Category: News

ACC’s computer-aided decision-making questioned

Friday, 22 September 2017, 5:23 pm
Press Release: University of Otago

ACC’s computer-aided decision-making questioned by Otago experts

University of Otago researchers are warning of the potential pitfalls in government departments using computer-based risk prediction models, as has been recently revealed through a controversial new tool used by the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) to profile and target clients.

The ACC uses a computer model to assist staff managing claims, however, details of what the model does, and how it is used, are somewhat sketchy, says spokesperson for the University’s Artificial Intelligence and Law in New Zealand Project, Associate Professor James Maclaurin.

The most concrete information comes from a short press release issued by ACC indicating that the tool is used to make three types of prediction:

  • • which clients are likely to need help and should be called proactively,
  • • which type of case owner should assist the client, and
  • • how long we should expect a claim to be managed.

“This somewhat vague description leaves open the possibility that ACC uses these predictions to minimise treatment times, either by intervening in patients’ treatment, or (more seriously) by declining applicants with long predicted treatment times,” says Associate Professor Maclaurin.

“The tool makes predictions about future ACC cases using a database of information about 364,000 past claims that were lodged between 2007 and 2013. ACC stresses that details about individual cases are kept private both from ACC staff and from other agencies,” says Department of Computer Science’s Professor Alistair Knott, another researcher on the project.

Management still appears to be ultimately under human control: an ACC ‘case owner’ makes the final decision about each case.

“But ACC workers find themselves in a situation increasingly common in our society: their decisions are guided by advice generated automatically by a machine, based on a large set of data extending far beyond their own experience.

“We are in the same position when we use Google’s navigation system in our cars, or choose a book based on Amazon’s recommendations. In these cases, having a computer in the decision-making loop seems innocuous enough. It seems less innocuous when it guides the agencies whose decisions have serious consequences for people’s lives. We set out six questions that such agencies must be able to answer about the algorithms they use.

“Of course it is a fundamentally a good thing for people’s decision-making to be informed by statistics. Systems like the ACC tool can be quite accurate, but because they don’t reason in the way humans do, it is essential that Governments and companies relying on them are able to answer the following questions:

  1. 1. How accurate is the tool, in fact? Predictive tools are easy to evaluate: if the public is to have confidence in the ACC tool, and the courts are to evaluate its use, the agency should give a public account of how it was evaluated. Without divulging personal details, this should include a thorough description of the data set on which it was assessed.
    2. Can the agency explain the way this tool works so that clients could appeal particular decisions?
    3. Does the use of this tool distort the way the agency pursues its stated policy objectives?
    4. By ‘passing the buck’ to the machine, is the agency to ducking its responsibility to make fair and humane decisions about treatment of New Zealanders in need?
    5. Does this tool implicitly discriminate against individuals on problematic grounds such as age, ethnicity or gender? Importantly, there is simply no way to remove this bias without compromising the accuracy of its predictions. There is a real risk that the ACC tool unfairly discriminates against some clients. This possibility needs to be explored in an evaluation of the system.
    6. Are employees effectively trained in the use of the system? While the predictive system is probably intended to be used as a guide, to supplement the case owner’s own knowledge and judgements, it is easy to fall into ‘autopilot’ mode when guided by a system—especially if it is fairly accurate. (The dangers of autopilot mode are particularly clear if the system’s errors are prone to bias, of the kind just mentioned.) The charge of ‘falling into autopilot mode’ is often levelled at judges using the US predictive system.

“Predictive analytics technologies show great potential in informing public decision-making, but it is important for these technologies to be evaluated and scrutinised when used in the public domain. It may be that ACC has addressed the issues we raise in its own internal training and evaluation processes. But we are calling for ACC to provide a public account of how it uses its predictive tool, so as to maintain the integrity of its decision-making,” says Faculty of Law Professor Colin Gavaghan.

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New Zealand Law Awards

At the 10th Annual New Zealand Law Awards, held on 6 November 2014, Hazel Armstrong Law was a finalist in the Boutique Law Firm of the Year category, and our senior associate Ben Thompson was the winner of the Young Private Practice Lawyer of the Year. You can read more about Ben’s award, and the work he has done for the firm, on the NZ Lawyer Magazine website.

If you’d like to talk to talk about how we can help you with your ACC or employment law issues, please contact us.


Hazel Armstrong Awarded Health & Safety Lifetime Achievement Award

Hazel Armstrong, principal of Hazel Armstrong Law, was awarded the Countdown Supermarkets Lifetime Achievement Award for her success in the occupational health and safety field. The award was given at the Safeguard New Zealand Workplace Health & Safety Awards ceremony in Auckland, on 28 May 2014. Hazel has been involved in working with unions, employees, employers and government departments throughout her legal career. Hazel was given the award for “her determined advocacy for better health and safety and improved access to the ACC scheme via trade unions, the ACC board, commissions of enquiry, two books, and her legal practice.”

If you would like to discuss your health and safety, ACC or employment issues, contact us.

ACC Futures Submission on ACC Levies

ACC Futures, for which Hazel Armstrong is the spokesperson, has recently submitted on the ACC levies. The submission calls for the government to set levies independent of any political ideology, and to set levies in a way that is designed to ensure claimants obtain treatment, compensation, and rehabilitation. Read the ACC Futures submission here.

ACC in the News

The Government has recently announced a reduction in the ACC levies.  Hazel Armstrong believes that rather than focusing on reducing ACC levies, the ACC should focus on ensuring that all ACC claimants get comprehensive and full treatment and rehabilitation. As  spokesperson for ACC Futures, Hazel has given several interviews on the levies over the last few days. Hazel spoke to Radio Live’s Sean Plunket and Wallace Chapman, and on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report. An article about Hazel’s Radio New Zealand can be found here.

