Digitalisation used to hide exclusion

  • Inspiration
  • 01.09.2023
  • Article

Digitization of services, of parts of the work of services has become commonplace. More and more services or components are being digitized. The arguments for it are well known: they increase accessibility and reach-ability, they allow more time for non-daily or difficult questions, they save money leaving more resources for “real” work, and on top of that, the service becomes much more neutral.
And yet.
More and more we learn that digitization is not a panacea, quite the contrary. Digitization in some cases increases exclusion, even deep poverty and suicide. Under its so-called neutrality, it can hide deep and strong prejudices against some groups. Indeed, the program may be organised, written from these prejudices.

Two examples. One from the Netherlands and the other from Australia. Two countries where a conservative hard-line government are or were in control.

The “toeslagenaffaire”

The case in the Netherlands revolves around some 26,000 parents who were falsely accused of childcare allowance fraud, but it later emerged that similar issues were at play with the rent allowance, healthcare allowance, child budget and income tax. Although the issue had been around since 2004, it did not receive attention until 2017 and became an affair. According to investigations, in some cases there was institutional racism, institutional bias and violation of the basic principles of the rule of law.

The Tax Authorities crackdown on fraud, using a simple algorithm of 80% is fraud/20% is innocent, recovering tens of thousands of dollars, put thousand families in financial trouble. A commission investigating the affair spoke of an “unprecedented injustice.” For years, duped parents were unjustly treated as fraudsters. They had virtually nowhere to turn with their concerns about this. Many duped parents fell into debt as a result, in some cases reaching tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of those affected faced large-scale disruption to their lives as a result, including loss of job or home, child displacement, and/or psychological problems.

71% of citizens who participated in a poll published in March 2021 indicated that their trust in the government had been negatively affected by the surcharge affair, and nearly two-thirds also gained less trust in politics as a result. The aftermath of the surcharge affair was also frequently cited as a reason for decreased political trust in a survey conducted by the Social and Cultural Planning Office in April 2021.


Image by Dan Jensen,13360
The Robodebt affaire

Australia has a similarly dire policy. A program called Robodebt compared declared income to the average income known to the tax authorities. Those who, according to the program, had earned more than tax-declared income received a bill in the mailbox with an amount calculated rather haphazardly. Victims had to prove that they had not earned more. This program allowed the government to closely (!?) monitor whether Australia was paying (un)justified benefits.
More than 500,000 people received a letter between 2015 and 2019 informing them that they had to repay part of their benefits. The amounts ranged from a few hundred to tens of thousands of Australian dollars.
Families became homeless, several people committed suicide because they could not repay the sum.
A program in the place of an official had taken the leinding. Back in 2014, lawyers from the Department of Social Affairs had already reported that the program was not kosher. Still, the government pressed ahead, at least three suicides have been linked to Robodebt.

The Robodebt scheme came under heavy fire and led to two Senate committee investigations. From the final report two obvious findings:

  • That the Robodebt scheme indiscriminately targeted some of Australia’s most vulnerable people, causing significant and widespread harm to their psychological and financial wellbeing”.
  • “That the scheme relied extensively on online systems and data-driven processes. Use of technology by Government must be supported by appropriate safeguards, especially to protect vulnerable people, including rights to an explanation of administrative decisions and to have those decisions reviewed”.

More than 470.000 people were refunded. In August 2023, the new labor government passed a formal motion of apology in the House of Representatives, apologising for the scheme on behalf of the Parliament.

What is behind this kind of digitization?

These two examples (there are others, for example, the Post Office Scandal in the UK) show that digitization can be used to exclude people. In each case, the digitization project started from a vision that distinguished between deserving and undeserving beneficiaries.

Racist worldviews and “blaming the vulnerable (poor) people” worldviews underlie these programs. Theorists such as Wendy Brown (see “Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution”) have shown that what she calls “neo-liberal
responsibilization”, the idea that we as individuals are solely responsible for the outcomes of our lives, is not something existing in the realm of ideas but has been the guiding logic for the intense program of institutional reforms of the last 30 years. The introduction of
student fees, for example, was driven in large part by human capital theory in which education is recast as an investment undertaken with hopes of a satisfactory return through higher subsequent income. These meritocratic alibis for current inequalities and consequentially the blaming the poor are the main drivers for social reforms.

Time and again, it was clear from the beginning that the program would not work, would not work well, was not legal. Warnings from their own agencies, objections from lawyers, critical comments from human rights organisations were coldly ignored. Yet, all these objections were put aside; the program had to and would happen. The “blaming” was more important than the human behind the file.

In Australia, it took years for a new government to condemn the program, apologize and interject the guilty.
In the Netherlands, the Rutte government fell over the affair. Even after years of investigations, committee rulings and courts, many families have still not been helped.

In both countries, both responsible governments lost; in both countries, trust in the government and politicians was gone. This again demonstrates the relationship between well-functioning public and social services and trust.


Picture of toeslagenaffaire: Image 365 press

Picture of Robodebt: Image by Dan Jensen;,13360



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