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WPIT good: DHS aims to prove public servants can do ‘agile’

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There is a lot riding on the Department of Human Services Welfare Payments Infrastructure Transformation and it could be a demonstration of agile development and best practice digital transformation in the public service. That’s if all goes according to the long, expensive and challenging plan.

One year into a seven-year program of work, the WPIT program is starting to pick up steam with a request for tenders from systems integrators that want to join a panel of up to six being released this week, and discussions with SAP underway to firm up its role as core software provider.

John Murphy, who is responsible for making WPIT a success as deputy secretary for payments reform, knows well that new IT systems cannot solve all the department’s problems.

“We are going to adopt different ways of working.”

He says the mega-project is more about transforming the way the department works, and using newer technology to support that, redesigning services based on user needs and expectations, and following “agile methodology” so that when it’s finally finished in 2022, what it has delivered is still relevant.

There are high hopes in many quarters that WPIT, which is broken up into several tranches, will make life easier for its staff and the huge number of citizens who rely on them to process claims and send them various kinds of welfare, child support and Medicare rebate payments. Those citizens are a diverse bunch covering every sector of the population and many interact with DHS agencies for multiple reasons.

In 2014-15 those staff took 26.8 million phone calls — most inquiring about the status of a claim — and managed the disbursement of $165 billion in payments. In the same financial year DHS handled 25 million visits to shopfronts, 115 million visits to the website, and 124 million self-service transactions. Over 9 million of its customers interact via myGov accounts. All of those numbers are going up and the massive department is straining under the pressure as it is.

John Murphy
John Murphy

IT upgrades inside the federal government don’t get much bigger but the “business transformation that will drive the change” is even more important, said Murphy, repeatedly assuring the audience it would be a business-led transformation.

“A lot of those services that we provide are provided through digital channels but … despite that, essentially the visits to our shopfronts and the calls into our service centres have not declined significantly,” he said. “There has been some change but probably not to the extent that you would expect to see when you provide digital channels, or continue to enhance digital channels.”

Why? Part of the answer is that the welfare payments system still relies on customers filling in lots of paper forms and providing hardcopy attachments like proof of identity documents.

“So that’s one reason why we continue to have a lot of transaction activity through what you would call the manual channels,” said Murphy, who was recruited to run WPIT in January after a 35-year career in the finance sector, most recently with NAB.

“But probably more importantly is that the underlying processes and the underlying transactions have not fundamentally changed. So despite the fact that digital channels are available, we’re essentially taking the existing processes and putting those in through the digital channels.”

The opportunity to oversee the “fundamental transformation of the business processes” is what attracted Murphy to take the job of running WPIT last year. In his view, it can also be seen as a continuation of the department’s slow evolution since at least 2009, and “the ongoing evolution of welfare payments” will continue after WPIT.

“Essentially, what we are doing now is fundamentally re-imagining the welfare payments environment in Australia, with a view to delivering that over the next six years,” he said, adding that this “change agenda” would extend throughout the community.

Legacy systems weave a tangled web

At the same time, he acknowledges it is high time to replace the complex set of overlapping systems that centre on a 30-year-old mainframe with something better, faster and more robust. Something that doesn’t involve “over 350 components and 30 million lines of code” and is a lot more efficient.

“The visits to our shopfronts and the calls into our service centres have not declined significantly.”

The old mainframe isn’t quite as bad as it sounds; it’s “actually a pretty robust and solid system” that does what it’s told, according to Murphy, and it’s quite common for very large organisations to keep such simple yet reliable old beasts going. But it’s just not very flexible, and Australia was a much smaller place when it was first switched on.

Social welfare policies have become “more and more complex” over the years through a process he characterised as a “layering in” of both technology and policy, “which has generated a significant amount of complexity and challenge” for the department managing the payments.

“Each payment has its own processing engine and we’re supporting 40-odd different payments and 38 add-ons through this technology environment. And equally importantly, I think, is that the rules and the processes that underpin each of the various payments and the add-ons are not standardised.

“This is all bespoke within this technology environment so it is very difficult for the system to respond to the policy changes that we’ve looked to make, and the policy departments are looking to enact in a timely and efficient way.”

