Blockchain is never the answer

First Published: Sat Apr 17 2021
Last Updated: Mon Jun 20 2022

“Good news, disabled Australians! You’ll soon be getting an app that will implement a welfare compliance regime designed by the people who brought you robo-debt. But don’t worry, it’ll have blockchain.” – Stilgherrian in Full tilt

Remember when I spoke about the need for disabled people to be front and centre for the development of technology which is nominally all about them?

This is a great example of what happens when they’re not.

According to tech journo Stilgherrian, the National Disability Insurance Agency is going to push ahead with rolling out an app they piloted in 2018. This app we’re told is going to use the magic bean known as blockchain to provide “smart money” that would allegedly make the whole process of dealing with service payments (including working out whether the service is valid under the user plan) much easier for everyone involved.

The pilot was a partnership between the federal governments Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) and the Commonwealth bank. According to their case study page the use of blockchain was an arbitrary decision based on the desire of the DTA to have a play around with it.

“CBA and CSIRO’s Data61 had wanted to test the potential of blockchain to enable smart money for quite a while. We were also interested to see how blockchain technology may be able to integrate with existing payments technologies, such as Australia’s New Payments Platform. The NDIS contains highly personalised budgets and payments, making it a good case study for our project.”

Leaving aside the fact that the use of blockchain in the app appears to provide no real benefit to the user.

“We found that a centralised database and our smart money proof of concept could achieve a similar front-end user experience.”DTA Case Study

The app itself has issues for people who self manage. One of the state benefits of self management is that you are not limited to NDIA approved suppliers for services. You pay out of your own funds or submit an invoice, connect it to your goals and then it’s verified by the NDIS and paid out. At the moment this is a bit of a clunky process not helped by the fact that the NDIS payment gateway isn’t the best designed system in the world.

The app on the other hand, seems very much guided towards pushing self managed people towards NDIS approved suppliers only (especially as because it has a token based payment system). They even note this in the Commonwealth Banks own report (PDF)

“However, general providers of services, such as home cleaning business, may have lower incentives to pre-register, as only a small proportion of their income may derive from the NDIS.

To overcome this issue, it may be possible to establish a graduated registration process, whereby for small transactions, service providers and/or participants could register the service in the moment, by manually entering the details and providing the service provider’s bank account information. As service providers generate more revenue from the NDIS, or experience repeat custom from NDIS participants, they could then be required to more formally register their services.”

Now don’t get me wrong. The NDIS plan management site drastically needs a rebuild. Its not obvious how much money you have left in each of your categories, attaching documents to payments requests means they appear to disappear into the ether and all in all it’s just slightly rubbish.

However what we’re getting is UI/UX improvements combined with an experiment that even the DTA and Commonwealth Bank admit doesn’t give any real world benefit to the user, and appears to be borderline as to whether it gives any backend improvements over other approaches.

Given the apparent desire to push self managed participants towards NDIS approved only and to in fact capture more providers in the NDIS token system, I really get the impression that the app and systems behind aren’t being built primarily with participants at the centre, but more the desires of the NDIS.

Combine this with claims of robo-plans, “NDIS Razor Gangs” and so on, and you’ve got a whole bunch of people worried that this is going to be the start of a process that is going to reduce people with disabilities to numbers on an excel spreadsheet to be pushed around as needed to make the bottom line look good.