There’s a new taskforce in town, and this time, the effort aimed at reducing welfare fraud.
While some claim that pursuing welfare fraud demonises women and requires significant resources to reclaim insignificant amounts, it’s still a big but difficult problem to measure. Given the national outlay of $135b on welfare each year, the Australian government clearly sees fraud reduction as an important priority.
Last May, the government announced new measures to enhance the integrity of the welfare system. Those included new information systems for the Department of Human Services (DHS) and measures to help reconcile tax and welfare information, including through self-reporting. There’s also a focus on ‘ensuring social obligations are met’, which indicates the importance of changing Australia’s assumed cultural acceptance or tolerance of welfare fraud.
The new measures also included additional resources to seek-out those who deliberately make false claims, and December’s MYEFO added additional funding for data matching and expanding debt recovery.
Taskforce Integrity is at the centre of the effort to enhance compliance and reduce fraud. This new taskforce is based in DHS, under Minister Stuart Robert. It will be led by seconded AFP officer Assistant Commissioner Ray Johnson, and will include both AFP officers and DHS specialists. The taskforce will use data analysis to target areas where there’s a high risk of welfare fraud.
The recently-completed pilot study conducted in southern Sydney demonstrated the effectiveness of the approach by raising liability notices worth $2.2m in about four months.
Taskforce Integrity is scheduled to run for four years and cost $47m. The government expects the task force, in combination with the other measures introduced, to both follow-through on the $3b in outstanding notices already in the system, and raise another $1.7b on top of that.
Taskforce Integrity has some good design features. First, it’s been piloted and that’s likely to have helped hone the techniques employed.
It’s also not the only measure that’s been put in place, so this isn’t a lone action, but part of a larger campaign against welfare fraud. The greater use of data matching across government information holdings, as well as direct communication with welfare recipients to explain how to avoid incorrect claims, will also help to achieve the government’s objective.
Another good feature of Integrity is the way it uses the complimentary powers of the AFP and DHS, as well as information from other government agencies like the Australian Taxation Office. That will ensure discretion and a variety of options are open to the government to deal with wrongful or fraudulent claims.
And importantly, Integrity has clear answerability to a single minister. This will promote accountability and provide focus.
Taskforce Integrity should be seen as another iteration of the now accepted method of targeting high-profile problems with specialised units. That approach has been used in the tax system (such as the High Wealth Individuals taskforce and Project Wickenby), with different criminal groups (such as Taskforce Attero, which aimed to disrupt the Rebels outlaw motorcycle gang), and the waterfront taskforces that targeted crime in that specific industry.
Taskforces are also used to pool resources to work on specialised activities, such as asset confiscation, and to ensure coordination across agencies involved in sensitive activities, such as the National Disruption Group that works in counter-terrorism. Such groups highlight the value of closer inter-agency cooperation.
But the current trend, of which Taskforce Integrity is only one example, also raises an important question: is the proliferation of taskforces reducing the ability of individual agencies to respond to emerging priorities? After all, there are only so many specialists available in areas like investigation. If they’re all ‘farmed out’ to other agencies for agreed periods of time, will the providing agencies have enough flexibility and trained people to cope when a new priority emerges?
That’s a hypothetical problem as Integrity itself only involves nine AFP officers. Still, the government should include a ‘skills development’ objective in any investigative taskforce so that the pool of people available for this work is broadened. This objective should capitalise on AFP’s expertise and leadership, and deepen the Commonwealth’s base of investigative professionals in niche areas.
That would be a worthwhile additional benefit to derive from the effort of actions like Taskforce Integrity.