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A failure of artificial intelligence – or bureaucratic bastardry?

3 min read
fairly difficult
Given the widely documented policy failure of robodebt, how could such an act of bureaucratic bastardry occur in a sophisticated government system?
Automation in public administration is inevitable and can bring great benefits. The broadly accepted law of robotics is that a robot may not injure a human being.

In an attempt to reduce welfare costs in 2016, the commonwealth government engaged in an unlawful debt recovery process. The bureaucratic process was malign and was meant either directly or collaterally to harm and stigmatise welfare recipients. The Online Compliance Intervention – or OCI, but more commonly known as robodebt – used algorithms to average out incomes of welfare recipients by matching ATO income data with social welfare recipients' income as self-reported to Centrelink with Centrelink. Income fluctuated over time making recipients eligible for welfare payments, but many were issued with debt notices. The onus of proof was firmly placed on welfare recipients to prove their innocence.

A class action involving 430,000 people was heard in the Federal Court and this led in 2020 to an agreed settlement of $1.2 billion to be paid by the commonwealth. They paid, but did not admit liability.

Commenting on this matter ANU Professor of Public Policy Peter Whiteford wrote:

Robodebt resembles a 'policy fiasco', as the outcomes could have been foreseen at the inception of the initiative. But it differs from other examples of policy failures in that it was intentional, and not the result…
Adam Graycar, Adam Masters
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