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

6 January 2017
Tony Yoo
Business Insider Australia

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.