In 2016, the Department of Human Services (DHS) and Centrelink launched an Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) designed to issue automated debt notices seeking to recoup money from past welfare overpayments (VLA, 2017). The overpayments were indicated by an algorithm that compared Australian Taxation Office (ATO) reported yearly incomes against individuals’ reported fortnightly earnings for the same period. This system has become colloquially known as ‘Robo-Debt’.
Robo-Debt has been criticised significantly in the news media and wider social justice circles. The ‘error-prone’ algorithm has been deemed ineffective with over $2 million dollars of false debt recorded as of February, 2019. Beyond the incorrect calculation of debt, the negative impact on debt recipients has been compounded by a lengthy appeal process that is handled predominantly through online platforms (Macleod, 2017).
The system has been critiqued as shifting the responsibility of debt calculation from the State to the debt recipients and forcing them to provide documentation that they were previously not required to record (Macleod, 2017). Substantial literature has reviewed the (il-)legality of the OCI system and the overall impacts on public administration. However, there is little research dedicated to investigating the subjective experiences and impact on Robo-Debt recipients.
This research project aims to understand subjective experiences of the OCI system, as well as, the impact of the alleged Robo-Debt on individuals’ well-being. By examining the individuals’ subjective experiences, this project aims to generate a more comprehensive understanding of the effects that Robo-Debt, and the debts that it imposes, has upon the financial, physical, social and psychological well-being of recipients.
Overall there is a general lack of discussion regarding Robo-Debt beyond that reported by the media, however academic literature informs the OCI’s problematic nature through an examination of a shift of governance, a move towards a ‘digital future for administration’, and the demonstrated connections of social location, debt, and ‘subjective well-being’.
A core focus of the literature review is the inherently problematic policy and administrative changes that inform the OCI system (Henman & Marston, 2008; Eubanks, 2011; Bovens & Zouridis 2001). It is acknowledged that there has been a rise in e-governance in liberal welfare states, as seen in Australia’s progression of linking public, private and non-profit records to digitally track citizens (Henman & Marston, 2008).
Henman and Marston (2008) state that welfare assistance tracking is guided by a moral rationale to increase safety and reduce fraud, however the surveillance techniques are detrimental to the social division of welfare. While welfare assessments had previously been handled in person, case by case, the OCI system removes any administrative discretionary power in those who receive welfare assistance (Bovens & Zouridis, 2002).
Bovens & Zouridis (2002) define this as system-level bureaucracy where the practices are purely computer-based working within an algorithm and characterised by a lack of transparency in the calculations. Eubanks (2011) introduces the relationship of social location and technology, whereby an individual is situated in terms of the power-relationship embedded by institutions use of information technology (IT).
Thus, a move towards e-governance as demonstrated by the OCI system inherently complicates the welfare provider-consumer relationship. While it can provide more equitable assistance, this discrimination also creates a further burden on those who are already vulnerable.
The requirement of providing evidence to prove they are not defrauding the system is targeted to place those who are deemed as high risk under increased scrutiny, such as those of a lower socioeconomic status, and is deemed as highly intrusive (Henman & Marson, 2008). Consequently, the standardization informs a conditionality in receiving welfare without human intervention to determine who is deserving or undeserving (Henman & Marston, 2008).
The noticeable trend in governments to move towards a ‘new digital future for administration’ is signalled by changes in the OCI system, as aspects of identification, calculation and support regarding a debt notice removed any human intervention (Henman, 2017). The literature outlines how this shift problematically transforms welfare from a human service provider into a system-level bureaucracy by shifting the onus of proof (Hanks, 2017; Henman, 2017).
When recipients attempt to appeal an alleged debt, the competency in which the client can engage with technology and self-input information was identified as a key issue within Robo-Debt (Macleod, 2017). Furthermore, research shows that staff in Centrelink centres were directed to send clients who contested the debt to the online system, which creates problems for those who with limited access and thus ‘constrained’ engagement with the service (Henman, 2017; Carney, 2018).
This presents various difficulties to clients with complex needs who receive welfare support, such homeless people, those with English as a second language or those who are not computer literate. Thus, vulnerable populations are prevented from accessing their information online which creates further disadvantage (Tsoundarou, 2017). Galloway (2017) acknowledges that the technology is neither good nor bad, rather the way in which it has been utilised in the OCI system creates negative ramifications and reactions from the public.
The literature acknowledges that the concept of well-being is complex as there is no universal definition or measurement (Vlaev & Elliott, 2014; Diener & Seligman, 2004; Hochman & Skopek, 2013). In more recent research, well-being focuses on positive feelings, emotions, engagement, life satisfactions, social relationships, rather than material needs (Hochman & Skopek, 2013; Headey & Wooden, 2004; Diener & Seligman, 2004).
Researchers have identified the need for the impacts of debt to be further researched in order to recognise the factors that greatly impact well-being (Tay et al., 2017; Ali, Bourova & Ramsay, 2018).
The concept of well-being is complex as there is no universal definition or measurement (Vlaev & Elliott, 2014; Diener & Seligman, 2004; Hochman & Skopek, 2013). Ideas of well-being have dramatically changed throughout academic literature, with early definitions concerning the pursuit of material items contributing to overall improved well-being (Easterlin, 1973 as cited in Hochman & Skopek, 2013).
However, in recent years well-being has developed into a concept that focuses on positive feeling, emotions, engagement, life satisfactions, social relationships, and happiness rather than material needs (Hochman & Skopek, 2013; Headey & Wooden, 2004; Diener & Seligman, 2004). Headey & Wooden (2004) interpret well-being to consist of subjective well-being and ill-being, whereby well-being refers to general happiness, life satisfaction and positive feelings and ill-being concerns psychological distress, depression, anxiety and other negative indicators.
As economic strain, such as debt, can produce feelings of anxiety and distress this imposes negative impacts on an individual's well-being it is important to consider the idea of subjective well-being and ill-being (Hochman & Skopek, 2013). Various academic literature only refer to subjective well-being, which Miao, Koo and Oishi (2013) define through cognitive and affect components as a well as the balance of positive and negative emotions. By gaining an understanding of how academic literature discusses well-being it will allow for a basis to conduct research that establishes a comprehensive understanding of the impacts of an OCI system.
When referring to the impact of subjective debt on an individual’s well-being and correlating this with Centrelink’s OCI system, it is imperative to acknowledge that social welfare recipients are exposed to experiences of social exclusion, deprivation and financial stress as well as an increased feeling of ‘demoralization’; whereby an individual feels heightened levels of hopelessness and dissatisfaction (Meltzer et al, 2011; Ali, Bourova & Ramsay, 2018).
Researchers have identified the need for the impacts of debt to be further researched in order to recognise the factors that greatly impact mental health and general well-being (Tay et al, 2017; Ali, Bourova & Ramsay, 2018). With the lack of literature regarding debt and wellbeing, the research into Robo-Debt will aim to investigate the impacts of the OCI system in order to determine the correlations of well-being and welfare recipients.
Concepts and Definitions
Within this project, we will utilise the concept of well-being throughout, understanding this as the multi-dimensional subjective indicator for physical, economic, social, emotional, psychological outcomes. We will assess how each of these concepts compounded together, impact upon the recipient’s wellbeing.
Please read the literature list the concepts discuss. What concepts are been discuss in the literature review and how these concepts are relevant to the broader study as discuss in the literature. Each concept should have two or three sentences in the paragraph. And how it helps the research analysis. (Words 400-500)