Centrelink, leaners, and the cyber

Image result for cyber

The Australian government’s harassment of tax payers through its Centrelink data matching system is now well-documented. (See eg my own posts, here, here and here.) Yet today the Minister, Alan Tudge, again came out in defence of the system saying that ‘it is working and we will continue with that system’.

Accepting widespread criticism of the Centrelink robo-debt program, the question is whether it is a clever application of technologies to prosecute an ideological agenda, or further evidence that government does not cyber very well.

Lifters and leaners

Momentarily pushing #notmydebt off the front pages, Health Minister Sussan Ley has stood aside pending a reconciliation of her ministerial expenses. She requested the audit after being caught charging the taxpayer for travel to the Gold Coast to attend new year’s eve parties and to buy a property at auction. Since Ms Ley’s travel expenses were revealed, the expenses of many more ministers have been exposed – expenses for travel to polo matches, to the Prime Minister’s own new year’s eve party in Sydney, and to football grand finals.

These revelations follow the downfall of former speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, in 2015  following her own battle with entitlement. A report followed, and we waited with baited breath for reform. Nothing has happened. Now we are told that the government will support ‘streamlining’ parliamentary entitlements.

Streamlining.

Some claim that the parliamentary entitlements blow up is nothing more than a distraction from the Centrelink fiasco. Yet the two are intrinsically linked. They illustrate two sides of the coin of devolution of principles of good government. Together, these case studies show government in opposition to the public, shoring up its own interests at the expense of those whom it is designed to serve. This much is clear from Minister Tudge’s interview on Radio National today.

Centrelink

Despite broad media coverage, and the Minister’s admission that he had been following the news, he was ‘not aware of individuals who are completely convinced that they don’t owe money but have been given a debt notice.’ He rejected reports that people had struggled to contact Centrelink by phone, despite a known history of problems with the Centrelink call system. Further, when asked about ministerial entitlements, the Minister drew a distinction between Centrelink ‘overpayments’ and travel expenses as being deliberate versus not.

In other words, the Minister equates overpayment of social security with an attempt to defraud the taxpayer, but ministers’ calls on the taxpayer to pay for attendance at parties and high profile sporting events are innocent. Dear reader, I present to you the lifters vs the leaners. And Minister Tudge appears to be fighting the leaners at the front line.

The Centrelink and Ministerial expenses case studies merely establish the thinking that lies behind government action. There is however an additional dimension to take into account in understanding the methods of prosecuting the leaners – the application of digital technology. This is important because the tools of technology assist government in scaling up its agenda.

The cyber

I preface my comments here by pointing out that technology is neither good nor bad. It can be applied to achieve any desired end. There is no reason to fear technology per se: but as a citizenry we must be cognisant of the implications of technology, including when it is put to use by government.

A quick glance at recent case studies of the government’s own digital capabilities reveals a mixed bag.

Government goal Reality
Census 2016: monetise ABS data; track individuals’ data over time #Censusfail: privacy breach, extending reach of government
Data surveillance: facilitate easy access to individuals’ ‘metadata’ for law enforcement agencies, by requiring telcos to store personal data Massive (legislated) privacy breach; extending reach of government; cost imposition on business; lack of clarity about execution and consequences; A-G uncertain about the meaning of the data
Centrelink data matching: ensure each person receives their entitlements, ‘no more, no less #notmydebt: harassment of taxpayers through attempts to match incompatible data

If the evidence about consumer experience of the Centrelink robo-debt program is true – and there certainly appears to be a lot out there – then it seems that the system is poorly designed to achieve its stated purpose. Indeed unnamed sources within Centrelink acknowledge that the system is known to incorrectly raise debts. This would accord with the government’s dubious recent track record experimenting with big data.

However the Minister has been very clear – the system is working exactly as it was designed to do so. On this basis then, we must assume that the government has purpose-built a system that will incorrectly raise debts.

So is the government insufficiently competent to implement new technologies to serve the public? Or is it sufficiently competent to design a system that undermines the social security system itself?

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