For example, Murphy wants to replace the “10 or 12” different definitions of “income” used by DHS at the moment with a single one, working with the Department of Social Services and other agencies. The idea is to be able to “reuse capability” for the various different payments, which barely happens at all currently. Just one eligibility criteria for one benefit could have over 100 rules underpinning it.

“[A] simple change — perhaps naming a program — is going to take weeks and months and cost a significant amount of money because of the complexity, [and] obviously where we’re trying to get to is changes taking days and costing significantly less.”

This “very complex environment” involving the use of “multiple technologies in parallel” cannot support the government’s vision for better welfare administration.

The aim is to get DHS much closer to the holy grail of end-to-end digital service delivery, meaning much less paperwork. Other goals include more real-time analytics and major efficiency improvements through clever use of data from multiple sources.

“What we want to do is, rather than welfare claimants [and] recipients providing us with information, we want to be able to take that information from existing sources,” said Murphy. Much like the pre-filled data that now appears on our tax returns, Centrelink will begin to grab far more data about people from other organisations and just ask clients to confirm it’s correct.

Agile methodology and user-centred design

The first tranche of the program has been allocated $60.5 million and the panel of IT suppliers who will be called on throughout to support specific aims will be appointed before funding is allocated to tranche two, from the $1.5 billion set aside. When the second phase begins, the panel of up to six system integrators will have been whittled down to one and the actual delivery will begin.

“We are going to adopt different ways of working, which won’t be foreign to anybody in this room,” Murphy told the Technology in Government attendees, referring to the “agile methodology” represented by the staged approach.

He assured the audience that the days of huge, long running public sector IT projects that cost a mint to deliver mediocre outcomes are over, and said the department was “very much looking to lead” with the way it had approached WPIT.

“We’re very much going to embrace the idea of test and learn, because we are trying to step into a space where in some cases we know what we want to achieve; we don’t know how we’re going to get there,” he said.

He told one audience member who questioned how a seven-year, $1.5 billion project could be agile that DHS is not looking to build a whole set of detailed user requirements right now. There will be five tranches and they will start by looking at the needs of specific client groups, starting with mainly tech-savvy university students, before moving on to job seekers in tranche three. Family, carer and disability payments are tranche four, with pensioners and the rest in tranche five.

“There’s no point in designing now for seven years [in the future] because the technology as a bare minimum will have moved on,” said Murphy.

The funding arrangements also mean that DHS only gets the money for each tranche after it’s gone back to the minister with the new plan, he added. Each “self-contained” tranche would roll out separately, irrespective of the others.

“We’re very much going to embrace the idea of test and learn. ”

Reimagining what the welfare environment will look like in 2022 will be a serious challenge, especially while maintaining the ability to adapt to emerging technologies. Blockchain, Murphy noted, had moved from being a “dirty word” in the finance sector to “a well regarded potential solution for a number of business challenges” over the past few years (but is now nearing the point of maximum hype where pie-in-the-sky applications are being touted left, right and centre).

At the same time, DHS needs to maintain phone lines and shopfronts into the 2020s and beyond as part of what Murphy calls the “true omni-channel experience”. But the group of people who prefer the older channels as their primary contact method is small and shrinking, and many clientele are probably just as keen to minimise calls and face-to-face appointments as anyone else.

As part of the program, he’s making new efforts to train the staff on phone lines and counters so they are “equipped to handle the types of questions that really only can be answered through a human interaction”.

“We can’t close the doors,” said the WPIT lead, “so we are going to renovate over the next seven years, at the same time that we will continue to provide the types of services that we do today.”

Murphy says the target business model that sets out the broad capabilities WPIT is to achieve has progressed quite far and is “anchoring” WPIT, but at the same time is a work in progress. A lot of the first year has been spent looking at the current state and getting direct feedback from various groups of clients and staff. “We’ve had many, many, many people involved in painting the picture of what they want to see, when we transform the welfare payments environment.”

The jobs of the 25,000-odd staff who work the call centres and shopfronts can be stressful and hair-raising at the best of times, but are made more so when customer frustrations at the complex, partially automated and occasionally glitchy system boil over, and when staff just don’t have the answers to give them. Murphy promises to listen closely to employee perspectives too, throughout the process.

That engagement will be one of two key success factors, he said, along with the “change agenda” which, at the end of the day, has one key job above all else: make the experience a whole lot less painful for a growing number of customers, and the frontline staff who serve them.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is the associate editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.