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Automated Welfare Worsens Inequality, Experts Say


Tuesday, 30th October 2018 at 8:41 am
Maggie Coggan, Journalist
Rapid automation of welfare services is creating extreme barriers for disadvantaged Australians, in particular people with disability, with an expert panel calling for a rethink of the current processes.


Tuesday, 30th October 2018
at 8:41 am
Maggie Coggan, Journalist


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Automated Welfare Worsens Inequality, Experts Say
Tuesday, 30th October 2018 at 8:41 am

Rapid automation of welfare services is creating extreme barriers for disadvantaged Australians, in particular people with disability, with an expert panel calling for a rethink of the current processes.

Dr Simon Longstaff, executive director of The Ethics Centre, spoke to Pro Bono News following a panel appearance at the 2018 Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) Conference.  

During the “Automating Inequality” session, Longstaff along with others including Australian Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow discussed the widely criticised robo-debt, and international examples which exacerbated inequality and subjected those on low incomes to new levels of surveillance and control.

Longstaff said one of his biggest concerns with automation of welfare systems was that in an effort to reduce costs, fairness was overlooked, especially when dealing with vulnerable people, who didn’t just need a smart system, but a wise system.

“Wisdom requires you to discern subtle differences in people’s circumstances to understand the context of their vulnerability when you’re dealing with them, and even to bring to bear something like compassion, which is a feeling that even the most sophisticated machine cannot actually engage in,” Longstaff said.

He said the systems were often so complicated, even the people using them could not give an adequate explanation of how a result had been achieved

“And that explanation is a duty which is owed to all citizens, irrespective of whether they’re rich or poor,” he said.

Dean Price, People With Disability Australia’s (PWDA) advocacy project manager, told Pro Bono News this was particularly pertinent for people with disability, who had trouble understanding where the unexplained debts came from.  

“There was no information provided about how Centrelink came to those conclusions about the debts and the amount of payments,” Price said.

Price also said automation processes was usually accompanied by staffing cuts, in order to cut costs, which made it much harder for a person with disability to get information or explanations about what was happening to them.

“It made it much, much harder to say, ‘hey, what’s going on here, how can I deal with this’,” he said.

Longstaff believed it was possible to create a system which helped people, rather than compromising their rights, but it would take considerable investment.

“Good can come from technology… but only if we are really attentive to the proper purposes that we’re aiming to serve with these enhanced technological capacities and only if we marry the power with a proper amount of ethical restraint,” he said.

“And I am not confident the current system can do that.”

Price added it was important to engage those affected by the outcomes during every step of the way.

“That means at the design stage and the actual technology design stage, involving us early on and throughout the whole process is going to make sure that issues are dealt with before they become problems and are rolled out to the general public,” he said.

Longstaff said there were plans by the Human Rights Commission to investigate the relationship between technology and human rights, but an announcement was yet to come.  


Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.


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