Push for NDIS to explain ‘cookie-cutter’ algorithm


Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

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.

NDIA chief executive Martin Hoffman

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.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

3 Comments
  1. Cathy 2 months ago
    Reply

    Public servants’ empathy getting in the way….get back to me when I’ve stopped laughing uncontrollably! Those workers have NO IDEA and are the main source of troubles that people living with disabilities experience, they don’t even read reports provided and argue against reports written by experts, they are the main source of mistakes which lead to avoidable reviews and appeals, and the main reason for delays to important decisions – with NO ACCOUNTABILITY at all. The NDIA are so flippant with their use of lawyers for fighting Participants’ claims at the AAT. Why isn’t the minister as concerned with the amounts of money spent on lawyers to fight cases that the NDIA mostly LOSE anyway? The delegate responsible for the Ray and NDIA AAT case – what a waste of resources! The money spent on the lawyer for the Ray and NDIA case – what a waste of money. Why doesn’t the delegate have to prove reasonable and necessary for their decisions which lead to obscene legal costs?

  2. Clayton 2 months ago
    Reply

    Im a 53 year old adult whose perpetually fallen just outside DSP criteria. Have Autistic and adhd traits along with a whole host of psychological and physical issues created by very late diagnoses of the Autism and adhd.
    Psych believes at minimum I need help with socialisation and housekeeping. If i have that support I can work at times. Yet recently been told not likely to succeed in request. How is this disability support.

  3. Donna Blenman 2 months ago
    Reply

    My husband has difficulty just getting a GP to accept him because he needs pain relief! It’s sad when we have sunk so low as to accuse a GP of being “too empathetic” when their job is to assess with honesty the level of disability a person suffers! How can pain be measured by a machine! I’m concerned for my husband’s future if he can’t get the medication he needs for his colitis and chronic arthritis. How have we sunk to such a level to punish those who need help the most!

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