myGov all grow’d up, but needs more friends inside government

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday July 4, 2017

The Australian National Audit Office has taken a look at myGov and MPs from both sides of politics read the report carefully before offering sensible, insightful responses. Just kidding.

Two ministers crowed about the service delivery portal having twice as many accounts as originally expected in 2012, in a statement portraying the auditor-general’s sober review as nothing less than a gushing tribute to government policy. The two shadow ministers who want their jobs pointed to “another blown budget” and exclusively highlighted some of the other less impressive findings. The truth, as usual, was somewhere in between.

Overall, ANAO found the rollout of myGov between 2012 and 2016 as a whole of government service delivery platform has been “largely effective” although some requirements are still to be delivered and the limited number of services available through the system detracts from its value to citizens. In response to the findings, the Digital Transformation Agency will redouble efforts to encourage service delivery agencies to get on board.

Combining the two political statements gets one closer to the facts. The report does note the 9.5 million existing myGov accounts is “nearly double” the 5.1 million predicted for the same point in time in the original business case. It also notes the budget estimate from that time — $29.7m over the four years — has blown out to actual expenses of $86.7m.

The government gave the green light to $37.8m worth of that extra funding while the Department of Human Services spent another $19.2m from a pre-approved contingency fund that was established for this exact purpose.

In fact, the audit report attributes the increased cost that was seized on by the opposition to the much larger-than-expected number of registered accounts, which showed the website “exceeding expectations” in the words of the ministers. The two separate points worked well as misleading headlines for each pair’s respective effort to score political points, but both omitted the link between them:

“Departmental records indicate that the increase in operating expenses over the four years of the project — from $8.5 million in 2012–13 to $37.3 million in 2015-16 — was primarily driven by the costs associated with supporting the large number of user accounts (nearly double the forecast) and the improved high-availability infrastructure.”

The “improved high availability infrastructure” has been hosting the site since 2015 and this has “improved performance, especially during peak demand periods” according to the report.

One would expect operating cost per registered account to decrease significantly as the service scales up and the number of users grows. The report doesn’t explain exactly why having 4.4m more accounts than expected meant operating expenses went up $28.8m over three years, or whether the per-user operating cost will continue to rise at such a rate.

A lot has changed since 2011

In many ways, the audit is an exercise in comparing the reality of myGov against a 2011 business case for what was then known as the Reliance Framework, and it shows how much has changed in the Australian Public service landscape since then.

DHS was always the lead agency with six “stakeholder” entities, including the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, which has since split into two departments. Employment’s JobSearch is now available via myGov.

The former Department of Immigration and Citizenship is another initial stakeholder agency that went through a major machinery-of-government change. The resulting new entity has not yet linked up with myGov either.

The Australian Electoral Commission was also expected to make its services available through myGov, as a member of the initial stakeholder group, but has never done so either. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was listed as a likely adopter in the early business case but is still not involved.

The opposition also drew attention to a failure by either DHS or the Australian Taxation Office to measure financial efficiencies across government that were anticipated in the Reliance Framework business case:

“Performance metrics to enable the quantification of actual savings in the six areas identified in the business case were not developed. In the absence of such metrics, it is not possible to determine whether the expected savings have been realised in all six areas.”

Avoided postage costs is the only area where savings have been put in dollar terms. DHS told the auditors it estimated sending letters through myGov saved taxpayers $109.2m. According to the report, this “may be overstated as there were existing email capabilities provided by member services although not with the same level of security as myGov’s Inbox”.

Ironically, avoided postage is the only one of the six kinds of savings that was not estimated in the 2011 business case, which predicted about $20m a year from 2015-16 onwards.

The report notes a gap in strategic governance of the project between June 2015 and July 2016 due to interim arrangements, which meant that a year was spent just keeping the system running, not moving ahead with expansion and improvement.

It also confirms two out of five primary functions have only been partially delivered due to a change of plans. A basic “interim solution” for search is still in place having never been replaced by more advanced free text search as planned. And a “data validation” function is available through Centrelink online services, which is linked to myGov, but was never brought into the main myGov system because DHS decided it was “more efficient” to leave it as it was.

The three key functions that have been delivered — allowing citizens to access multiple online services with one login, change their contact information and receive secure digital correspondence — are still not 100% finished:

“A small number of requirements within these functionalities, which were considered mandatory for go-live, have not yet been implemented.”

There are currently ten services available through the portal with the first from a state government, applications for social housing in Victoria, joining myGov last August. Since its launch there have been an average of 160,000 daily logins, 15.4m links to supported services, and 4.1m accounts have been linked to two or more services. Users have gone through myGov to a service 163m times, and 67.9m pieces of correspondence have passed through myGov inboxes.

Recommendations: attract new services, measure outcomes

The audit makes two recommendations, which have both been agreed to. First, the Digital Transformation Agency is to do more to target agencies with clear service delivery roles and encourage them to link up with myGov. Toward the same aim, DHS has agreed to review the instructions on how to do.

(Or if you prefer the marvellously dense language of auditors-general, the department will “review existing transition support and guidance materials for entities to ensure that they effectively support targeted government entities to interface their systems with myGov functionalities”.)

Secondly, the DTA has agreed to “establish a performance framework, including key performance indicators focussing on outcomes, to enable an assessment of the extent to which myGov is delivering expected outcomes for users and member services”.

Measuring outcomes is a lot better than measuring outputs but it is also a lot more difficult. Simple stats are not too hard to pull out of a computer system and display, as demonstrated by the public beta version of the DTA’s fairly new myGov digital dashboard, even if the numbers it shows are several months old.

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