The head of the NDIS has revealed for the first time some details of how the technology sitting behind the controversial new independent assessments will operate, raising concerns that a “cookie-cutter algorithm” will lead to reduced funding for people with disabilities.
It comes as the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) Linda Reynolds said the NDIS is too reliant on the judgment of public servants and their “natural empathy”, and repeated the claim that the program is on an “unsustainable growth trajectory”.
The federal government is planning to introduce mandatory independent assessments by the end of the year, which will see contracted assessors conducting reviews of individuals rather than relying on evidence from their existing specialists.
This assessment will then be fed into an algorithm that will produce a budget plan for the NDIS participants, a Senate committee heard on Tuesday.
The scheme has been branded “robo-planning” by a key architect of the NDIS, who compared it to the government’s robo-debt scheme, which led to a $1.2 billion class-action lawsuit settlement.
The Opposition has also called for the independent assessments to be scrapped entirely, with shadow NDIS minister Bill Shorten saying the government is in a “mad rush” to turn the scheme into a “human-free robo-system”.
At a public hearing for the inquiry into the independent assessments on Tuesday, National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) CEO Martin Hoffman provided further detail on the algorithm which will be underpinning this new scheme.
After NDIS participants undertake a questionnaire and perform a task for the contracted assessor, these results will then be fed into an algorithm with 400 “personas”, he said, including the type of disability, age, and other factors.
This system will then produce a budget plan for the NDIS participant.
“The results of the independent assessment give scores against the domains set out in the Act. Those scores against those domains are then used to determine a plan budget,” Mr Hoffman told the Senators.
“We’ve developed about 400 different reference groups of participants through disability type and age and a range of other factors that enable us to work out what a typical, flexible plan budget should be, derived from the scores and assessment from the independent assessment.
“That then gives the overall plan budget figure in draft, which is then the subject of the planning meeting to refine that.”
According to Dr Darren O’Donovan, a senior lecturer in administrative law at La Trobe University, this will see the use of a “cookie-cutter algorithm” to deliver packages that will not be tailored to NDIS participants.
“Rather than a hard-headed empathy that fights for broader economic benefits, we have management consultants whiteboard how to hit a number with a cookie-cut algorithm,” Dr O’Donovan told InnovationAus.
“This top-down approach will focus on what a person cannot do. It will no longer start with what they want to achieve and the benefits of supporting them. Packages derived from these internal ‘typical’ support amounts have often been found to not capture the supports people need to stay in study, to keep parents in the workforce, or to get out of the justice system.”
The 400 reference groups or “personas” in question have not been released publicly by the NDIA. Mr Hoffman said a technical paper about the process will be released “shortly”.
Dr O’Donovan said it’s not good enough that these details still haven’t been released to the public.
“It is unacceptable that the Agency has failed to explain its proposed new test for funding to this point. Independent assessments are part of a broader plan to cut costs from the Agency’s internal balance sheet. It is disrespectful of Parliament and people with disability to drip-feed key details of a proposed reform,” he said.
“In a matter of months the government wants a black box system of disability ‘scoring’ and 400 ‘personas’ to shape the lives of over 500,000 Australians and their families. The new planning process will start by asking: do you have level four or level five needs based on the contractor assessors’ finding?
“Based on that score, the government will fit 500,000 Australians into 400 boxes. These ‘reference groups’ and ‘typical amounts’ have never been published and the assumptions on which they are based are entirely untested.”
Also appearing at the hearing, Ms Reynolds reiterated her concerns about the “sustainability” of the NDIS in the long-term, and said the scheme is too reliant on individual and subjective decisions by public servants.
“We’re relying, I think, too much on individual public servants’ judgement and also their natural empathy,” Ms Reynolds said.
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