Shorten backs ‘ethical’ automation for NDIS assessments

Brandon How

Government Services minister Bill Shorten has called for the greater use of data and automation in National Disability Insurance Scheme assessments as long as an “ethical framework” is in place.

Mr Shorten made the comments following his address to the National Press Club on Tuesday, where he launched a reboot of the scheme that has “lost its way”.

The minister previously criticised the former Coalition government for creating a “robo-NDIS” when it introduced a “no phone call” policy for NDIS participants who had requested a review of a decision.

Last week, a grassroots campaign was launched calling for a Royal Commission similar to that of robodebt into the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) and its use of technology and automation.

Centre for Digital Business chief executive and former head of the NDIA Technology Authority Marie Johnson says automated assessments are still being used at the NDIA to determine funding, eligibility and debts.

Government services minister Bill Shorten

NDIS participants have their plans reviewed annually to ensure they are considered ‘reasonable and necessary supports’.

These assessments are made with support from an “opaque system of automated decision-making“, which includes a “set of actuarial and predictive tools that guide NDIS planning and reviews”, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales and Western Sydney University.

But in response to questions from about the use of automated decision-making, Mr Shorten said that, if anything, the NDIA is “not using data enough”, but what’s missing is the “ethical framework”.

He said that the problem with the former government was that it took the “human element out”.

“There’s so much data in the world of disability, not only in the National Disability Insurance Association (NDIA) but more generally across service Australia at state levels. We’re not using data enough,” Mr Shorten said.

“Automation and using data is excellent, but it’s the purpose it’s used for, and it’s the manner in which sits the ethical framework around it. That’s a different issue.

“To me, Robodebt is not a failure of computers, it’s a failure of the humans operating them or the policy makers operating and saying, we’ll just rely on that and nothing else.

“If we spend more money on building the capability of the agency, we better train our crew, we increase specialisation… I think we can get the balance right.”

While not responding directly to on the call for a “robo-NDIS” Royal Commission, Mr Shorten highlighted his core concern with the design of robodebt.

“Robodebt was all about relying on one fact… That was, I think, a core system design ethical failure,” he said.

Mr Shorten also reiterated the importance of establishing an ethical framework around the use of AI and that government AI tools should be open source where practicable.

“There should always be an ethical framework around the use of AI. My view is it should be, ideally wherever possible, open sourced so that people can see what’s going on,” he said.

“The best protection of data is to co-produce [it] with citizens. I think that there’s a principle about the more that citizens feel they can control their own data, the more they’ll actually trust government.

“The use of data is not the problem, it’s whether or not you’ve got the oversights, the ethical framework, and the decision making, relying just on one input.“

During his address Mr Shorten, outlined six policy directions that he would work on, including a move to multi-year plans that meet participants needs, while addressing spiralling costs by fraud and overcharging.

The “reboot“ will also involve boosting the NDIA’s workforce and its specialisation to help improve the experience of participants, as well as a reviewing the Supported Independent Living program.

To close his address, Mr Shorten said “I know there is nothing I will ever do that is more important than securing the future of the NDIS”.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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