Over the last couple of months, #Centrelinkfail has gained momentum as a news story. We knew from reports in 2016 that the Department of Human Services was introducing a data matching system that would check social security payments against tax records. But over Christmas, what began as a trickle of reports of incorrect allegations of debt, debt collectors, and tales of personal crisis turned into a flood.
Meanwhile, the government continues to defend the system, ‘confident’ in its operation.
Today, the former head of the government’s Digital Transformation Office, Paul Shetler, has commented on the government’s succession of IT failures – including #censusfail and Centrelink – describing them as
“cataclysmic” and “not a crisis of IT” but a “crisis of government”.
The Centrelink debacle – in particular when viewed together with the government’s other ill-conceived attempts at implementing digital services – demands an urgent and radical rethink about the nature of process of the exercise of state power in the face of pervasive digital technologies.
The exponential evolution of digital technologies is a real challenge. For those not immersed in the world of data, its implications for how we live and work are still emerging. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the dissonance between longstanding principles of good government, and the roll out of new data-reliant government processes.
To address this dissonance, Shetler has called for a ‘radical upgrade’ of IT skills in government. Similarly, Murray David Neuzerling attributes Centrelink’s failure to ‘data illiteracy’. These assessments are entirely correct, although as intimated in Shetler’s Guardian interview, better digital capabilities must also pervade organisational culture. Importantly for principles of democratic governance, the boundaries of state power against the citizen must themselves comprehend a digital world. In recognition of the profound implications for the citizen/state relationship, the exercise of state power must embody the highest level of digital capabilities.
The tussle between government prerogative and the citizen’s freedom and integrity is as old as government itself. Over centuries, our legal system has developed constraints on government action in recognition of the immense power it holds, and the adverse effects the exercise of naked power will have on the citizen. Consequently, we have developed a sophisticated understanding of the very nature of government – as an institution whose sole purpose is in service of the citizen.
Therefore, while government may be entitled to recover overpaid welfare payments, it is not entitled to do so in a way that prejudices the wellbeing and freedoms of the citizen. As new tools come into existence – in contemporary terms, these tools are digital technologies and big data – it is the responsibility of government to develop processes that harness these tools in the service of the citizen. Instead, we see their deployment as a crude exercise of power. Whether these tools have deliberately targeted citizens, or whether they have been deployed in ignorance, the ill-conceived Centrelink data matching process demonstrates government that has lost its way.
Centrelink is only the latest in a series of computer-related failures of government. It is clear that until government grapples with the social, governance, and legal implications of digital technologies, the citizen will remain at threat of unwarranted exercises of government power. This is indeed a ‘crisis of government’. It is now up to the public to make this a crisis for government (for all and any government) until the boundaries of power are recalibrated for a digital world.