Is Services Australia the last great hope for federal digital transformation?


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Yesterday’s announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to establish a new whole-of-government service delivery agency — Services Australia — is a potential game-changer, and may be the last chance to fix, once and for all, the meandering digital transformation journey of the federal government.

As a former Australian prime minister once said about plagiarising its digital agenda from the UK — if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the NSW government should feel very chuffed by this move.

The creation of ServiceNSW by Premier Barry O’Farrell in 2013 was a watershed moment. BCG’s voice of the customer research at the time showed that NSW had some of the worst customer satisfaction rates of any government, languishing between 69% for individuals and 66% for businesses.

Fast-forward a few years, and customer satisfaction rates are now consistently in the 95+% range.

It is stunning turnaround story and anyone who has had the pleasure of visiting a ServiceNSW shop-front knows it is a far cry from the long queues and dreariness of former motor registries.

The agency — which was itself inspired by the success of Michael Bloomberg’s NYC311 — now delivers more than 1000 transactions for 40 government agencies through 135 points of presence, and one phone number, one website and one mobile app.

The government went even further recently by bringing together service delivery with other whole-of-government ICT, data, and digital teams into a new Department of Customer Service under a single minister.

Out with old, in with the new (old?)

The idea of a one-stop-shop for service delivery across Commonwealth government is hardly new.

The Howard government established Centrelink in 1997 as the Commonwealth Services Delivery Agency. Under the charismatic leadership of its first CEO Sue Vardon, it became a globally respected exemplar of an integrated service-delivery agency. Vardon’s relentless focus on customer service and empowered leadership further led to a similar transformative turnaround in service levels.

In 2011, the creation of the Department of Human Services and Service Delivery Reform took this further by folding in Medicare Australia and the Child Support Agency.

In 2013, we got mygov, and, despite the usability, security and reliability challenges of the early years, it has become one of the world’s most comprehensive whole-of-government single sign-on and transactional service portals, with more than 10 million active users accessing most government online services across the federal government, and even some state government services.

Do we really need Services Australia?

The short answer is yes.

The Australian government has often been a world leader in service-delivery innovation, but the time has come for the next wave of reform.

The Australian government’s aspirations are to be one of the world’s top three digital governments, but the multiple false-starts in the digital transformation office/agency and high-profile technology mishaps (#censusfail, Robodebt, the NDIS launch, the new apprenticeship IT system, Naplan online etc.) have sapped public confidence and created the impression that the government can’t deliver anything digital.

Services Australia is an opportunity to reset and re-invigorate the focus on delivering for the people.

The challenge for the new Minister for Government Services, Stuart Robert, will be whether he is able to break through the cultural and institutional barriers that have prevented the achievement of better outcomes to date and replicate the success factors of ServiceNSW.

Here are three things that I think underpinned the success of ServiceNSW.

  1. A ‘greenfield’ start-up. ServiceNSW was established as a completely new entity with a new leadership team, new brand, new shopfronts and new workforce. It was deliberately set up to be separate from its precursors Roads and Maritime Services, the Office of State Revenue and other large agencies. It gave the leadership team the space and freedom to re-imagine the customer experience and create a completely new service-oriented culture.
  2. Strong customer-service leadership and culture. Many of the leadership team initially came from private sector organisations, with significant experience in servicing and processing environments. Mike Pratt from Westpac and Glenn King from NAB are examples. They listened to the ‘voice of the customer’ and defined the new ServiceNSW DNA or operating model and mindset. They recruited people with a strong service orientation from consumer, retail and hospitality sectors. Some staff were recruited from within the public service, but they had to apply and be interviewed for the new roles.
  3. Data-driven, learning environment. Behind the counter at ServiceNSW is a sophisticated analytical machine that tracks and reports on the throughput and performance of every team member. At the premier’s fingertips are dashboards showing metrics for queue times, backlogs and satisfaction levels across the state. Managers use this data to optimise workloads, meet service levels and identify patterns across the network. Team leaders use this data to celebrate success and provide feedback and coaching to team members. They also capture service-improvement ideas from frontline staff and escalate them to head office.

A greenfield entity, outside leadership, spill-and-fill and radical performance transparency might be challenging propositions for a new minister to take on, but in my view, they are essential for emulating the success story.

Digital first please

ServiceNSW started by fixing up the shopfronts and call-centres and later moved onto digital services. Is that what the Australian government should do?

I would argue that Services Australia should be set up more like a digital start-up, by adopting a digital business model, with call centres and shopfronts playing a support role only where necessary.

The government has a rare opportunity to start a brand new, truly digital venture unencumbered by legacy thinking or systems. Here is what it should do first.

  1. Fix australia.gov.au The UKNew Zealand, Argentina, Peru and many other governments have used the consolidation of their respective government online publishing platforms into a single domain as their first step towards a more seamless and integrated government. They’ve even used open-source code published on github. Unfortunately, attempts to do the same here have been thwarted multiple times. Regrettably, design templates and standards just haven’t achieved the same outcome. Search engine optimisation and discoverability are still poor. Language is still too bureaucratic and the ‘look and feel’ is inconsistent. This is not about efficiency or cost savings (although there probably are some), it is about a shift in mindset that says to staff and customers: “we are not just a collection of agencies — we are one government”.
  2. Build end-to-end services. Bring together genuine multi-disciplinary ‘service’ teams organised not around departments but also around customer needs and the life-events that trigger an interaction with government in the first place. Give those teams the authority to question and re-imagine the user journey, leveraging genuine design-thinking expertise and methods. There are many events that involve multiple parts and levels of government, such as starting a business, starting a family, coming of age, entering the workforce, moving house, coming to Australia, death of a family member, getting married, getting divorced and so on. All of these could be much more streamlined, integrated and digital — if required at all. New Zealand is doing it. Estonia is doing it. A govX communities initiative started under the Australian Digital Council was a step in the right direction but it needs more commitment and investment to succeed.
  3. Deliver proactive and personalised services. World-class consumer organisations are using data and advanced analytics to anticipate customer needs and make personalised predictions and recommendations. Instead of one-size-fits all or crude product-based or customer segmentation frameworks, we should tailor service delivery to the circumstances of each individual. Imagine that — digital services that are more timely and relevant to you, offered proactively? It requires a single view of the customer and a more sophisticated approach to using and sharing data within and outside government, supported by appropriate legislation, governance, architecture and infrastructure. The future digital employment services model is a good example of how this could work in practice.
  4. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Even if the government did everything above, there would still be at least one major impediment — the constraints imposed by complexity enshrined in legislation, policies and programs that successive governments have inherited and added to over time. The treacle soup of well-intentioned but often ill-conceived policies and programs, or out-of-date rules and regulations ultimately inhibits the good work of public servants trying desperately to deliver the seamless and integrated services that users want. As the ultimate ‘product owners’, our politicians (and their offices) need to take accountability for driving ‘congestion busting’ simplification from the top-down. They need be more hands-on with users in defining the desired outcomes, and more hands-off on the means to empower their teams to find the best way of achieving them.

Back to the future

Truth be told, we’ve heard this all before.

Julia Fetherston and I first wrote a BCG perspective on citizen-centric service delivery back in 2011. Many friends in the Australian digital government community have also pointed out similar issues and remedies before. You could argue this was the grand ambition of trying to imitate the UK in setting up the Digital Transformation Agency in the first place.

The challenge, of course, is not knowing what to do, but knowing how to do it and having the mandate, funding, skills and capabilities to get on with it … and it is high-time we got on with it.

For Australian businesses and citizens, the frustration and disappointment of undelivered promises and missed opportunities is already too great, and they deserve better.

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