Audit takes the shine off Service NSW project


Some of the gloss has been taken off the New South Wales government’s much celebrated efforts to centralise, digitise and streamline public service delivery.

Will Service NSW really produce benefits five times the cost of setting it up, as claimed in the second of two slightly dubious business cases? It’s hard to tell.

“The concept of a single contact point for customer service delivery is valid and practical from a consumer’s point of view.”

The auditor-general has pointed out there is not enough performance measurement and reporting going on to know whether the promised benefits are being realised — but the auditor approves of the overall intention behind the newish agency and says some of the qualitative information being collected is positive.

Acting auditor-general Tony Whitfield reports the “outputs, benefits and savings to be achieved” through the $969.8 million Service NSW venture are neither clear nor specific enough, and that two optimistic business cases had various deficiencies:

“Planned benefits, savings, and outcomes, were either not well defined or inaccurate.”

The agencies whose services sit behind the Service NSW front end have not developed any useful approach to “benefits realisation” and this needs to be addressed, according to the auditors. They suggest starting with clarification about whose role it is to monitor what elements of performance for the whole-of-government project.

Service NSW is monitoring progress towards “selected benefits and savings” like its own financial performance and customer satisfaction — surveys show customers find the new system “convenient” — but nobody is looking at overall saving to government.

At the same time, “there is insufficient data available to fully value or identify individual agency and whole-of-government savings and benefits”.

“Planned benefits, savings, and outcomes, were either not well defined or inaccurate.”

About 80% of the transactions that NSW residents conduct via Service NSW are with three agencies that signed up early on: Roads and Maritime Services, Fair Trading and the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

According to Whifield, who only looked at “benefits realisation” for the much lauded project:

“The concept of a single contact point for customer service delivery is valid and practical from a consumer’s point of view.”

But he could not find “robust analyses of the benefits and savings to be achieved” in either of two business cases for the initiative, which was funded with almost a billion dollars in total over six years:

“The second business case did not report on what had been spent, or the value of the benefits and savings that had already been achieved, by implementing the first business case.”

Key deliverables, performance measures and the implementation schedule set out in the business cases changed as the project was being rolled out, but the audit turned up no approval of the changes, no explanation of why they were necessary, and no analysis of how switching course would affect planned benefits.

“The business cases also did not meet all mandatory government requirements for benefits realisation management. For example, accountability for achieving individual benefits and savings were not clearly defined or allocated.”

The first business case — for the establishment of Service NSW and its takeover of hundreds of shopfronts from the three early adopting agencies — underestimated costs and the roll-out timeframe, while it overestimated benefits. It never underwent a gateway review before being approved and it was never completed.

Nevertheless it was replaced with the second business case for digitisation, taking over more services from the client agencies and delivering a new whole-of-government payments system by June 30, 2018. The second iteration did go through a gateway review, but only after it was approved.

It claimed benefits would outweigh costs by five to one, but the lack of effective whole-of-government performance measurement and reporting makes it impossible to tell if that will come true.

There were also some complaints from client agencies about Service NSW providing incorrect information on their behalves and making other errors that end up making transactions more complex:

“This included providing advice that contradicted user agencies’ procedural and document requirements, resulting in user agencies later rejecting customer applications. User agencies have also advised of instances where SNSW service centres have accepted applications for licences with insufficient proof of identity.

“These issues required further follow‑up from user agencies, and added to user agencies’ costs to resolve and process transactions. SNSW sharing the results of its quality assurance monitoring for its call and service centres would assist user agencies to see improvements in service quality, and would demonstrate its accuracy rate.”

The acting auditor-general recommended Service NSW could go some way towards fixing the key issues found through the audit by producing a report to the Expenditure Review Committee meeting six criteria, as well as a “benefits realisation register” linked to information in the report.

Whitfield also wants the agency to define the whole-of-government benefits it expects to achieve from its inception in June 2013 until June 2017, and clarify who should be measuring and reporting on progress towards those targets.

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