DHS hired Data61 three times to help fix its robo-debt program

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DHS hired Data61 three times to help fix its robo-debt program

Fee revealed.

The Department of Human Services signed three contracts with the CSIRO's Data61 this year to help fix problems with its controversial Centrelink robo-debt data matching and debt notice program.

CSIRO digital chief Dr Dave Williams had briefly indicated during June budget estimates that the science and research organisation was helping DHS look at "methodologies of assessing which customers should complete online complaints".

In responses to questions on notice published late last week, the CSIRO revealed Data61 had signed three separate short-term contracts with the department since January this year.

It followed a flood of complaints that arose after DHS started using the online compliance intervention (OCI) system in force last September.

The system matches earnings reported to Centrelink against employer-reported income data held by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), with a system flagging any discrepancies and sending an automated 'please explain' notice to individuals.

But a common complaint is that Centrelink averages payments into fortnights even though the ATO only deals with annual payments, causing discrepancies for seasonal workers who only earn income for part of the year. The individual is required to clarify any gaps.

The federal ombudsman and a senate committee tasked with looking into the program were both damning in their assessment of how Human Services had managed it.

The CSIRO revealed DHS approached Data61 on January 27 following the initial uproar to work with the agency on the online compliance intervention system.

It subsequently signed three short-term contracts with DHS.

One - worth $46,200 - involved a "retrospective analysis of the design and implementation of the [system] that was in use at the time by DHS, and suggested possible improvements to the system".

The second - worth $55,000 - saw Data61 "provide technical advice to DHS as DHS designs and builds a prototype for a possible new approach to selecting customers to enter" the online compliance program.

The advice provided by Data61 addressed "how to construct and validate data-driven models and make decisions under uncertainty," it said. This work was undertaken throughout the back half of March.

Data61 signed another short-term contract worth $44,000 with exactly the same terms for the May to June period, the CSIRO revealed.

It said it was not currently involved in any other projects with DHS.

The agency is pushing ahead with a plan to expand the data matching process to capture more types of income, in the expectation it will save the government $980 million over the next three years.

However the expansion will do away with the automated 'initial clarification letters'- what many have taken as debt notices - behind much of the complaints about the system in favour of manual checking of matched records.

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