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Former surveillance chief heads royal debt robbery commission


The former head of the independent watchdog that investigated the agencies responsible for the debt robbery program will be questioned by the royal commission.

Michael Manthorpe served as Commonwealth Ombudsman from 2017 to 2021 and will lead the commission on Wednesday.

The commission is trying to understand the role of the Ombudsman, whose initial report identified a number of flaws in the scheme but stopped short of outlawing its “average income” debt calculation process.

This report, made before Manthorpe took office, was used by the previous coalition government to advocate the continuation of the plan.

The debt robbery scheme ran from 2015 to 2019 and used average income from tax office data to calculate and increase debts.

The commission is examining how the scheme was allowed to continue, given significant concerns about its legality raised in early 2017.

The commission previously heard that senior human services officials “effectively co-wrote” the Ombudsman’s report on their own department’s deceptive scheme.

Senior public servant Jason McNamara admitted that he was trying to influence the Ombudsman when they wrote to the department seeking comment on the report on their move to an automated debt recovery system.

More than $750 million from 380,000 people was illegally recovered through the program and automated debt notices have been blamed for contributing to multiple suicides.

Meanwhile, Deloitte partner Elea Wurth, commissioned by the commission to produce a technical study of robodebt, said a review found that artificial intelligence was not present in the program.

Rather, it was a “relatively basic” automation system that could not learn from mistakes or become more accurate over time, unlike other AI programs that have the ability to “self-learn”.

“The debt robbery scheme did not have algorithms that would allow for self-learning over time; it was very defined and specific to achieve a very specific goal.” said Dr. Wurth.

“He was extremely rigid. Once those rules have been codified, the system itself stays in place until a human comes in and changes the rules.”

Dr. Wurth said Deloitte’s review also found no risk management frameworks within the department of human services related to the program.

He said that while there were policies in place regarding interactions between the two agencies that run robodebt, there were no specific governance procedures for the program itself.

Deloitte’s report recommended methods to improve trust with automated programs in the future, including “human-centered design.”

“When you have a system that interacts with Australians, especially those who are vulnerable, the systems have to be designed with the human being at the center,” said Dr Wurth.