Thursday, May 30, 2024

ATO seeks 1,700 new staff to conduct crackdowns - Tax Office job candidates under the watchful AI

An Australian Taxation Office hiring spree to recruit around 1,700 extra public servants will be primarily directed at hitting back at tax fraud, neutralising scammers and bolstering identity security measures to stamp out crooks and aid automation.

Revealed in the 2024-2025 budget, the major hiring push comes as the revenue agency cracks down on a huge wave of so-called ‘first person’ fraud that triggered the unprecedented Operation Protego last year. Protego was initiated on the back of attempted GST heists worth $4.6 billion, which caused losses worth around $2 billion in 2023, now likely more.

While the Protego scandal preceded the arrival of new commissioner of taxation Rob Heferen, it is now the Tax chief’s baby, with a clear technique to flatten the fraud curve being the application of sheer human muscle to check claims.

The sheer volume of first-person tax fraud relating to the Goods and Services Tax (GST) refund clearly took both the outgoing Morrison and incoming Albanese governments by surprise, not least because participating would necessarily be caught.

The fraud vector that was miscalculated was that previously automated GST refund claims assumed, to a degree, the certainty of fraudulent claimants and claimed amounts being subsequently caught would prove a sufficient deterrent to making bogus GST refund claims. It did not.

Instead, fraudulent tax refund claimants simply went for the fast cash, on the basis it would be extracted from their welfare benefits at a paltry incremental sum over time. The ATO has responded in kind, mounting a tirade of prosecutions to correct and deter the practice of making up companies just to claim GST refunds.  .  . 

Tax Office job candidates under the watchful AI 

 Miriam Webber Justine Landis-Hanley By Miriam Webber, and Justine Landis-Hanley 

 If you've been using artificial intelligence to manoeuvre tedious hiring processes, the Australian Taxation Office is already several steps ahead.


The tax office trialled using AI to screen candidate resumes back in 2021, but hasn't used the technology to assess applicants since that time. 
Here's how it worked: three years ago the ATO used Daxtra - an AI recruitment software - to help it shortlist candidates for some APS 5 cyber security roles. 
The agency's recruitment team fed a job description and criteria to Daxtra, which used its algorithms to create a shortlist ranking and assessing candidates. The selection panel also assessed candidates to quality assure the AI rulings. 
The plan was to test whether AI could streamline recruitment efficiency and, ultimately, it failed the test. 
AI recruitment is on hold - for now.
AI recruitment is on hold - for now. 
Props to our AI overlords, though. According to documents released under a freedom of information request, the software and the selection panel were "closely aligned" in 51 per cent of assessments of people applying for roles as analysts, and 38 per cent of the assessments for the adviser role. 
But the panel observed "broad limitations" with the AI assessment, and the ATO documentation made it clear the agency has cooled on the idea since this experiment. 
The AI wasn't able to evaluate the quality of the candidate or draw inferences from their answers, the panel found. 
They also noted an uptick in candidates using AI themselves to write their applications, copying and pasting "large sections of the candidate kit, knowing that an AI will pick up all the key words and rate them highly".
But it wasn't all Daxtra's fault - the findings show the ATO thought the recruitment task was too complex, and another trial should be undertaken during a simpler hiring process. 
While this hasn't happened, the ATO isn't afraid of AI by any means. It has been "using AI tools with human oversight for some time", according to a newsletter sent to staff last year, on the risks posed by ChatGPT.

Foster's packed calendar 

Stephanie Foster was busy jetting between Canberra and Melbourne to meet up with the Home Affairs and Immigration ministers in July and August last year. 
Ms Foster was associate secretary of immigration at the time, and her airfares added up to $10,449 across seven meetings, most of which were withClare O'Neil (and one with Andrew Giles). 
Home Affairs secretary Stephanie Foster (right) next to former secretary Mike Pezzullo. Picture by Keegan Carroll
Home Affairs secretary Stephanie Foster (right) next to former secretary Mike Pezzullo. Picture by Keegan Carroll
The figures come from a Senate estimates question on notice returned by the department late last year, which asked for details of deputy secretaries' travel in July and August.
The cyber and infrastructure security deputy secretary Hamish Hansford also took three round trips to Melbourne to meet with Ms O'Neil in July and August - worth $4124.
In the same period, former secretary Mike Pezzullohad not travelled to meet with Ms O'Neil or Mr Giles. This was before he was stood down, and later sacked from the job for breaching the APS code of conduct in relation to allegations which included using his duty, power, status or authority to seek to gain a benefit or advantage for himself.
The travel information doesn't reflect meetings senior officials and ministers held in Canberra, but does provide further insight into the strong working relationship Ms Foster is said to have established with her ministers. 

Moving and shaking in the Department of Home Affairs

Speaking of the Home Affairs Minister, Clare O'Neilhinted last year at some announcements regarding the department, piquing Public Eye's interest.
We asked whether there had been any staffing cuts earlier in January, and were told by a spokesperson: "The department routinely prioritises resources and makes trade-offs between cost, risk and service delivery in response to government priorities." 
Asked what those trade-offs were, the department simply regurgitated the same line.
Staffing levels appear unchanged - though we haven't seen the summaries for January, which won't be released until next month. The full-time equivalent stats put staffing at 15,013 in November 2023, and 15,000 in December 2023.
It is understood there has been some movement within the department, with the establishment of a National Office of Cyber Security, which will support the National Cyber Security Coordinator. (Hamish Hansford is acting in that role, after Darren Goldie was recalled to Defence over a "workplace matter").
A new division has also been set up to deal with immigration compliance, off the back of the High Court's NZYQ ruling late last year.

Get voting, pay day is just around the corner

Agencies will be jostling to get their enterprise agreements in place by March, so staff can begin to pocket their 4 per cent pay rise for 2024.
The Public Service Commission pushed the main public sector union to stop holding up pay talks late last year, with an incentive that would accelerate some of the 11.2 per cent pay rise for staff at agencies that reached in-principle agreement by March.

APS enterprise agreement votes

These agencies had voted on their enterprise agreements as at January 23, 2024. 

So far, the Organ and Tissue Authority, Australian Research CouncilAdministrative Appeals TribunalEducationFinanceHealthTreasuryPrime Minister and Cabinet, and the National Health Funding Body, have voted up their agreements.
Participation was strong in most agencies - though only 68 per cent of the PM&C workforce cast a vote - and rates of support were above 90 per cent in all of them. No agencies have voted "no" yet.
Staff will be able to collect a 4 per cent increase in 2024, 3.8 per cent in 2025, and 3.4 per cent in 2026.

An exPEMSive bungle

Poor planning has seen the creation of the Parliamentary Expenses Management System(PEMS) blow out to $74.3 million, almost double its original budget, the national auditor has found.
PEMS is the system used by politicians and their staff to claim expenses and manage payroll, set up following a 2016 review.
It had more than 2100 users by July last year, and was used to process 151,221 office and travel claims in 2022-23.
Bit embarrassing - for the Coalition, Special Minister of State Don Farrell says. Picture by Keegan Carroll
Bit embarrassing - for the Coalition, Special Minister of State Don Farrell says. Picture by Keegan Carroll
But an Australian National Audit Office report, published this week, found the Department of Finance didn't properly consult users, and that its poor initial planning led to rising project costs and multiple delays.
The ANAO went on to say that the current system capability "does not meet all deliverables as agreed in the business case".
In response, Special Minister of State Don Farrellblamed the Coalition - under whom the system was introduced in 2018 - and dubbed the project "one of the most embarrassing IT bungles in history".

Over to you