2 April 2024

Government agencies given guidance on how to collect debt with decency

| Chris Johnson
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Having to inform someone that they owe the government money can’t be an easy task for a public servant. Photo: File.

Telling someone they owe the government money can be a difficult part of certain jobs in the public sector.

While some public servants might relish the opportunity to wield a bit of power over someone else, it would be fair to say most would rather not have to deliver such bad news to the unsuspecting.

Prompted by the Australian Taxation Office re-activating or off-setting very old debts, Commonwealth Ombudsman Ian Anderson (who is also the ACT Ombudsman) and Inspector-General of Taxation and Taxation Ombudsman (IGTO) Karen Payne have published a how-to guide for public service agencies.

Titled How to tell people they owe the government money – Best practice principles for notifying people about debts, the report makes it clear that telling someone they owe the government is a serious responsibility and they are cautioned to make sure they keep the impact on people at the centre of their approach.

“Being told you owe the government money can be a worrying, traumatic, confusing, frustrating and stressful experience,” the report states.

“It can negatively affect people’s wellbeing. The impact of being told you owe the government a debt can be increased if the debt is unknown, it’s old, it’s unexpected, or if there is limited information about the reasons for the debt, who to contact for more information or how to challenge the debt.

“Agencies must act (and are expected to act) in accordance with the law. They are also obliged to help people and act in the best interests of the Australian community.

“While the law may require agencies to take certain action, agencies are also responsible for determining how they take that action in a way that minimises distress to affected and impacted people.”

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Learning some lessons from the illegal Robodebt debacle, the Federal Government is trying to ensure such a tragedy is never repeated.

But it has also learned from experiences during COVID and prior about what should and shouldn’t be done if you’re a public servant chasing debt.

Over many years, the Ombudsman, the IGTO and other oversight agencies have made observations and recommendations on best practices for telling people they have a debt to repay and working with them to arrange repayment of the debt.

They stress that while time may pass, the general principles remain valid.

“Agencies should reflect on past lessons to continuously improve their engagement with the Australian community,” they say.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, some agencies paused debt collection activities as part of the government’s response to the pandemic.

“As agencies have now recommenced debt collection activities, it is timely to set out best practice principles for re-raising and notifying people about older debts that have been ‘written off’ or ‘paused’.”

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The principles stressed in the guide revolve around how to deliver the why, what, how, help and learn messages when informing people they owe the government money. Namely:

  • Be transparent and accountable – build and maintain public trust and confidence in the agency and its purpose
  • Tell people what the debt is and where it comes from – think about the person you are communicating with
  • Provide clear information for requesting review, debt waivers and repayment arrangements – tell people about rights to seek review and waiver and make sure they have access to sufficient information to fully participate in the process
  • Provide contacts for people to find out more information – there will always be circumstances where people have additional questions, require more information or just need to speak to a person about their situation, and
  • Learn and improve – undertaking a process such as recovery of old debts is a valuable opportunity to identify lessons learnt and implement changes to improve future practices.

The guide is complete with case studies of both positive and negative encounters.

Mr Anderson and Ms Payne suggested agencies should reflect on past experiences and consider observations and recommendations from oversight bodies to continuously improve their engagement with the Australian community.

Original Article published by Chris Johnson on Riotact.

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