Remember robo-debt, the computer-generated letters that resulted in thousands of people being hounded to repay social security debts they hadn’t incurred? Thanks to some improvements to the system by the Turnbull government, the controversy died down and the media caravan moved on. But that doesn’t mean the problems all went away.
The system’s main elements not only remain intact, they are being expanded as part of a much wider shift to automating welfare — or what might be called government by algorithm. And despite the improvements, robo-debt (which goes officially by the more antiseptic title of Online Compliance Intervention) is still making mistakes and causing anguish.
In 2017, no fewer than 1,385,276 people received debt notices from the Department of Human Services. Only 3.7 per cent or 51,230 of them went through the robo-debt system, which compares income data provided by welfare recipients with information held within the government. This is a substantial drop from the previous year, perhaps reflecting a more measured approach by the government after the controversy of 2016 and 2017. But the emphasis is on expansion, with the department telling me it plans to increase data matching, including through robo-debt, to more than 600,000 a year. The logic behind this, from the government’s point of view, is clear: data matching, particularly in its automated form, has made it much more cost-effective to pursue overpayments of welfare benefits.
This is part of a bigger modernisation of the welfare system over a seven-year period in what the Department of Human Services calls “one of the world’s largest social welfare ICT system transformations.” Given that the department and Centrelink have been using a computer system that began operating in 1983, an upgrade certainly seems justified.
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