The Commonwealth Ombudsman has told agencies to quickly fix thousands of unlawfully miscalculated welfare debts.

In a recent report (PDF), Commonwealth Ombudsman Iain Anderson laid out findings and recommendations from an investigation into income apportionment. 

The investigation revealed that Services Australia had unlawfully apportioned employment income between Centrelink fortnights from 2003 to December 2020.

Anderson said that given the agencies' awareness and the potential impact on numerous individuals, more progress should have been made in addressing the customer impact of unlawful income apportionment. 

“Agencies have a responsibility to identify and assess, in a timely way, the impact historic unlawful calculations had on customers, and develop a fair and reasonable remediation strategy,” he said. 

The report outlined eight recommendations for Services Australia and the Department of Social Services (DSS) to address the issues. 

Anderson urged the agencies to consider and develop a comprehensive remediation strategy for customers with incorrectly calculated debts or payments due to income apportionment.

Highlighting the significance of prompt action, Anderson said; “Social security debts can have significant negative impacts on customers, and delays in actioning debt review can further exacerbate customer distress”. 

The investigation also noted that while Services Australia had taken steps to develop relevant communications products, improvements were needed to ensure clarity in communications and staff guidance.

Anderson emphasised the importance of agencies acknowledging mistakes, explaining them clearly, and developing fair ways to address them. 

The recommendations also urged the agencies to capture relevant data for complaints about income apportionment and facilitate information sharing for continuous improvement.

The report concluded that the recommendations, although focused on Services Australia and DSS, held lessons for all Australian Government agencies. 

Anderson outlined key steps agencies should take when identifying systemic issues in decision-making, timely action, fair remediation strategies, clear guidance, effective communication, and comprehensive reporting on complaint trends.