‘Robo-Debt’: Guilt, Responsibility and the Dehumanisation of Welfare Compliance

This paper explores how digital techniques of policy implementation can themselves propel, shape and/or disrupt processes of welfare reform. It does so via a close analysis of the implementation of the Online Compliance Intervention, popularly known as ‘robo-debt’, by the Australian Department of Human Services (DHS). As it argues, this automated debt recovery system has transformed the governance of welfare compliance in Australia. Robo-debt has shifted responsibility for proving the existence of welfare non-compliance from the welfare state to the individual welfare recipient and has automated and ‘dehumanised’ the infliction of informal punishments, including debt recovery processes. Ultimately, robo-debt has enabled and contributed to broader processes of punitive welfare reform. The case of robo-debt prompts wider questions about the relationship between law and its technical implementation, and highlights the productive possibilities of the technologies of welfare administration.