What can Centrelink learn from a pizza retailer?

By David Donaldson

August 14, 2015

You might wonder what a purveyor of cheap pizzas has to teach Australia’s gigantic welfare department.

Tam Shepherd
Tam Shepherd

The Department of Human Services is aiming to model its customer service on the Domino’s pizza app, revealed Tam Shepherd, acting program executive director of DHS’ Welfare Payment Infrastructure Transformation Programme at the 2015 Australia New Zealand School of Government conference last week.

The problem is that when DHS customers lodge a claim, the department’s approach tends to be, “can you wait 21 days please?”, as Shepherd put it. Slow responses and a lack of available information impose significant costs on the department: on average, customers seeking progress updates call or go into Centrelink or Medicare offices four times after they’ve submitted a digital claim.

Hence the link to Domino’s. While the pizza chain is not renowned for the nutritional value of its food, what it does well is use mobile technology effectively. It hopes that allowing hungry people to place and track orders quickly and easily will engender loyalty in its customers. Customers evidently love it — Domino’s has doubled its earnings in two years.

“Just like a pizza, you order it, [they say] ‘yes we’ve got it, we baking it, it’s in the car, it’s outside your house’,” explained Shepherd. One day in the future, DHS will be able to tell its customers, “we’ve got it, we’re doing something with it, you owe us some information, we’ve processed it, here’s your payment.”

“We’ve got to do that with our customers because in the digital world, I push enter and I expect a response now,” he said.

‘I’ve changed my address, why can’t you just tell everybody?’

We’re not there yet on technology, says Shepherd. “No. If you’re in the business of digital in government and you think we’re there, it’s time to retire. Because you’re actually never there.

“Consumer expectations are changing about the way they conduct their life. Their expectations are developing in that regard and government is not isolated. Increasingly consumers want to do business with government in digital.

“So what does that mean for us? That means we need to stop thinking like a government department and start thinking like a bank,” he argued. “Our benchmark, loosely, is to make doing business with us as easy as a bank.”

And if you’ve had to apply for something with DHS recently, says Shepherd, “you’ll see that we’ve got a little while to go.”

Part of that challenge is working out how to share information between agencies to make life easier for citizens.

“In the world of digital, customers don’t care what level or brand or agency of government you’re from,” he argues.

The feeling for many is “goddamn it, I just want to change my address. I don’t care that you’re main roads, or Queensland health, or Medicare, Human Services, or Vicroads. I’ve changed my address, why can’t you just tell everybody?”

Codesign is king

After making it through the initial consolidation phase, the department has done a lot of work integrating its services.

DHS has “spent a lot of money on setting up the codesign capability within the department,” Shepherd told the ANZSOG audience. “We just keep getting better and better at doing that. It’s been a bit of a journey.”

The development of DHS’ child support app, which involved working with customers in Adelaide to improve the service offering, demonstrates the value of codesign.

They didn’t get it right the first time. “We got our staff and said, ‘what would be a cool thing to do with a child support app? What would be of value for our customers?’ We sort of tried to replicate what we were doing in the online PC space in an app. We mocked it up and prototyped it and took it to our customers and they said, ‘oh that’s not what I wanted at all,’ he recalled.

It turns out the assumptions made by the developers about what customers would want didn’t match up with what actually interested them. “[We said] ‘ohh, but this is what you do on a PC, we’ve just replicated it, it’s nothing new here.’ They said ‘no no, if you can put it on my phone, what we want is the ability to be able to talk to each other via the app to make arrangements for that shared care, a whole range of dialogue, because if we have to do that on a government app, we’ll be nice to each other.'”

The response from customers was, “if you support that dialogue and then do all the calculations you need to do with our child support arrangements, you can just get out of our way then and we’ll deal with that, and we’ll contact you when we need to,” he said.

This experience highlighted the value of engaging with customers. “It was really interesting that the mode of delivery actually reframed the service delivery model because when we put that in people’s hands, they saw the value of a bi-directional conversation, we do what we need to do at the back end and make calculations and adjustments, you do what you need to do.

“So it was a really good example of don’t assume all the best ideas have to be in your own team, because actually the customer can have some really smart ideas for how to shape your products.”

Pacman-era technology

The next stage of DHS’ transformation “is really important”, says Shepherd. “We’ve done a lot of digital work facing the customer, but our back-end systems do not support the delivery model we need going forward, so we need to address that.”

It was publicly revealed earlier this year that changing a letter for welfare recipients takes around 100 staff six months and costs $500,000. This year’s budget committed $60.5 million over four years to begin the process of replacing the government’s social security payments platform, a process that is expected to cost around $1 billion all up.

“Our technology platform was invented around the same time as Pacman,” argued Shepherd. It’s 30 years old and “a really reliable workhorse”, but it’s not agile enough to meet the needs of the contemporary payments system. When it was built the government paid out about $10 billion a year to around 2.5 million Australians.

“It’s over $100 billion a year now, so it’s time to give it a lick of paint,” he said.

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