‘Workforce Australia’ Is a Mess Because Governments Are Either Bad With Tech or Hate Poor People

The platform has become the source of widespread “fear and distress” among welfare recipients across the country.

The Australian government is either technologically inept or “hates” poor people, one expert suggests, as countless job seekers continue to find themselves without access to new digital employment services more than 24 hours after launch. 

The government’s new employment platform, Workforce Australia, was launched on Monday and replaces the outgoing JobActive platform, which was shut down by the new Albanese government without a transition period or consultation from unemployment and welfare groups. 

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The platform also dispenses with the mutual obligations requirements that were baked into its predecessor in favour of a more gamified, automated Points Based Activation System (PBAS), which requires those seeking welfare benefits to complete a series of tasks in return for payments.

On Monday, the platform became the source of widespread “fear and distress” among welfare recipients across the country, as countless job seekers were unable to log into the platform, while some struggled to use vital location services and others were dead-named.

Justin Warren, a technology analyst at the consulting group PivotNine, told VICE it’s not acceptable for a federal government, two decades into the twenty-first century, to be “this bad” with technology. In the wake of the Robodebt Royal Commission, he said, and other big failures like it, it would be naive to expect improved results when nothing changes. 

“At the moment, we are forced to decide between two unappealing possibilities. One: the government wants to be good at this, but is totally incapable of doing it. So they're just incompetent,” Warren said. 

“And the second is that the government deliberately doesn't want to be good at this, or that it's good and capable and is choosing to do this deliberately,” he said.  

“And I would suggest that it doesn't matter, because sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice. So from the point of view of a citizen having to deal with this system, it looks like a government that hates you and is actively trying to hurt you.”

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Defenders of the new Labor government note the new scheme was designed under the former Coalition government. But in the face of mounting criticism late last month, the Albanese government’s new employment minister, Tony Burke, said it was “too late” to scrap what became controversial changes to the employment services scheme, even as community advocates pleaded with the minister for a consultation period. 

Warren said the Albanese government now has a material opportunity to drive a stake in the ground, and differentiate itself from the former Morrison government by quickly coming out and saying it took the advice from its department—which failed—and then pull the plug on the new platform until it’s fixed.

So far, though, it’s looking unlikely. 

The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations issued a statement on Monday afternoon, saying the platform had been experiencing “intermittent issues” that went on to impact some of its mobile users. It said the issues had since been resolved, and that the site is “now performing well”.

According to the experiences of countless job seekers, however, it wasn’t the case then, and technical difficulties have been ongoing ever since. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations told VICE on Tuesday that only a “small number of issues” impacted job seekers on Monday, and said more than 150,000 people were able to schedule appointments with providers this week. 

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She said that while the department had experienced technical difficulties, the issues faced by users of the platform weren’t atypical of “any large scale IT project” where there were “technical and capacity partners involved in supporting the department’s own internal IT capacity and capability for the roll-out”.

“There have been progressive releases of capability over the last 12 months in support of the new platform. A range of external technology, cyber and privacy experts were consulted in the design and launch of the platform,” the spokesperson said. 

However, critics of the government’s project management suggest the old platform should’ve continued running alongside the launch of Workforce Australia, to ensure that teething issues wouldn’t impact a job seeker’s ability to access payments in the thick of a cost of living emergency. 

Jeremy Poxon, a spokesperson for the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) and welfare recipient, told VICE that he was no exception. When he was finally able to access the platform, he said, it suggested he apply for jobs in a city where he doesn’t live.

Last week, Poxon led protestors to the doorstep of the government’s new employment minister, Tony Burke, to call for the abolition of mutual obligations and a more considerate approach to phasing out the JobActive platform, so that job seekers wouldn’t find themselves in the position they eventually did just three days later. 

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“He hasn’t listened, and the department has decided to go ahead and abruptly bring this new system in, without proper mass testing,” Poxon said. “This is what governments have felt they’ve been able to do—basically treat welfare recipients like lab rats, like some experiment.”

On Twitter, users of the new Workforce Australia platform could be seen posting about issues using the app with older model iPhones, or that the platform’s accompanying app doesn’t allow a user to apply for jobs in-app—a function standard among others like it.

One federally employed fullstack engineer, who spoke to VICE under the condition of anonymity, said it “looks like a fucking mess”.

“This should have been planned months beforehand—many months,” said Warren, who along with his consulting work chairs Electronic Frontiers Australia, a prominent non-profit digital rights organisation. 

“Figuring out how long it will take to do things is a basic part of project management,” he said. 

“Technology projects, more generally, have a pretty high rate of flat failure. So it's not unusual for large and complex projects to not go well. But they really do need to be better at this by now.”

He insists there should have been a “Plan B”, and that Burke should have—and maybe, still could—shelve the platform or offer a moratorium on mutual obligations until the government has resolved the platform’s issues. 

After private Medicare data was leaked en masse in 2016, Robodebt led countless welfare recipients to suicide around the same time, and the federal government fumbled the Digital Passenger Declaration project, before later parking it earlier this week, Warren said there’s nothing stopping Burke from tapping the brakes in the interests of public safety. 

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The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations sees it differently. It says the new system “means a fresh start, with more choice and flexibility in the activities and tasks needing to be completed by a participant to meet their mutual obligation requirements”.

A mutual obligations moratorium has so far been ruled out by the department, but Workforce Australia users will “not be subject to any compliance action for failing to meet their points requirements in the first month of transitioning” if they transition to the platform before September 30. 

The Workforce Australia Twitter account announced in a tweet late on Tuesday that mutual obligation requirements would be temporarily suspended for flood-affected job seekers in select local government areas, for a period of one week.

According to the Antipoverty Centre, three in four job seekers who have so far offered up feedback say they have struggled to login to the new Workforce Australia platform. The group, along with the AUWU, says Burke has not responded to their proposal to suspend all penalties for a minimum of 90 days, as the nation’s welfare recipients are uprooted and relocated.

“This is causing so much unnecessary fear and distress to those of us on payments and we should not be paying the price of the government’s refusal to listen to us,” said Jay Coonan, an Antipoverty Centre spokesperson and JobSeeker recipient.

“Changes to employment services in 2015 and 2018 saw dramatic spikes in the number of people penalised while trying to adjust,” he said. 

“The worst effects were felt by First Nations people, and we know that every problem that affects welfare recipients disproportionately harms First Nations, trans, homeless, disabled and other marginalised people.”

Follow John on Twitter.

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News, Australia, NEW ZEALAND, welfare, Centrelink

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