Dr Scarlet Wilcock, University of Wollongong
Governments around the world are increasingly looking to new and sophisticated Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to assist with the important and expensive task of delivering social services. In many respects, Australia is at the forefront of these developments and is forging ahead with a series of large-scale ICT initiatives. This includes a significant digital welfare transformation agenda to automate, streamline and digitise the delivery of social welfare payments.
The introduction of new ICTs in the welfare state is promoted as a means to enhance the quality and efficiency of welfare administration, which will ostensibly enhance access to welfare benefits. However, as the now infamous robo-debt scandal demonstrates, the roll out of new technologies does not guarantee better service delivery nor does it necessarily improve access to social security. In fact, new technologies can be a source of hardship and injustice, and can intensify social and economic inequalities.
ICTs are not merely tools of policy implementation. They can reinforce, extend and subvert existing welfare reform agendas. As with the current digital welfare agenda, the roll out of new ICTs is often better understood as a suite of policies, programs and practices, rather than a standalone project. In fact, the current raft of reforms represents a significant welfare reform agenda that has the potential – and is already – transforming the nature and function of the welfare state.
Take, for example, the Department of Human Services’ (DHS) digital channel strategy. This strategy centres on the goal of increasing recipients’ use of online services, the Centrelink mobile phone App or phone self-service technology (‘digital channels’) to interact with the Department over other phone and counter services. The strategy involves the introduction of new technologies as well as upgrades and improvements to the DHS’s digital interfaces. The strategy represents a step towards a ‘digital-by-default’ model in which digital channels will eventually replace other forms of service delivery. In fact, the DHS’s vision is for ‘all but our most vulnerable customers [to] manage their interactions through easy-to-use, secure, integrated digital channels’.
It is worthy of mention here that Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced a plan for a new integrated service delivery agency known as Services Australia, which is modelled on Services NSW and will centre on integrated digital government services. Whilst its relationship to the current digital strategy is not yet clear, this plan nonetheless indicates that the push towards a digital welfare model will continue, even intensify.
According to the DHS, the shift to digital channels will facilitate quicker, easier and more personalised service delivery for welfare recipients. It is also part of the DHS’s strategy for reducing demand on its phone lines. The primary way that the DHS tracks its progress towards its digital vision is by measuring the annual use of its digital channels. The DHS’s target is for a 5 per cent increase in digital interactions on the previous year, which it has successfully met since the indicator was established in 2015–16.
In a recent report, the Australian National Audit Office criticised this target. According to the ANAO, as the only high-level target associated with digital service delivery, it ‘does not examine the effectiveness, intended outcomes or the impact on other channels of the shift to digital services across the department’. These concerns are undoubtedly worthy of examination and scrutiny.
But, the DHS’s digital channel strategy arguably raises more fundamental questions about the nature of the Australian welfare state. Indeed, this strategy stands to transform the architecture of the welfare state along with when, if and how Australian are able to access welfare officials. This ‘digital by default’ regime tacitly reinforces a particular model of welfare reform; one that encourages individual ‘self-service’ and thus personal responsibility for one’s own welfare administration. It also represents the reallocation of the labour associated with applying for and receiving payments, including reporting, as wholly the responsibility of the welfare recipient. According to a 2018 report published by Anglicare Australia, the move to online delivery had increased the burden on both recipients and its support workers. In this way, the DHS’s digital strategy feeds into an active, obligation-based welfare reform agenda, which implicitly values self-reliance and by extension de-values ‘welfare dependency’.
If it operates as intended, the strategy will reduce recipients’ face-to-face interaction with welfare officials. This is presented as a positive development for recipients. Considering the enduring issues with call wait times and the frequency with which some welfare recipients have to contact the Department to fulfil onerous income reporting obligations, this may prove to be the case. However, reducing the frequency of personal contact between recipients and welfare officials may also result in negative outcomes for recipients. It may reduce, for example, the opportunities for empathy and care within the Australian welfare state, which may significantly alter the goals and outcomes associated with welfare delivery.
Considered in this way, it is clear that the roll out of new digital technologies cannot be easily separated from the welfare policy. Questions about the digital divide and digital literacy are important. But they risk ignoring how these technologies may influence and reconfigure welfare law, policy and practice. How do new technologies recast and redistribute the responsibilities and conditions attached to welfare receipt? How might they enable different types or more frequent intrusions into the daily lives of welfare recipients? How might they make it easier for welfare recipients? How might they make it harder? What are the implications of these changes for the relationship between the welfare recipient and the welfare state?
Ultimately, the introduction of new ICTs to assist with welfare provision is not inherently negative. Australians, including Centrelink payment recipients, have come to expect secure and accessible online access to government services. However, in the context of social security regimes, the stakes are incredibly high, particularly for households who rely on social security for their main source of income. At the very least, this means that the introduction of new digital welfare infrastructure demands robust public consultation, user testing and evaluation with the needs and concerns of current and future welfare recipients at the centre. But it also requires the development of a more sophisticated understanding of the dynamic relationship between ICTs, welfare policy and administration. ICTs are not merely neutral tools to realise pre-formulated policy objectives. They are complex programs that entail new ways of governing the welfare state and its recipients. These programs are not set in stone; they are open to adaptation and challenge. A vision for a fair, just and equitable digital welfare state must be part of our future thinking and campaigning.
 See, eg, Paul Henman, Governing Electronically: E-Government and the Reconfiguration of Public Administration, Policy and Power (Palgrave, 2010) Ch 3.
 See Department of Human Services, Technology Plan: 2016-2020 (2016); Department of Human Services, ‘Welfare Payment Infrastructure Transformation (WPIT) Programme’ (2018) <https://www.humanservices.gov.au/organisations/about-us/welfare-payment-infrastructure-transformation-wpit-programme>.
 See, eg, Department of Human Services, Corporate Plan 2017-18 (2017) p. 1.
 Terry Carney, ‘The New Digital Future for Welfare: Debts Without Legal Proofs or Moral Authority?’ (2018) 1 UNSWLJ Forum 1.
 See especially Virginia Eubanks, Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poor (St Martins Press, 2018).
 Paul Henman, ‘Of algorithms, Apps and advice: Digital Social Policy and Service Delivery’ (2019) 12 Journal of Asian Public Policy 71.
 Department of Human Services, Technology Plan: 2016-2020 (2016).
 Ibid p. 6.
 Stuart Robert, ‘Services Australia to put people at the centre of Government’ (Media Release, 15 July 2019) <https://www.mhs.gov.au/media-releases/2019-07-15-services-australia-put-people-centre-government>.
 Australian National Audit Office, ‘Management of Smart Centres’ Centrelink Telephone Services – Follow-up’ (Performance Audit 2018-19 No 28, 2019) pp. 20-21.
 Ibid p. 23.
 Ibid p. 9.
 Teresa Hinton, The Experiences of Anglicare Staff and Clients in Interacting with Centrelink (Anglicare Australia, 2018).
 See Department of Human Services, Technology Plan: 2016-2020 (2016) p. 17.