Australian government approves Human Services IT overhaul

Australian Social Services Minister Scott Morrison has announced that the government has approved funding to overhaul the welfare payments system known as ISIS.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

The Abbott government has approved the replacement of a 30-year-old welfare payments support system in a move that the government hopes will improve data sharing and data analytics in the agency.

The Department of Human Services has received approval from Cabinet to begin overhauling its, now unfortunately named, system known as ISIS.

This came after the department flagged in the 2013-14 Budget that it was developing a first-pass business case for AU$16.2 million to look at replacing or upgrading the Income Security Integrated System (ISIS), which is used to send out welfare and family support payments, letters, income assessments, and other notifications for 100 programs.

Social Services Minister Scott Morrison said that the new system will help "address the challenges facing Australia's welfare system, maximise the benefits of e-government, reduce the costs of administering the system for taxpayers, and help crack down on welfare cheats".

"This 30-year-old system consisting of 30 million lines of code and undertaking more than 50 million daily transactions is responsible for delivering around $100 billion in payments to 7.3 million people every year," he said in a statement on Friday.

"Investing in a new system will boost efficiencies and help advance many welfare reforms -- you can't fix the system if you can't change the engine which drives the system and makes it work. The efficiencies it creates will also mean the new system will pay for itself over time.

"This investment will also help us stop the rorts by giving our welfare cops the tools they need on the beat to collar those who are stealing from taxpayers by seeking to defraud the system."

The minister said that the system would be aligned with the new e-government approach designed to ensure that agencies no longer have siloed systems and operations. This will lead to real-time data sharing between agencies, and greater use of data analytics by Human Services.

"ICT reform will also ensure more government systems are talking to each other, lessening the compliance burden on individuals, employers, and service providers. Creating a simpler system will make it easier for people to comply with requirements and spend more time searching for jobs, which is the key element of welfare reform," Morrison said.

A tender for the system will be issued early next financial year, Human Services Minister Marise Payne said.

"The project will be carried out in multiple tranches, with customers beginning to see benefits of the upgrade at the end of next year," she said.

"The 1980s technology propping up the current system was built for an era of paper records. It is costly to maintain, and incapable of taking full advantage of the digital age."

The government will establish an advisory group made up of public and private sector representatives to oversee the initial stages of the project.

The department revealed in October that it has signed contract extensions for the next three years to potentially cover the shift over to the new platform, and department Secretary Kathryn Campbell said last year that it would likely take more than three years to move away from ISIS.

"Often, some of the changes might take longer than anyone would expect, because of the way the code is written and the need to change the hard coding to test those systems and to have them released as part of a well-organised and structured release," she said.

One of the issues is that ISIS is separated out into different states, with one each for every state. Campbell said that Human Services has an underlying software platform to bring it together, but the complexity of the system makes it difficult for the agency to build new applications or make changes to existing programs.

Campbell said that while the department is working with the government to the timeline it has outlined for overhauling the system, it would likely take longer than expected.

"We have a very complex system with all these payments, and there is a citizen, a costumer [sic], who may access a number of payments, and they have to go off to different databases. If the system was more simple and the citizen only was accessing one or two payments, it would be better to build a new system, where the integrity of the data was assured rather than going through a variety of routes to get to that data, to have direct links to a more simple system," she said.

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