The big reveal: Services Australia reforms linked to data sharing and digital transformation

By Stephen Easton

Monday December 2, 2019

The federal government’s Digital Transformation Strategy and data-sharing reforms have been stitched together with its ambitious plan to completely transform the Commonwealth’s troubled service delivery arm, and rebrand it Services Australia.

The Services Australia reform taskforce, led by Martin Hoffman, now head of the National Disability Insurance Agency, produced “a strategy with clear horizons and deliverables over 12 months, 2-3 years, and 5 years”, according to Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert.

Reciting the mantra that it is much more than a rebrand, Robert gave a major speech on Friday detailing seven streams of work that aim to dramatically change the face of federal service delivery, and the back-end systems behind it.

The Services Australia reforms are now the centrepiece of the government’s broader digital-transformation agenda, to be underpinned by a bold plan to build whole-of-government IT architecture and the looming data-sharing reforms. Draft legislation is being developed and the minister said he wanted to see it passed by parliament in mid-2020, under the title Data Accessibility and Transparency Act (DATA).

One team is tasked with designing shopfronts that are “friendly, welcoming and fit for a variety of purposes, locations and customers” and another has the difficult job of finding ways to reduce the appallingly long queues of people dialling social services call centres.

Robert told the Australian Information Industry Association that a third team would develop “a customer-centric suite of digital services, where we can seamlessly bring together a host of features on a single pane of glass” and he set a high bar for customer satisfaction, promising to attain a state of service delivery “Nirvana” where it is “delightful” to deal with federal agencies like Centrelink or Medicare.

The IT industry crowd was shown a slick promotional video produced by the Digital Transformation Agency that portrayed something with little resemblance to the current myGov website, looking more like a clone of Facebook, but for government services. This may appear on the DTA YouTube channel soon but had not as of Monday morning.

The video showed a personalised citizen profile allowing interactions with multiple federal agencies on a single platform, with features like proactive nudges and notifications, chatbots, voice recognition, and integration with personal assistant applications like Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa.

Another stream is about simplifying work processes and removing internal “red tape” in the public service. A fifth involves work like the replacement of Centrelink’s outdated welfare payments platform. The news that Infosys has been selected to deliver a crucial “entitlements calculation engine powered by Pegasystems” was another big announcement for the IT industry group, which has a formal relationship with the DTA.

Two “overarching” streams of work make up the Services Australia reforms. One is focused on joining up agencies around certain life events, like the birth of a baby or opening a business, and the other is “dedicated to thinking about what the Services Australia brand means and how Australians will experience it”.

The government “will not be putting this name on services that do not meet the expectations of Australians”, according to Robert.

“We wanted to make it clear to the public, and the public service, that the priority of government is excellence in service delivery,” he said.

“Do not underestimate how revolutionary that message can be. The private sector has been talking about ‘customer obsession’ for a very long time. However, in many ways it is still a new way of looking at service delivery in government.”

The minister cited “agency boundaries, technology deficits and a focus on different KPIs and metrics” as key factors that made it hard for frontline staff to deliver this sort of experience already.

The Community and Public Sector Union took umbrage at the suggestion, arguing the deep cuts to the public service under the Coalition were a major issue and predicting more failed technology projects and debacles like robodebt unless the government put more humans back into human services.

Robert said “many of” the seven streams of work were being progressed by “joint agency and private sector taskforces” working in “agile 90-day sprints”. He said he would personally spend about an hour and a half with each team, every fortnight, “for as long as it takes to drive this change”.

“This drives transparency, accountability and clarity across all streams of work, which is critical if we are to succeed in our mission to build a service model that brings together all the information, support and services that might be required across different agencies and tiers of government to deliver customer-centric services,” the minister says in the written version of the speech.

Read more: Feds plan to join up government using computer science, on the way to service delivery ‘Nirvana’

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