Robo-debt risk of visa privatisation

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

The government’s controversial plan to privatise aspects of the visa system could lead to other disasters like the robo-debt scandal, the public sector union has warned.

In a submission to a Senate inquiry into the impact of changes to service delivery models on the administration and running of government programs, the Community and Public Sector Union warned that the Department of Home Affairs’ plan to outsource the development of a new visa processing system would lead to data and national security issues, undermine the integrity of the scheme and have “far-reaching negative commercial impacts”.

The planned increase in automated decision-making could also run the risk of leading to problems similar to those seen with Centrelink’s robo-debt program.

The government in December opened a tender for applications from the private sector to manage future visa applications, with the option to extend this to citizenship applications down the track. This will include the development of a new IT system for visa processing – the Global Digital Platform.

Home Affairs is expected to select the winner bidder by the end of this week.
As part of the deal, the Department is hoping that up to 90 per cent of visa processing will be done automatically, up from about half of requests currently.

But this increase in automation and the assumption this would make the process simpler “underestimates the complexity of client services provided by the Department”, CPSU national secretary Michael Tull said.

“Increasing the rate of automated decisions would be attractive to a profit-drive provider. There are inherent risks that automation decisions will be driven by cost saving and profit maximising motives to the detriment of quality and assurance,” Mr Tull said in the submission.

“While the Department does currently use algorithms, the complex and subjective nature of visa decision combined with the scale of use proposed presents several particular issues around the use of algorithms”.

These algorithms would have inherent biases and are not infallible, with the CPSU pointing to the ongoing robo-debt controversy. Centrelink’s use of an algorithm to issue debt notices is currently facing a class action lawsuit.

Robo-debt has caused deep and sustained damage to the community’s perceptions of the competence and motivations of both Centrelink and the government,” Mr Tull said.

“The community’s hostility and dismay is driven by the fact that the wrong decisions were being made and that the decisions were being made by a robot – which creates the sense of an uncaring Big Brother type of government with little regard for the welfare of some citizens,” he said.

“Episodes like robo-debt diminish trust in government and democracy. A wise government would seek to avoid a robo-debt with visa and citizenship decisions.

“This would leave our visa system open to groups who could game the algorithm to obtain visas for non-genuine purposes.”

Handing over visa processing responsibilities to a private sector firm will also bring a range of new data security risks, the union said.

“The primary responsibility for data security would rest with the new provider. The experience of privatisation elsewhere is of service standards and work quality being undermined by the employment practices of the outsourced provider,” the submission said.

“There are also significant ethical concerns when the data people have to provide to access a government decision is in fact consumed for a commercial purpose.”

The Coalition has continually argued that the tender does not amount to the privatisation of visa decision-making and that the government would still make all the decisions. But this argument relies on a “technicality”, the CPSU said.

“It is clear that the private provider will have immense discretion to determine who is issued a visa. It is certainly a privatisation,” Mr Tull said.

In its own submission, the Department also claimed that the tender was not issued in an effort to cut costs, but rather to free up time for its staff and combat ongoing threats in the space.

“The Department’s current program of service delivery modernisation and reform is not being undertaken in pursuit of savings. The Department is facing real and growing challenges from increasing demand, and evolving threat profiles,” it said.

“The technology on which the successful operation of Australia’s visa system relies is reaching the end of its useful life,” it said.

“The Department has made it clear its intention through this process is to release its staff to focus on higher value tasks and more complex decision-making which must be undertaken by officials.”

But cuts to the department’s funding in last year’s budget, which the CPSU estimates will lead to approximately 2000 jobs being cut, indicate otherwise.

“The timing of the job cuts matches the privatisation timetable – strongly suggesting the privatisation will not ‘free staff up’ but see them made redundant,” Mr Tull said.

Labor is also strong opposed to the visa outsourcing play, and recently called on the competition watchdog to launch an inquiry into it. The Opposition was widely believed to be planning to kill off the plan if it had won the May federal election.

In another submission to the senate inquiry, former Immigration department deputy secretary Abul Rizvi said that the tech risks involved with the plan are “extensive” and the overall risks are “immense”.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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