Introduction by Charles Maskell-Knight: One of the issues with the fair and legal delivery of government eligibility programs is ensuring that junior officers who make day-to-day decisions about individuals’ rights act consistently and in accordance with the law.
Although the law, regulations, statutory rules and other relevant legislative instruments taken together specify the substance of a person’s entitlement under a government program, they rarely set out the process to be followed in applying the law. Left to their own devices, junior employees are likely to come up with their own idiosyncratic interpretation of the law, as well as various processes for applying it.
In order to overcome this diversity and ensure that people are treated equally and in accordance with the law, administrative agencies are developing codified procedures and manuals for staff to follow.
In an ideal world, these would be made available to the public, to assure them that their rights to a benefit are being considered through an appropriate process. However, the Australian bureaucracy has learned that no one has ever had a problem with not disclosing information publicly and generally seeks to keep these manuals secret, despite Freedom of Information Act requirements to publish them.
Asher Wolf explored the hidden world of Services Australia – the agency responsible for running Social Security and Medicare – and its unpublished manuals.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 Not just the ones that have been made public, but the names of all the unpublished operational manuals used every day to make critical decisions in people’s interactions with government?
What can you infer from this about the government’s values and beliefs about who it interacts with and what they do and don’t want you to know? And what elements could you successfully request under freedom of information?
My friend @posty has always been a brilliant and eccentric friend and hacker. So it didn’t surprise me to find that he had built a web-scraper to scrape everything off Services Australia’s Operational Blueprint website.
The Operational Blueprint website exists to explain how Services Australia should deliver services and to assist staff in decision-making, and it contains all operational procedures for delivering services to customers and stakeholders.
It is established in response to the requirements of the information publication system of the Freedom of Information Act 1982. Section 8(2)(j) of the Act requires agencies to publish “operational information”, defined elsewhere as “information held by the agency to assist the agency in performing or exercising the functions or powers of the agency. body in making decisions or recommendations affecting members of the public (or any particular person or entity, or class of persons or entities)”. The documents can be downloaded from the Operational Blueprint page or are potentially available as part of a freedom of information request.
“I really only found this portal because of the set #pasmadette campaign [against robodebt] and I kept hitting blocks every time I clicked on an article. I wondered “how do I know before I click”. I first noticed that whenever I tried to look at anything related to debts, more often than not I got a blocked response,” @posty told me.
So he set to work finding out which items weren’t public. He called his project “OpenWelfare: Services Australia Operational Blueprint Freedom project”.
Among the data collected by the web scraper were the titles of all unpublished operational plans, private manuals used by Centrelink and Medicare to determine payments, debts, data collection and changes to personal records.
@posty created a spreadsheet to enable keyword searches and reused a Twitter account to publicize his find, and I started searching hundreds of keywords, including ‘debt’, ‘gender’, ‘cashless debit card’, ‘native’, ‘asylum seeker’. I spent days looking at the data.
Operational manuals cover prenatal and postmortal processes of public governance. “Medicare Enrollment Trial – Birth of Pilot Child 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 plan website. The articles even govern the unborn child: “First contact after a stillborn 099-01010020”.
@posty discovered that 50.6% of Services Australia’s operational manuals are not on public display: a grand total of 2,647 operational manuals determining public governance are currently hidden.
As Australia’s Information Commissioner’s Office puts it: “The Information Publishing System (IPS) requires agencies, with limited exceptions, to publish on their website certain information they hold, and an information release plan. The IPS encourages agencies to be open and transparent and to consider publishing information that they are not obligated to publish.
Services Australia apparently considered the Information Commissioner’s encouragement to be more open – and rejected it. The agency concealed 290 articles on “Your Health”, 166 articles on “Help In An Emergency” and 101 articles on “People With Disability”.
My first keyword search showed 70 unpublished debt textbooks. This included a manual for “Debt Recovery for External Breast Prosthesis Reimbursement Scheme (EBPRP) 011-13050010”, which immediately raised the troubling question: does the government force people to repay Medicare for external breast prostheses? If not, why does Services Australia have a manual on asking people to reimburse breast prosthesis reimbursements?
A keyword search for “optical surveillance” returned four manuals, including an article on “request for guidance for optical surveillance”, which is not publicly available.
The search for “debit” revealed 21 private user manuals for the cashless debit card, including “Cashless Debit Card (CDC) 103-20081023 Welfare Exemptions” and a release document of the cashless debit card program (“Exit applications from the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) 103-20081031”). program? Lack of access to useful data stinks of the trap.
Do you want to know the process of “Evaluation of a medical certificate to determine exemption from mutual obligations for temporary incapacity 001-09120010”? Too bad, it is also new. Why shouldn’t job seekers know the process for assessing their medical exemptions? Should job seekers not have access to the operational manual on “Exempting a Job Seeker from Mutual Obligations Due to Special Circumstances 001-09120030”? Why is the government refusing to let job seekers know they are eligible to avoid mutual obligations?
I discovered an article about “Sex or Gender Change for Medicare Enrollments 011-44110020” hidden from public view. It seems particularly cruel that Services Australia is hiding information from transgender, non-binary and gender-diverse people about the process for changing sex or gender designation in the health insurance system.
It is infuriating to wonder about the potentially discriminatory justification for continuing to conceal these documents.
Of course, there are good reasons why certain articles are blocked – and most likely should remain blocked indefinitely. It is understandable that the publication of two operational manuals on family and domestic violence is blocked: no one wants government processes to be potentially weaponized by the perpetrators of violence. Likewise, it is for the best that the operational manual on the witness protection program remains out of public view at all times.
But it is more difficult to understand why eight operational manuals on refugees should remain unpublished. Similarly, six articles on humanitarian arrivals – including a manual titled “Determining Financial Assistance for an Unaccompanied Humanitarian Minor (UHM) 005-02040030” – are not publicly available.
The decision to hide operational manuals specifically related to vulnerable and marginalized people and people in crisis is an extension of the government’s cruel and harmful attempts to make life in Australia as difficult as possible for certain demographic groups.
People should know the processes by which they are governed. By blocking the majority of public governance documents in its domain, Services Australia undermines 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 communication advisor, a long-term activist and freelance journalist. Asher was a senior campaign coordinator against robodebt and a founder of the international Cryptoparty movement, and is currently pursuing a Masters in Social Work at Charles Sturt University. On Twitter: @Asher_Wolf.
Croakey thanks the donors of our Public Interest Journalism Fund for supporting this article.