NDIS ‘robo-plans’ test algorithmic transparency


Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

The federal government’s plan to determine the size of NDIS support packages for over 400,000 participants by fitting them into 400 ‘profiles’ will be a test of algorithmic transparency, according to La Trobe University senior lecturer Dr Darren O’Donovan.

Minister for the NDIS Linda Reynolds on Thursday released a new paper providing detail on how the proposed independent assessments and “Personalised Budget” process will work.

These changes will require legislative reforms, and the government has conceded that it does not currently have enough support to pass them through the Senate.

Government Services Minister Linda Reynolds. (Photo credit: US Defense department.)

The proposed reforms have led to significant backlash and criticism, with numerous disability organisations, advocates and legal groups saying the process will likely lead to reduced funding for participants and will be less personal than the existing process through the use of algorithms and automation.

In the newly released paper. National Disability Insurance Agency CEO Martin Hoffman acknowledged that the planned reforms have caused “real fear and concern in the community”.

“I deeply regret our genuine attempts to share information about the changes, and consultation on them have not met expectations. I want to respond to the concerns we’re hearing and be transparent about the reforms we’re proposing,” Mr Hoffman said.

“By sharing more information, I hope we can create a greater understanding of the new approach and what it will mean for participants.”

The paper details how under the new system, NDIS participants will receive a “flexible” budget with fixed funding for specific purposes and flexible funding to be spent how the participant chooses.

This new budget will be determined by feeding the results of an independent assessment, to be completed by a contracted individual using “internationally recognised assessment tools”, into an algorithm featuring 400 profiles aiming to cover all of the more than 400,000 people accessing the NDIS.

Dr O’Donovan, a senior lecturer in administrative law at La Trobe University, said the technical paper fails to answer many of the questions surrounding this algorithm and the independent assessments.

“The agency has provided a vague list of ingredients without revealing the recipe. The document provides little to no insight into how assessment scores will be linked to financial amounts, or how environmental factors will be weighted,” Dr O’Donovan told InnovationAus.

The government’s NDIS plan will be a test of algorithmic transparency, Dr O’Donovan said.

“Will Parliament and the public be given access to a fully executable version of this decision-making tool. Will the financial modelling and allied health assumptions underpinning it ever be published?” he said.

“Without this, genuine co-design with people with disabilities cannot occur. Both the tool and the planners will be force-fed an evidential starvation diet of flawed independent assessment reports.

“There is a predictable attempt to introduce ‘human in the loop’ flexibility to supplement the algorithmic tool [but] the ability of a planner to intercede appears tied to limited exceptions.”

The 400 profiles have been developed by allied health professionals and expert planners at the NDIA, the paper said and will be used to produce a “draft personalised budget”. This budget will then be shared with the NDIS participant before they meet to discuss its details and finalise the budget.

“To draft a Personalised Budget, we will match the participant with a reasonable and necessary funding amount for participants with similar functional capacity and life circumstances,” the government paper said.

“We have built 400 profiles, each representing different groups of participants with different functional capacity, each of which has a budget associated with it. We take a participant’s assessment results and match them with one or more of these profiles, recognising that each participant is an individual and may not match perfectly to one individual profile.”

This draft budget will then be adjusted according to where the participant lives, how old they are and any informal support they have access to.

Each of these 400 profiles have an actual name and disability type, and have a similar age, disability type and functional capacity scores as actual NDIS participants.

But the NDIA is assuming that each of these profiles have “similar goals and informal supports”. The Agency said it is confident these profiles represent a “large portion of NDIS participants”.

In a press release, Ms Reynolds emphasised the apparent “flexibility” that this new process will deliver.

“Instead of creating a plan that has funding based on individual items and supports, the proposed changes will see participants receive one overall budget that they can use flexibly,” Ms Reynolds said.

“This was the original intent of the NDIS – for people with disability to be in control of the services and supports they purchase.”

This process has been widely criticised as “robo-planning” and as removing the individualised, goals-based approach to disability support.

A key architect of the NDIS dubbed the process as “robo-planning”, while the Opposition has said the government is in a “mad rush” to turn the scheme into a “human-free robo-system”.

The government has paused its plan to introduce these new assessments by July, but is still planning to launch them this year.

Ms Reynolds said the government will now consult further on the proposed changes.

“I have clearly heard the concerns of participants, their families and the wider disability community. This is why I paused enabling NDIS legislation so we can undertake consultation before we reveal the outcomes of the independent assessment pilot,” she said.

“I’m committed to openness and transparency, to build trust with the community so participants can be reassured that some things won’t change under this new proposal.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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