delegate, I was obliged to represent a member wrongly accused of a privacy violation. Here’s how it works: It was (and remains for those still working there) illegal for us to access any information, whether computer records or paper files, that we were not required to access for the purpose of doing our jobs. It was (and remains, etc) illegal for us to disclose to any third party any personal information whatsoever that we’d learned in the course of our work. It was very much a ‘need to know’ policy. We couldn’t even discuss cases with our colleagues if they didn’t need to know.
Let me give you an example of that in action. At one point I had a new car. Well, new to me. I’d had it for a couple of weeks. One morning I found a park right outside the office. That was unheard of. I took it as a good omen. I thought it was my lucky day. I was wrong. A couple of hours later, while I was working in the back office, I was informed that someone had hit my car and driven off. It so happened that some of my colleagues, who were out the front having a smoko, saw the whole thing. The culprit was a client. He had just left the office. Two of them knew his name. Both of them spoke to me, described the incident, and one discreetly slipped me a piece of paper with a scribbled SSR (Social Security Reference No.) on it, saying, “You didn’t get this from me, ok?
By this time the police had been called, and the next thing that happened was that the regional manager came flying out of his office to admonish us that we couldn’t tell those police officers anything that we had learned in the course of our work. So my witnesses could tell them his registration number, because they saw that during the incident, but not his name, address or anything that could identify him which they only knew because they knew him as a client. One of them had been talking to him just five minutes before, but couldn’t discuss that because it had taken place over a DSS desk. The police had to have official permission even to come through the door (Centrelink offices are Commonwealth premises, state police forces have no jurisdiction there), and I was then obliged to tell them that although I knew exactly who the culprit was, I couldn’t tell them anything except the registration number of his old shitbox Kingswood panel van, which (they later informed me) turned out to be registered to a two dollar shelf company.
I never got to recover those damages, and I just had to suck that up. Which is how I know that what the minister, Alan Tudge, and anyone in the department who assisted him in releasing this blogger’s personal information, has done constitutes a serious criminal offence. An offence that carries a maximum prison sentence greater than 12 months. He could go to jail. But a conviction, even if he escapes jail time, would disqualify him from being an MP. To call his actions foolhardy would be an extreme understatement. Now I, like the majority of Australians, have a Centrelink file. I will not, however, be discussing anything pertaining to that here. Unlike most, I also have a history of employment in DSS, the predecessor department to DHS. I will be discussing only non-confidential, systems-related information I acquired in the course of working there.
All of my personal information is, like everyone else’s, confidential. I really shouldn’t have to say that, but due to what has happened to Ms. Fox, I feel it is necessary to deny here any permission, explicit or implied, for the minister, or any officer of the department, to access any information about me. As I said, I understand the requirements of the privacy provisions. I have held myself to that standard, as the above story demonstrates. And you may be assured, I will hold you to that standard too. If I catch so much as a whiff of any unauthorised information about me finding its way into the public domain, I will insist on a full scale privacy investigation, and when you are caught, as you will be (because all access to the computer system is identifiable by a unique logon ID), I will insist on your prosecution, to the fullest extent of the law. You have been warned.
Now, to return to the matter in hand, some will say well, this was twenty years ago, the system must have changed a lot since then surely. Well, no actually. The basic software architecture that underpins the main social security system (including one of the largest databases in the country by the way) hasn’t changed in well over forty years. It was old and creaky when I was using it, and it’s positively antiquated now. Really it belongs in a museum, but on the other hand you’d have to say it’s proved remarkably robust, as by and large it still does the job. It still processes the transactions that have to be processed and pays the people it’s supposed to pay. Mostly.
The ATO computer system (another massive database) is also functionally obsolete by the standards of whatever device you’re reading this on now. The key to working with such systems is to have a good understanding of what they can and cannot do. One of the important things they can’t do is talk to each other. They were designed as one-off, unique, stand alone systems. It was never envisaged that they would be required to talk to each other. If you find that strange remember, when they were designed it was never envisaged that the year 2000 would arrive. Or (arguably) that they would still be in service when it did.
Anyway, in the 90s it was decided that being able to compare data on various government computer systems would be a good idea, and I.T. people from some of those departments were tasked with working out how to do it. To their credit they did work out a way, and the next question became ‘what are we looking for?’ So they worked out various things that could be cross-checked. These were called ‘Match Keys.’ Between DSS (now Centrelink) and the ATO (this is where it becomes relevant to the current debt fiasco), one of these Match Keys was a simple comparison of income. It works like this – the computer looks for discrepancies between ATO annual assessed income and annualised total DSS-declared fortnightly income.
