Introduction by Croakey: While the Robodebt Royal Commission focused on whether the scheme was lawful and ethical, less attention has been paid to the administration of the damaging policy.
From delayed reviews to an ineffective complaints process, and countless phone calls in between, Simon Katterl – a consumer workforce member, mental health consultant and human rights advocate – shares his experience with the scheme below.
“Even if the program was bad – and it was – it could be administered in a way that allowed people to quickly review their matter and have it resolved. My experience suggested this may not be happening,” Katterl writes below.
Simon Katterl writes:
I remember the call in 2017. I was working from a city office when I took a call from a private number. It was Centrelink. I should have put them on hold for 45 minutes, but I had things to do, so we spoke.
Good news and bad news. The bad news was that I had a debt near $3,000 for failing to appropriately report my income around 2013-2014. The good news was that they owed me $1,000 for an unpaid scholarship. So naturally, I reviewed the $3,000 and gleefully accepted my $1,000. I was told the $1,000 would be in the bank within days.
Unfortunately, it didn’t play out this simply. Centrelink never reviewed my debt. Instead, they continue to send me bizarre debt letters in language full of incomprehensible tables. I called again, several times. On each call the person confirmed “this time” they would really put on review. It was just a mistake.
Only it kept happening.
Meanwhile, my money never arrived. Each staff member assured me the money was on its way, but my bank balance remained unperturbed.
Eventually I demanded to speak to the Operations Manager and said that I would not leave without that conversation. Approximately six months and countless calls later, we agreed that my matter would be reviewed by tomorrow morning.
It turns out there never was $1,000, and according to the Manager, who hadn’t reviewed my matter, the staff would never have said that!
It was a colossal waste of time – something needed to be fixed. Having worked in complaints management, I know the value of constructive complaints, so outlined my desired outcomes:
- An appropriate review into my alleged debt and alleged money owed to me.
- A review into the practice of all staff members who have dealt with me, to identify the systems errors, and demonstrate to me the concrete actions that will be taken to prevent it happening in the future.
- A review into management decisions by [removed], particularly the inability of senior management to adequately handle and resolve the matter.
In short, my complaint centered on two questions: how did it happen and how will you prevent it happening to someone else?
Public administration failure
I felt this issue of failed public administration – implementing the policy – was not being heard.
At the time, there was advocacy highlighting the legal and ethical shortcomings of the Robodebt system, but I wasn’t seeing anything about the day-to-day failures that were occurring in public administration.
Even if the program was bad – and it was – it could be administered in a way that allowed people to quickly review their matter and have it resolved. My experience suggested this may not be happening.
Unfortunately, my complaints went nowhere. My first complaint had no response. My second complaint was to ask why they didn’t respond to the first complaint. And on the process went.
With no response after the second complaint, I went to the Commonwealth Ombudsman. I had heard they had just released a report and thought they could help.
That thought was wrong. Rather than assist, they put up roadblocks however they could.
They couldn’t resolve my matter until I had attempted to resolve it with Centrelink. But if Centrelink keep losing my complaint…? “You’ve got the power to refer me back to Centrelink,” I said to them. “Can you do that?”
My complaints were being ignored, so if I was going to have to deal directly with Centrelink again, a referral directly from the Ombudsman may at least get me a response.
They refused. They had the discretion, they noted, but not the obligation to refer me back.
This still begs the question of why they wouldn’t lift a finger and exercise that discretion. I sought a review of that decision, which returned a slow “no”. Frustrated, I did what any good Australian did: I made the mother of all freedom of information requests on the office. Funnily enough, they then quickly offered to refer me back to Centrelink!
Exhaustion and life got in the way and I was not to pick up my complaint until months later, when my local MP, Ged Kearney, offered to raise my matter with the Minister’s office and Centrelink.
At this time the freedom of information request for my information with Centrelink was denied. This required me to do extensive research on freedom of information law to inform an internal review, which ultimately led to my documents being released.
Ultimately I would speak to a complaints officer who said they would handle my complaint, but never did. I also spoke to the Minister’s office, who said “appropriate actions” had been taken, but couldn’t or wouldn’t detail anything beyond this.
What a colossal waste of time, I thought. The scheme was poor, it’s administration poorer, the feedback (complaints) loop was ineffective, and the Ombudsman would only do their job after a game of FOI-chicken.
Welfare users’ rights
My story is not unique or warranting of any great sympathy. But it does lay bare a deficiency in public administration as separate from the policy’s legal and ethical basis.
There are few enforceable rights for welfare users in their interactions with the system – I know this because I searched far and wide for them. There were rights named but no legal basis for them.
The complaints system should have been an opportunity to identify where these series of failures were occurring and have them redressed. And the Ombudsman should have been a place of refuge and integrity for people hounded by a Commonwealth Government unlawfully and incompetently stealing their money.
The Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme will have mountains of evidence to consider and many recommendations to make.
I hope that it also focuses on public administration failures that sit outside questions of ethics and lawfulness. I also hope it considers and makes recommendations regarding better independent regulatory oversight of Centrelink (or Services Australia as it is now called).
There should be statutory rights for welfare users about how their matters will be handled, appropriate timeframes and assurances about tailored responses that match their unique cultural, language, mental health and other needs. Importantly, a regulatory oversight agency should have powers to give effect to these rights.
Public administration and regulatory oversight processes are hardly sexy headline grabbers, but they are the nuts and bolts that drive the daily operation of systems that we engage with. They need dramatic improvement.
Simon Katterl is a consumer workforce member who has worked in community development, advocacy, regulation, and law reform. Simon’s work is grounded in his lived experience of mental health issues, as well as his studies in law, politics, psychology and regulation.
See Croakey’s archive of articles on social policy issues.
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