Professor Bill Glass, from Massey University, has also spoken recently on why so many workers are getting injured or killed on the job.

Hazel Armstrong Law’s UN Hearing Loss Submission on Stuff

Hazel Armstrong Law recently made a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council regarding discrimination against hearing loss claimants in ACC legislation. Shane Cowlishaw wrote an article on the firm’s submission and ACC hearing loss claimants in the Dominion Post. The article is also featured on news website Stuff.

If you’d like to discuss this submission, or any other ACC problems you may be having, with our staff, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Is the Government intent on failing to give effect to the H&S Taskforce’s recommendations?

We have recently drafted a submission on the National Party’s proposed changes to the Employment Relations Act and health and safety laws.  We made many submissions; however, one aspect of the proposals is particularly worrisome and, if the Bills are enacted, will undermine the gains hoping to be made in New Zealand’s previously abysmal workplace health and safety laws and track record.

The attacks the Employment Relations Amendment Bill 2013 seeks to make on collective bargaining will exacerbate and prolong the difficulties that have beset workplace health & safety in NZ since the 90s.  One of the most fundamental weaknesses identified by the Health and Safety Taskforce was the lack of worker participation – and particularly collective worker participation – in workplace health and safety.

The policy which underlies these parts of the Employment Relations Amendment Bill is mutually exclusive with the type of change recommended by the Health and Safety Taskforce.  The changes proposed in this Bill undermine the ability of workers (through their respective Unions) to effectively participate in the setting/promulgation of rules, systems and standards which define and govern their working lives.  This includes rules, systems, and standards concerning workplace health and safety.

This problematic (and presumably ideological) policy can also be seen in the changes proposed by the Health and Safety (Pike River Implementation) Bill, which establishes WorkSafe New Zealand (a new Crown Entity responsible for workplace health and safety).  Despite the specific, plainly worded and repeated recommendations of the Taskforce, the proposed changes to health and safety law would not require:

(a) That the board of WorkSafe NZ be selected on the basis of tripartism; or

(b) That any advisory group created by WorkSafe NZ be constituted on a tripartite basis.

In light of the changes proposed to both the employment and health & safety laws, it would seem that the Government is intent on failing to give effect to the Taskforce’s recommendations.  The specific changes proposed by this Bill will, if enacted, make the kind of worker participation championed by the Taskforce all the more difficult to realise.

Hazel Armstrong on Campbell Live

Hazel Armstrong appeared on Campbell Live on 18 June 2013, discussing vocational independence. See the video here.

If you would like to discuss this interview, or any other issues related to ACC, please contact us.

Submission to the Eighteenth Session of the Universal Periodic Review

The United Nations is preparing to conduct a review of human rights issues in New Zealand. This process is called the Universal Periodic Review, and interested parties are given the opportunity to prepare submissions for the United Nation’s consideration.

Hazel Armstrong Law has completed a submission addressing discrimination against hearing loss claimants in the ACC legislation. Under the Act, claimants can only be covered for noise induced hearing loss if at least six percent of their total hearing loss was caused by occupational noise exposure. There is no threshold for cover for any other injury under the Accident Compensation Act.

You can find Hazel Armstrong Law’s submission to the Universal Periodic Review below. If you have any questions on this submission, or any other ACC problems, please contact us.

Your life for the job: New Zealand rail safety 1974-2000

Hazel Armstrong’s book Your life for the job: New Zealand Rail Safety 1974-2000 is now available.


This book, written by New Zealand’s foremost legal expert on workplace health and safety, concludes that the appalling rate of death and injury on New Zealand’s railways in the 1990s is ‘the story of de-regulation and privatisation’.

In the early 1990s new workplace health and safety legislation ‘obliged employers to take all practicable steps to prevent harm to their employees’. Your life for the job makes it clear that New Zealand Rail (NZR) was secretly exempted.

Soon afterwards, NZR was sold to a consortium of private owners which renamed it Tranz Rail, cut staff numbers and reduced spending on equipment and maintenance. Eleven of its employees were killed on the job between 1995 and 2000. This shameful record was brought to an end after the RMTU, the rail workers’ union, successfully called for an independent inquiry.

Author Hazel Armstrong points out that both the 2000 Tranz Rail inquiry and the 2012 Pike River inquiry illustrate what happens when regulators are ineffective and are captured by the employer; Parliament and the government of the day are prepared to compromise worker health and safety for some other end-game; and directors and managers turn a blind eye to hazards.

Copies of Your life for the job can be purchased from Hazel Armstrong Law for $20. Email to order a copy. Alternatively, you can read Hazel’s book online.

Pike River Tragedy & Accountability: The families are right

The Pike River families are right. Individuals should be held accountable even where there were systemic problems within the former Department of Labour. The Independent Investigation Report into the Pike River Tragedy identified the individuals who made decisions not to provide additional resourcing for the Mines Inspectorate and who failed to act on the concerns of the Mines Inspectors.

However, the Investigators were not asked to look at the politicians that made the decisions about Department of Labour funding and the failure to re-regulate. Nor were the Investigators asked to look at the responsibility that Treasury has, who oversaw the funding allocation to the Department of Labour.

It is not good enough to simply absolve individuals of their responsibility solely because the problems were systemic. A less timid and broader investigation needs to take place that encompasses political and administrative accountability.