Now, I have to explain what I just said, and why it is a blunt instrument. The ATO assesses income on an annual basis. July 1 to June 30. They don’t care when, within that financial year, you earned the income. Their computer system only knows how much you earned for that whole financial year. The DSS system knows how much, if anything, you earned during any fortnight that you were eligible for a payment from them. It’s not hard to simply add that up for the financial year, and arrive at an annual figure for DSS-declared income. It’s not hard, but it’s highly misleading. I’ll explain why, and also why it wasn’t a problem until now.
Why it’s misleading, why it’s a blunt instrument, is because it will throw up a match every time those two figures differ, and that means every time someone wasn’t in receipt of a DSS/Centrelink payment for the entire financial year. Yes, that’s right, not joking, if you worked for part of a financial year, and at another time during that year you claimed a Centrelink payment, you will be matched. And with the ever-increasing casualisation of the workforce, that’s a lot of people these days. Let’s look at a hypothetical example. If you’re not one of the dwindling minority with a job for life, you might have to take the odd temp job, maybe even a few casual days when they come up. So let’s say in the financial year in question you have a couple of temp positions, a three month one and a two month one. In between them you claim Newstart Allowance, but you also do some casual work, the income from which you declare on your fortnightly forms, as you’re supposed to. Later in the year you score a permanent job, but after a couple of months you get sick. You haven’t had time to accrue much sick leave yet so you have to take unpaid leave, and claim Sickness Allowance for a month or so.
Now, doesn’t that sound like a reasonably common scenario in today’s workforce? You’ve done nothing wrong. You’ve only claimed payments you were entitled to. You’ve declared all the income you were required to declare, to both the ATO and Centrelink. But Centrelink has a total figure of the income you declared to them (which was just for the casual work you had while you were on Newstart), whilst the ATO has that figure, plus the total of Newstart and Sickness Allowance payments you received, plus the income from your three periods of full time work. Obviously those two figures are going to be very different. Congratulations! You just tripped a Match Key!
Now, if this had happened prior to 2016, chances are you’d never have known about it. So what’s changed? It’s not the Match Key. That is, like the old computer system itself, self-evidently the same one I was working with in the 90s. No, what’s changed is that until last year someone like 90s me, a ‘Data Matching Officer,’ would have received a big pile of computer printouts (dot matrix, oh yeah, high tech) and checked them. The old-fashioned way, using what military pilots like to refer to as the Mark 1 Eyeball. We’d look at them. First we’d eliminate the 10-15% that were clearly just two different people with similar names (no, I feel like I’m saying this a lot, but I am not joking). The next thing we looked for was people who were not receiving DSS payments for the full financial year. We generally binned those ones. Because the obvious explanation – that they earned the additional income in the periods they weren’t on benefits – was the correct explanation 99 times out of 100. That’s a little thing called Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is usually correct. The Match Key does not take account of Occam’s Razor. Which is why I advisedly referred to it as a blunt instrument. 😀
But it was never designed to be used without the human checking part of the process! And that is what’s changed. They’ve removed that checking process, the job I used to do, and instead started writing automatically (unseen by human eye) to everyone with a match. Which is, frankly, crazy. So the obvious question is, “Why?” Why would they do such an idiotic thing? Here I can only resort to conjecture, but I have a few observations which may help to shed a little light. Firstly, this is absolutely a political decision. I know this because no-one in the department, no-one with any actual experience of the data matching system, would ever suggest such a ludicrous idea. I suspect someone in the minister’s office has seen the headline figure for this Match Key (which, it turns out, is about $4 billion), and got all excited about it. But it’s not there! It is a hypothetical figure that tells you how much would be owed if all the matches represented genuine discrepancies (which most of them don’t) and if all that money was recoverable (which it wouldn’t be). Only about 2% (not 80%, as still claimed by the government) of them represented genuine discrepancies, so the $4 billion is really more like $80 million. Which would have been recovered anyway! It would seem the ministerial staffers didn’t grasp this. Or did they?
The less charitable explanation is that they knew perfectly well that most of the matches weren’t legitimate, but cynically decided to pursue all of them anyway, in the hope that many people would simply believe the information sent to them in an official looking government letter, and pay up. There is considerable evidence beginning to emerge that this has indeed happened in many cases. This has been assisted by their hopelessly inadequate and opaque review process. However, if that’s what happened, then it was always a risky gamble. It was relatively cheap, in terms of staffing, to pre-check these matches so that only genuine discrepancies were pursued. It will cost a great deal more to review them all. And of course there was always the chance that the whole thing would come out, and become a massive embarrassment. Which it has. I think that just about wraps it up for the minister. His position has become utterly untenable. Bye bye Mr Tudge!