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On secrets, Services Australia and a call for more transparent public governance

Introduction by Charles Maskell-Knight: One of the problems in delivering government entitlement programs fairly and legally is ensuring that the junior officers who make day-to-day decisions on individuals’ rights act consistently and in accordance with the law.

While the relevant Act, regulations, statutory rules and other legislative instruments taken together specify the substance of a person’s entitlement under a government program, they rarely set out the process to be used in applying the law. Left to their own devices, junior staff are likely to come up with their own idiosyncratic interpretation of the law, as well as diverse processes for applying it.

In an effort to overcome this diversity, and ensure like people are treated alike and in accordance with the law, administrative agencies develop codified procedures and manuals for staff to follow.

In an ideal world these would be available to the public, to assure them that their rights to a benefit were being considered under an appropriate process. However, the Australian bureaucracy has learned that nobody ever got into trouble for not releasing information publicly, and generally seeks to keep these manuals under wraps, despite requirements under the Freedom of Information Act to publish them.

Asher Wolf has been exploring the hidden universe of Services Australia – the agency responsible for the operation of social security and Medicare – and its unpublished manuals.


Asher Wolf writes:

What if you knew the names of all the operational manuals used by Services Australia? Not just those that have been publicly released, but the names of all the unreleased operational manuals, used every day to make crucial decisions in people’s interactions with the government?

What could you infer about the government’s values and beliefs about the people it interacts with and what they do and don’t want you to know? And what items could you successfully request under freedom of information?

My friend @posty has always been a brilliant, quirky friend and hacker. So it did not surprise me to discover he built a web-scraper to scrape everything on Services Australia’s Operational Blueprint website.

The Operational Blueprint website exists to explain how Services Australia should deliver services and to support staff in decision-making, and it contains all service delivery operating procedures for customers and stakeholders.

It is established in response to the Information Publication Scheme requirements of the Freedom of Information Act 1982. Paragraph 8(2)(j) of the Act requires agencies to publish “operational information”, defined elsewhere as “information held by the agency to assist the agency to perform or exercise the agency‘s functions or powers in making decisions or recommendations affecting members of the public (or any particular person or entity, or class of persons or entities)”. Documents can be downloaded from the Operational Blueprint page or are potentially available under a freedom of information request.

“I really only found this portal because of the whole #notmydebt campaign [against robodebt] and I kept hitting blocks whenever I clicked on an article. I wondered ‘how can I know before I click’. I first noticed that whenever I tried looking at anything related to debts, more often than not I would get a blocked response,” @posty told me.

So he went to work finding out which items weren’t public. He called his project ‘OpenWelfare: Services Australia Operational Blueprint Freedom project.”

Included in the data caught up by the web scraper were the titles of all the unreleased operational blueprints, private manuals used by Centrelink and Medicare to determine payments, debts, data collection and changes to personal records.

@posty built a spreadsheet to allow keyword searches, and repurposed a Twitter account to publicise his find, and I started searching hundreds of keywords, including “Debt”, “Gender”, “Cashless Debit Card”, “Indigenous”, “Asylum seeker.” I spent days looking at the data.

The operational manuals span pre-natal to post-death processes of public governance. “Medicare Enrolment Trial – Birth of a Child Pilot 011-44170000”, hidden from public view. “Process Fact of Death Data (FODD) in the Consumer Directory Maintenance System (CDMS) for Medicare 011-40060080”, hidden in the backend of Services Australia’s operational blueprint website. The articles even govern the unborn: “Initial contact after a stillbirth 099-01010020”.

Concealed items

@posty discovered 50.6 percent of Services Australia’s operational manuals aren’t on public display: a grand total of 2,647 operational manuals determining public governance are currently hidden.

As the Office of the Australia Information Commissioner states: “The Information Publication Scheme (IPS) makes agencies, with some exceptions, publish on their website certain information they hold, as well as an information publication plan. The IPS encourages agencies to be open and transparent, and consider publishing information that they aren’t obliged to publish.”

Services Australia has apparently considered the Information Commissioner’s encouragement to be more open – and rejected it. The agency has concealed 290 items on “Your Health”, 166 items about “Help In An Emergency” and 101 items about “People With Disability”.

My first keyword search showed 70 unreleased manuals on debts. This included one manual for ‘Debt recovery for External Breast Prostheses Reimbursement Program (EBPRP) 011-13050010’, which immediately raised the concerning question: is the Government making people pay back Medicare reimbursements for external breast prostheses? Because why else does Services Australia have a manual about asking people to pay back reimbursements for breast prostheses?

A keyword search for “optical surveillance” returned four manuals, including an article on “requesting referral for optical surveillance”, not available to the public.

Searching for “debit” revealed 21 privately-held operating manuals for the Cashless Debit Card, including “Wellbeing Exemptions from the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) 103-20081023” and a document on exiting the Cashless Debit Card program (“Exit applications from the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) 103-20081031”). Why shouldn’t people stuck on the Cashless Debit Card know the conditions they have to meet to exit the program? The lack of access to useful data reeks of entrapment.

Want to know the process for “Assessment of a medical certificate to determine exemption from mutual obligation requirements for a temporary incapacity 001-09120010”? Too bad, it’s also unreleased. Why shouldn’t Jobseekers know the assessment process of their medical exemptions? Shouldn’t Jobseekers have access to the operational manual on “Exempting a job seeker from mutual obligation requirements due to special circumstances 001-09120030”? Why is the government refusing to let people on Jobseeker know when they’re eligible to avoid mutual obligations?

I discovered an article on “Change of sex or gender for Medicare enrolments 011-44110020” shielded from public view. It seems particularly cruel that Services Australia is hiding information for transgender, non-binary and gender diverse people about the process to change designation of sex or gender in the Medicare System.

It is infuriating to ponder the potentially discriminatory basis rationale for keeping these documents hidden.

Of course, there are good reasons why some articles are blocked – and should quite probably remain blocked indefinitely. It is understandable that two operational manuals on family and domestic violence are blocked from release: no one wants government processes to be potentially weaponised by perpetrators of violence. Likewise, it is for the best that the operational manual on the witness protection program remains permanently out of public view.

But it is harder to understand why eight operational manuals about refugees should remain unreleased. Likewise, six articles about humanitarian arrivals – including one manual entitled “Determining financial assistance for an Unaccompanied Humanitarian Minor (UHM) 005-02040030” – are not publicly available.

The decision to hide operational manuals specifically relating to vulnerable and marginalised people and people in situations of crisis are an extension of the Government’s cruel and harmful attempts to make life in Australia as difficult as possible for some demographics.

People should know the processes by which they’re governed. By blocking the majority of public governance documents in its domain, Services Australia is undermining the democratic process.

We deserve better. Public governance should be an open partnership, rather than autocratic rule based on secret manuals.

Asher Wolf is a former media and communications advisor, a long-term activist and freelance journalist. Asher was a lead campaign coordinator against robodebt and a founder of the international Cryptoparty movement, and is currently a Masters of Social Work at Charles Sturt University. On Twitter: @Asher_Wolf.


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