The Department of Human Services has a new “chief citizen experience officer” who hopes digital transformation can bring relief to both disgruntled clients and frazzled frontline staff, but the government continues to send mixed messages about its priorities in the portfolio.
Mukul Agrawal, who moved into the challenging role from AMP in November, spoke about his hope that simple forms of artificial intelligence can make dealing with Medicare or Centrelink a quicker, easier and more personalised experience, at the Australian Information Industry Association’s recent conference on the future of work.
The department hopes digital assistants that can help customers directly as well as act as decision-support tools for frontline staff will be game-changing technology.
The National Disability Insurance Agency’s digital assistant, Nadia, might finally be trialled this year after a long wait. ABC political editor Andrew Probyn reported last September that “multiple sources close to the project” believed it had been held back after “the census and Centrelink ‘robo-debt’ debacles took their toll on government-wide appetite for risk”.
The Australian Digital Health Agency is now working on a proof-of-concept for its own virtual assistant to help users apply for e-health records, iTnews reports, based on the FaceMe platform, which also underpins Nadia.
Agencies rolling out these bots have to accept they might make big mistakes or offend people, and figure out how they will change the role of customer service staff, rather than replace them.
Agrawal says “the human touch, the human conversation, will still play a very significant role” in future, but argues the only way to make dealing with DHS quicker and less painful is with digital assistants helping frontline staff and citizens navigate the labyrinth of rules and policies.
The government also sees trusted digital identity credentials like GovPass as a “critical enabler” of better service delivery, he explained. He argued nations like Belgium and Estonia had demonstrated that “if you have a national identity solution, suddenly transformation and service delivery in a new world is enabled because you have a central way to know the customer and for the customer to understand and get trust with the service delivery organisation.”
What this means in simple terms is less human interaction over the phone or in person.
Digital assistants can no doubt help guide humans through the maze of policies and rules that govern a department like DHS or a big private sector service provider like a bank. They are also expected to scale up substantially in coming years but, in the present, DHS has a long way to go to improve its citizen experience.
How to earn trust from the average Australian
Extremely long waiting times for some of Centrelink’s phone lines have plainly had a negative impact on lots of citizen experiences. Perhaps digital assistants will help to some degree, perhaps they won’t.
The program dubbed “robo-debt” was presented as a clever use of “data matching” but in fact shifted a lot of work from DHS to its clients, who broadly saw this as a sudden and unreasonable new demand that shifted the goalposts and reversed the onus of proof, alarming frontline staff and the Ombudsman in the process.
Senior executives are bound to defend it as a success that just needed some tweaking, demonstrating the stark difference between their world and the private sector. The government has simply decided that it is right, and the many people who made valid complaints about their treatment by the DHS online compliance system are wrong.
The former finance-sector executive did not wade into these issues but is aware that the overall citizen experience involves a lot more than spiffy new digital tools:
“We ultimately want trust and respect from the average Australian, as the service delivery organisation that helps them meet their Medicare needs and welfare needs. And I would say that is only possible with that human [element] and automation tightly coupled together. So that’s the future we want.”
Agrawal then played the conference a famous viral video produced in 2004 by the American Civil Liberties Union as an example of the future the department does not want: where technology and paternalistic government policy lead to a creepy, invasive form of personalisation.
‘Get rid of the five screens I have to go through’
Agrawal has used his first few months in the job to have a look around the department. “And I would say, the biggest thing that I found, and it’s almost in the DNA of the department, is how passionate the frontline [staff] are about the job they do, and how much they really want to make a difference in that interaction, to get the right outcome,” he said.
“And I think that commitment and passion is almost the key skillset which I think will be [needed] for a long time. And if anything, I think we need to take away the waste.”
He believes “they can only do this with automation, with artificial intelligence” but is aware there is a long way to go.
Agrawal summarised the most common response from frontline staff when he asked them what he should do as chief citizen experience officer:
“Get rid of the waste, get rid of the redundancy and the five screens I have to go through to answer [a client’s] question, because that’s embarrassing.”
