Australia’s ‘great example of government using technology’ found to be ‘crude and cruel’

An Australian government initiative described by the then-minister in charge as “a great example of the Government using technology” has been described by a Royal Commission as “a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals.”

The initiative came to be known as “Robodebt” – reflecting its automated matching of data sets and issuance of debt notices to welfare recipients.

But the algorithm Australia’s government used to calculate the debts was based on massively and tragically incorrect assumptions.

Australians are eligible for welfare payments if their income dips below certain levels in a given two-week period. In the early 2010s, the government of the day decided to ensure that welfare recipients hadn’t received more payments than they were due, with data sharing between welfare and tax agencies informing the process.

To assess whether proper payments had been made, the relevant department averaged recipients’ income across a year.

Which was a huge mistake.

To understand why, consider someone who spent three months of the year receiving unemployment benefits while they searched for a job, then worked for nine months. The government considered their income for the entire year and averaged it, then assessed their eligibility for payments based on their average fortnightly earnings – not their income when they were out of work and therefore eligible for payments.

That method meant people who received benefits could be held to have exceeded the eligibility threshold, even though they had no income other than government benefits when they received payments. The government nonetheless declared the recipient had been overpaid and sent stinky letters demanding repayment.

Some within government pointed out the problems with that methodology. Senior public servants knew the entire program may not have rested on firm legal footings.

But ministers nonetheless pressed ahead, and hailed the likely revenue the scheme would generate as the aforementioned “great example.” Agencies were soon pumping out automatically generated debt notices based on the faulty methodology at a rate of up to 20,000 a week.

Pushback and protest quickly followed, but the government of the day persisted with the program.

Fighting the debt notices proved extraordinary difficult, as the onus of proof required citizens to provide documents proving the debt was incorrect. As the program looked back at years of payment history, many simply couldn’t find records of past income – or lack of it. Australia’s government services agency struggled to handle the workload and stonewalled many complainants.

Several suicides have been linked to anxiety induced by the sudden requirement to repay incorrectly assessed debts, some of which ran to many thousands of dollars. Even after some of those deaths were widely reported, the relevant government department did not review the scheme.

Public and press opprobrium eventually reached sufficient levels that the government ended the scheme and agreed to repay debts it had collected based on miscalculations.

But by then the damage had been done.

In May 2022 Australia elected a new government, which promised a Royal Commission into Robodebt. Its final report [PDF] was published on Friday, and offers grim reading. The document found ministers made untrue statements and abused their power, and that senior public servants knew the scheme was flawed and/or illegal but did not act to stop it. The report recommends hundreds of people be considered for possible civil or criminal prosecution, though that section has been sealed so the identities of the accused are not known.

The report’s 57 recommendations call for significant reform of Australia’s government and public service – including a change to freedom of information laws that would allow scrutiny of cabinet documents.

The report also makes some recommendations about information technology, among them:

  • Establishment of a body to monitor and audit automated decision-making processes in government;
  • Seeking advice on whether data-sharing among government agencies is legal;
  • An immediate review and strengthening of operational governance practices as applied to data-matching programs conducted jointly by different agencies;
  • Departmental websites should contain information advising that automated decision-making is used and explaining in plain language how the process works;
  • Business rules and algorithms should be made available, to enable independent expert scrutiny;
  • Implementation of online customer service tools to facilitate easier interaction with government.

In a terrible irony, the report found that some debts were so small it cost the government more to recover them than the value of the debt. And the compensation due to those who paid incorrectly assessed debts will likely exceed the sum the scheme aimed to recoup. ®


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