Turnbull's former digital tsar says 'blind faith' in data led to the Centrelink debt debacle

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The man the Malcolm Turnbull hired to transform the government’s digital capabilities has ripped into the Centrelink data-matching system, saying the reported 20% error rate would have already well and truly sunk a private company.

In an interview with Guardian Australia, former chief executive of the prime minister’s Digital Transformation Office, Paul Shetler, has criticised Centrelink and the federal government for stopping human reviews of its debt recovery data-matching results.

“The way they did it, obviously it’s dangerous, because their algorithms are flawed in the first place,” Shetler said.

Centrelink has been surrounded by a growing air of crisis this week after it sent out debt warning letters to customers who insist its calculations are wrong. Department of Human Services says 80% of letter recipients have paid the stated debts, and denies there is a systemic problem.

Shetler told the Guardian that it was “unfathomable” that such an error rate was acceptable and the data-matching would be considered an abject failure in the private sector.

“All I can say is, if they were a commercial company, you would go out of business with a 20% failure rate,” he said. “Come on. Could you imagine the stock exchange doing that? Could you imagine Amazon, Apple or a bank doing that? An insurance company doing that?”

He said that the Centrelink problems were especially devastating compared to last year’s Census and Australian Tax Office tech failures because it affected people least capable of dealing with government mistakes.

“You have to be careful with data. Much of the data that’s in the federal government, how good is it really? There is this sort of a blind faith in data.”

Shetler was appointed by then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull in July 2015 to transform the customer-facing digital capabilities within government agencies, becoming the highest-ranked tech chief in the federal public service. He resigned in November.

Shetler called on the government to be “less arrogant” and hold senior public servants accountable.

“You’ve got senior public servants there who are drawing private sector salaries, but they’re not holding themselves to the same standard.”

Centrelink’s debt recovery scheme has been condemned by the Labor opposition, Greens, Nick Xenophon Team, Legal Aid Victoria, the Australian Privacy Foundation and the Australian Council for Social Services.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has even claimed the letters have pushed distressed welfare recipients to the brink of suicide, while Centrelink’s official social media account has been observed referring some customers to Lifeline.

Human services minister Alan Tudge, who threatened debtors with jail last month, has been on leave while the issue has exploded this week. Opposition human services spokesperson Linda Burney has called on Tudge to cut short his holidays to deal with the crisis.

“It’s time for Minister Tudge to get back to work. A system working well does not force innocent people to call electorate offices in tears,” Burney told The Daily Telegraph.

“If the system was working well Centrelink wouldn’t be telling people on Twitter to call Lifeline.”

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