He also observed that “the amount of policy changes, projects, things that are coming down the pipe for these … 25,000 staff is immense”.
In Agrawal’s view, “it’s unbelievable that they actually deal with that, plus all the legacy that still exists” such as old welfare and child support payment platforms that are currently being replaced.
Just last week, Child Support Agency staff complained of a major system outage via the Community and Public Sector Union, which reported their computers were “completely inoperative” for four days, a claim DHS denies.
CPSU deputy national president Lisa Newman said staff were “largely unsupported” through the event and that “frustrated customers and rising levels of aggression” was an immediate consequence.
Newman said all staff could do for customers was “take their numbers and promise to call back when the system is working again” and that it was “sluggish and unstable” after being restored.
The issues were only “intermittent” and nobody missed out on payments, according to the department’s central repository for its many denials of claims reported in the media. “Staff have been supported throughout the process with regular updates from management,” the statement adds.
Agrawal said staff would “embrace automation” as long as there was sufficient communication about where they fit into the overall vision for better services that retain the “human element” of decision-making, augmented by AI, as well as genuine consultation, or “co-design” if you prefer.
He described the skills that staff develop working in human services call centres and shopfronts for decades, and attributes like “empathy, compassion, discretion and fairness” which they “hopefully” possess, as a kind of “intellectual property” that must not be lost.
Staff need to see compelling demonstrations that technology and user-centred design can enable them to play a central role in a better citizen experience, and waste less time messing around with outdated tools, Agrawal noted:
“And I think once … they can see that, suddenly they can see innovation. Suddenly they can see the reason to adapt and the reason to actually learn new ways of doing things. [They see] that hands-on customer engagement, which is what they are passionate about, can take new forms, but that will require them to upskill themselves around the use of technology.”
These changes are becoming most evident in support for students, Agrawal claimed.
“Not only have we fully automated, I guess, interactions with students, and recognised that segment we’re dealing with – they’re the ones that have asked for that – but we’re really getting our digital assistants … to a level where they understand ‘intent’ and actually we have case workers available, when it’s relevant,” he told the conference.
“And I think that’s the future we’re talking about.”
Mixed messages around human services
The proposition invites scepticism of the sort expressed at a similar conference last year by Paul Shetler. The controversial former head of Turnbull’s digital transformation team argued that to improve the citizen experience, DHS should put simpler goals like reducing its telephone waiting times ahead of its forays into AI, following the example set by Service New South Wales.
While a better citizen experience is a goal of the digital transformation agenda, is not strongly evident in the government’s messaging around human services.
Coalition ministers prefer to present themselves as strict enforcers, cracking down on child support cheats and welfare bludgers, over customer service champions dedicated to improving services for people who exercise their right to Medicate rebates and various kinds of Centrelink payments in good faith. The latest tranche of welfare reforms continues this hardline approach.
In both public and private sector bureaucracies, it is often the rules and policies themselves that are the source of frustration and discontent for customers, although most can accept these are beyond the powers of frontline staff.
Other aspects of poor customer experience — like waiting for 30 minutes on the phone — naturally increase the number of times those frustrations boil over on the phone or at the counter, with frontline staff in the firing line.
The Tax Office has made great strides with its own digital transformation efforts in recent years, with the simple aim of making it easier to use government services, but also more difficult to abuse them without being caught.
This is presumably the aim for DHS too, but it’s hard to see many of its clients or its frontline staff giving it a five-star review at present.
In pursuing the department’s vision of a future where automation, data analytics and machine learning make the citizen experience better, rather than creating a horrible dystopia, Agrawal noted that “data privacy, choice and consent” will be key issues that go towards public trust and confidence, in terms of the technical skills of public servants and the government’s intentions.
He wants digital service delivery channels to be the first choice of most citizens who need to interact with DHS — “not something that we place as a burden on them” — and to make sure “the user experience is rich for those who don’t and can’t use digital” at the same time.
Agrawal said the message needs to be that “what we’re trying to do here is build a better social outcome” — and, importantly, the citizens need to buy it.