Per Capita report calls for new approach after Robodebt scandal

Posted on 12 Dec 2023

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia


In the wake of the Robodebt scandal, a new report has called for a radical overhaul of the design of government service delivery programs.

The study by independent economic think tank Per Capita highlighted the severe emotional repercussions endured by recipients of Robodebt notices.

Between 2016 and 2019 the federal government used a system of income averaging to illegally and inaccurately claw back millions of dollars in Centrelink "debts" from welfare recipients forced to prove they didn’t owe money.

Per Capita has urged a re-evaluation of the dominant role played by automation, which gave rise to systems such as Robodebt, in favour of more human intervention.

Its report, titled Distress Amplification: Robodebt notices and the intensification of distress in the unemployed, has called for the adoption of a "systems thinking" approach to designing civic processes.

Systems thinking is described as a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way a complex system's various parts interrelate and work together over time.

The Per Capita study follows the recent release of two other reports that also shine a light on government service delivery failings.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report into unlawful income apportionment by Services Australia said Centrelink should consider waiving more than 100,000 debts and apologise for “decision delays, and for historic unlawful calculations“.

Dr Michael D'Rosario, Per Capita.

The report came hot on the heels of the Workforce Australia Inquiry Report, which emphasised the emotional repercussions endured by those caught up in the Robodebt scandal.

Key findings from the Per Capita report included:

  • Recipients of Robodebt notices demonstrated extremely negative reactions to the entire process, which went largely unheard during the scheme’s rollout
  • Many people caught up in the Robodebt process recounted high levels of stress and shock, with some even considering self-harm after receiving the debt notices
  • Unemployed individuals exhibited more extreme negative reactions.

The report dubbed this phenomenon the "distress amplification effect", attributing it to the unexpected and unjust receipt of debt notices during periods of financial hardship.

The Per Capita report said RoboDebt has reignited concerns about the potentially flawed implementation of artificial intelligence tools, which could lead to systematic biases and unintended consequences, particularly when used to inform high-stakes decision-making.

This in turn has “underscored the need for careful evaluation, transparency, and accountability in the development and deployment of such systems, especially within the public sector.”

“It is imperative that we learn from the Robodebt implementation, and its impacts on the vulnerable.”
Dr Michael D’Rosario, Per Capita.

The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) last month welcomed the federal government’s response to the Robodebt Royal Commission and said major changes were needed to transform the way in which people receiving income support are treated.

ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie said it was essential that Canberra implement all 56 recommendations from the Royal Commission and work closely with civil society groups, including people directly affected. 

“Robodebt was an appalling and unlawful abuse of government power that robbed people of their humanity and, in some cases, their lives,” said Ms Goldie.

“Robodebt victims and their families deserve concrete major action to ensure nothing like this can happen again and we treat people on low incomes with dignity.”

Ms Goldie said automatic decision-making was still leading to people being excluded from the help they need. 

“To fix the system, the government must genuinely collaborate with civil society groups, including people directly affected, and other social security experts about what needs to happen through legislation and otherwise to make social security fair.”

The Per Capita report found the Robodebt scheme failed on a number of levels.

“While RoboDebt was found to be unlawful, its failure was evident beyond its lack of legal basis, by its inherently flawed design, that afforded little regard to the impacts of the scheme on the vulnerable, and the lack of ‘systems thinking’ within the scheme's design,” it said.

The report recommended urgent changes to the existing government service delivery system, including:

  • a critical re-evaluation of automation in civic processes, especially those involving significant interaction with highly vulnerable individuals
  • increased human intervention at critical service points to prevent poorer welfare and well-being outcomes
  • the introduction of systems to support civic decision processes that emphasise the avoidance of decision bias through well-designed algorithmic frameworks.

The Per Capita report highlighted the need to learn from the Robodebt implementation and the experiences of debt notice recipients so as not to repeat the same mistakes in the future.

“It is crucial for future deployments to address the challenges and shortcomings of the Robodebt rollout.

“With proper attention to the experiences of those affected, and a stronger emphasis on ‘systems thinking’, civic process automation and intelligent automation more broadly has the power to support and empower vulnerable individuals.”

Dr Michael D’Rosario, the lead author of the Per Capita report, said both the Robodebt scheme and the unlawful income apportionment by Services Australia demonstrated a lack of systems thinking.

Implemented correctly, systems thinking results in a holistic consideration of users, processes, safeguards and diverse perspectives.

This can then be used to identify errors and unintended consequences before they occur, sparing the suffering of vulnerable Australians.

“It is imperative that we learn from the Robodebt implementation, and its impacts on the vulnerable,” said Dr D’Rosario.

“Designing civic systems should not just be about efficiency but also the needs of the diverse groups systems serve.

“They should be humane, mitigating the potential harm to vulnerable groups.”

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