What happens inside Centrelink’s ‘toxic’ debt recovery offices

Former employees who worked for Centrelink in executing its controversial robo-debt scheme have claimed they were publicly ranked against each other on staffroom whiteboards according to how many debts they raised.

The pressure of daily targets meant compliance officers often bent the rules regarding contacting customers before debts were raised, former staff members claimed.

Individual staff are named on the board, alongside figures which show how many debts they had raised, and how long it took them to do it.Written across the top of the board a motto declares: “Building trust in the welfare system through ensuring quality outcomes for customers and ensuring an open supporting environment.”

“Half an hour every morning, the team got together and had what they called a ‘stand up’. They would go through the stats and the people who raised a lot of debts would get a clap. It was like canned enthusiasm.”It was very inhumane. It was all about the money, and we have to get those finalisations.”The target-based approach was part of a management system known as “BOOST”, which was implemented by the Department of Human Services on the paid advice of external consultants.Mike* was employed by recruitment company Adecco to work in a NSW Centrelink office.As well as the whiteboard with their daily figures, Mike said his team leader would often go to ridiculous extremes to make sure their weekly targets were never far from mind.

A continual source of outrage was that they said they were not even contacted by Centrelink before their alleged debt was raised. Often money was garnished from their tax returns to repay the debt before they even realised they had one.Or, in some cases, their first point of contact was an external debt collector hired by Centrelink to chase the money.Under the current robo-debt system, Centrelink staff are required to send out two letters and make two phone calls to customers before a debt is raised.This is supposed to give customers a chance to prove they don’t owe any money with payslips or bank statements before the ATO data is applied. However, the extreme focus on targets meant that compliance officers would sometimes try to avoid speaking to customers because it would slow the process down, former staff said.