A Federal government review of so-called expert systems software used by public servants making policy decisions has found the software is useful but recommended human beings should ultimately retain control and responsibility over decision-making rather than computers.
The findings are contained in a 80 page report from the Administrative Review Council (ARC) entitled "Automated Assistance in Administrative Decision Making".
Most federal departments and agencies use some sort of rules-based decision automation software, with agencies such as the Australian Taxation Office, Centrelink and the Department of Family and Community Services amongst the heaviest users due the high level of transactions performed.
The report said: "Primary decision making is now 'big business' for many government agencies," adding that Centrelink had "conducted 4,402,527 reviews of eligibility and entitlement" over the 2003 financial year.
Commonwealth Ombudsman Professor John McMillan said any computer systems involved in such a process would need to be capable of allowing some levels of human discretion.
"But the balance should be tipped towards accountability rather than discretion," McMillan said.
"There is the potential for them to be used in grant applications, particularly in the processing, receiving, registering and tracking of them as they go through.
"The real issue is whether you then use a computerized system in actually making the decisions - you could do it, if you have ten criteria you were going to look at."
McMillan added that computers had enabled bodies such as the Child Support Agency to cut the number of customer complaints while reducing errors at Centrelink and the tax office.
Others seem less than convinced. The National Welfare Rights Network Inc. warned it was "not possible to have a logic tree that covers every possibility in discretionary decision making and that the infinite variety of the human condition means that rule-based systems are not appropriate in administrative decision making".
Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said computerizing more government processes was worthwhile, but computer-made decisions were not above question.
"They are still subject to the same administrative law rules and principles that have always existed to safeguard the quality of administrative decisions," he said.
"The absolute imperative for decisions to be made fairly and rationally will remain constant."
For the time being at least, the humans stay - whatever their condition.
With Julian Bajkowski