No rest for IT at Centrelink

Welfare agency Centrelink may just have delivered probably its most difficult systems release ever, according to chief information officer John Wadeson, but the pace of technology-based transformation is not likely to let up any time soon.Wadeson told ZDNet Australia in a phone interview the release -- completed at the end of the last financial year -- was not only the most complex ever done, but possibly the largest, although there could be "some doubt" about that.

Welfare agency Centrelink may just have delivered probably its most difficult systems release ever, according to chief information officer John Wadeson, but the pace of technology-based transformation is not likely to let up any time soon.

Wadeson told ZDNet Australia in a phone interview the release -- completed at the end of the last financial year -- was not only the most complex ever done, but possibly the largest, although there could be "some doubt" about that.

A new systems release is no small deal at the welfare organisation, which has more than 1,000 service delivery points and employs more than 25,000 staff. Centrelink -- whose recurrent budget is in the order of AU$2.3 billion every year -- distributes about AU$63 billion in social security payments every year.

The July release had to accommodate a raft of federal government policy changes over the past few years, including the Welfare to Work reforms and family payment measures.

Other adjustments included changes to customer online systems and new forms of letters, as well as end of financial year processing, including the production of earnings statements and indexation of family payments.

Wadeson said the impact of the change was compounded by the challenge of ensuring the two million people who received Centrelink payments at the end of a financial year were dealt with efficiently. In addition, Centrelink staff received minimal training on the new systems, with their pre-deployment interaction limited to "a couple of screen shots". Several appointments with Centrelink clients were cancelled on the first day following the release as staff sought to come to grips with the revamp as quickly as possible, the CIO added.

The release also featured a milestone in the way some systems used by staff were developed within the agency.

According to Wadeson, the new release was the first time that the Web-based products used to help Centrelink staff complete processing tasks "became the only way to complete certain transactions".

Until now, he said, these products -- used to bring information together and achieve a consolidated view of a customer's circumstances -- "had something of an optional status as more direct processing could always be done in the traditional mainframe presentation".

Wadeson professed relief that Centrelink had "gotten over the line" in delivering the release on time and even allowed that the agency had "done pretty well" to do so. However, he is acutely conscious that there is no time for he and his team to rest on their laurels.

Centrelink is now, according to Wadeson, preparing to transition from a Forte middleware platform to a J2EE environment as part of a five-year AU$312 million information technology refresh program announced in the 2002/03 federal budget.

The two-year project is, he said, expected to impact on all customer systems, including Centrelink's interactive voice response setup.

In addition, the welfare agency is gearing up to build what Wadeson claims is its first-ever data warehouse, with work scheduled to start before the end of the calendar year.

After releasing an expression of interest document to the market 12 months ago, the agency is going back to selected respondents to secure more detail on their proposals.

Wadeson said the successful tenderer would have to provide options for raw data storage of between 10 and 20 TB, a platform capable of supporting 5,500 database tables, processing capacity to perform 400 million row inserts, 250 million row updates and 600 million simple targeted queries per day, as well as development and test environments of one TB and two TB raw data storage respectively.

In addition, Centrelink is preparing for a new data network designed to manage the increasing load from its users. With the project timetable adjusted slightly to accommodate the early acquisition of some routers to assist with loads associated with the Welfare to Work projects, the network backbone is scheduled for deployment across capital cities by September. The network will eventually be deployed to more than 350 sites.

Wadeson also said Centrelink had deployed 8,000 of 30,000 new personal computers scheduled over the next three years to help staff manage the Welfare to Work reforms.

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