Australian government takes another swing at revamping visa processing system

This time it has allocated nearly AU$75 million towards modernising the visa processing system as part of the initial phase for developing its whole-of-government permissions platform.

The Australian government has provided more details on its plan to develop a whole-of-government platform, called Permissions Capability, which it expects to use for delivering Commonwealth digital services that require permissions.

Speaking on Monday during Senate Estimates, Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs Mike Pezzullo explained that the government envisions Permissions Capability would be used for government services such as visas, import and export permits, licences, accreditation, declarations, and registrations.

"Future use cases, subject to government approval, could include employment suitability clearances, the licencing of companies to import and sell illicit tobacco along with associated compliance measures to illicit tobacco, police checks, permits to import and export certain goods, Australian government security accreditation, for example, an aviation security identification card or ASIC, as well as complex visa products," he said.

The federal government first signalled plans about building its permissions platform back in July. 

The first cab off the rank for this new system would be the development of a Digital Passenger Deceleration (DPD), which is set to replace the existing manually processed, paper-based incoming passenger card and separate COVID-19 health declaration.

According to the government, through the DPD, Australian-bound travellers would be able to provide their incoming passenger information via their mobile device or computer, while also allow certified COVID vaccination certifications to be digitally uploaded and connected if and when they become available.

Read: Why Australia is quickly developing a technology-based human rights problem (TechRepublic)  

Acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs Alan Tudge and Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert jointly said the DPD would enable information to be collected and shared more efficiently, while still allowing it to use the same authority for collection.

"Currently, the government collects a range of passenger information, including contact details, customs, and biosecurity information from citizens and non-citizens entering Australia using a manual, paper-based process," Tudge said.

"This new capability will strip away the need to scan paper cards. It will facilitate data sharing between state and territory health departments and enable swift verification of information provided by passengers.

"In the future, collection and verification of information will assist in managing risk at the international border when international travel returns."

Tudge touted it would also streamline the national response to COVID-19 contact tracing by speeding up information collection and processing.

The unveiling of plans to simplify COVID-19 contact tracing at airports coincided with the New South Wales government announcing that passengers could now use the Service NSW app to check-in for contact tracing at Sydney Airport by scanning a unique QR code located at domestic and international terminals. The app automatically captures the date, time, and location of the check-in, which is stored as data for 28 days solely for the purpose of contact tracing before being deleted.

Additionally, the federal government outlined in its Permission Capability information paper [PDF] that it would develop what it has dubbed as a "simple" digital visa product as part of the initial phase for delivering its Permission Capability.

The simple visa product would include a digital application that would be made available for non-citizen travellers who meet certain visa criteria. It would also be used to integrate multiple visas on the new system when they become digitised, as well as streamline the application process, and facilitate visa holders' movement through international borders.

Earlier this year, the federal government terminated its contentious request for tender process for its proposed Global Digital Platform (GDP).

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection -- now Home Affairs -- went to tender initially in September 2017, seeking a provider to design, implement, and operate a new visa business.

At the time, it was explained that the new visa business would be outsourced to another party that would be charged with processing visa applications.

In 2018, a request for tender was published and quickly removed. It called for a private company to own and operate Australia's visa processing system for a period of 10 years.

Read more: Public Sector Union launches campaign against visa privatisation 'data security risk'

After admitting that privatising Australia's visa processing system was not the best idea, the government announced it would take a "broad new policy approach" by acquiring and delivering workflow processing capability within the Department of Home Affairs and other areas across government.

"The government will implement modern, easy to access, digital services for clients," Tudge said at the time. "This approach seeks integrated enterprise-scale workflow processing capability that could be utilised across the Commonwealth.

"Key to this is recognising the efficiencies that can be generated from large-scale government investment in technology and the re-use of capability across government."

The Department of Home Affairs spent just shy of AU$92 million for design and procurement on the binned GDP project. Of that amount, AU$24 million was spent on the co-design and development of business requirements; AU$32 million on the GDP request for tender processes, probity, legal, and assurance; AU$18 million on departmental IT readiness; and AU$17 million on development of Business Rules.

Another AU$65 million was spent on external contracts on the proposed GDP, the department revealed in May in response to questions on notice from Senate Estimates held in early March. Boston Consulting Group walked away with AU$43.5 million and KPMG with nearly AU$8 million.

See also: Australian government is currently juggling 62 high-cost IT projects 

During Senate Estimates on Monday, Home Affairs First Assistant Secretary Stephanie Cargill revealed that government had set aside an initial AU$74.9 million to begin building the base Permission Capability in 2021, which includes delivering the DPD and the simple digital visa product.

Off the back of that response, Senator Kristina Keneally scorned the government for not prioritising the modernisation of the country's existing visa system, as part of the recent federal 2020-21 Budget. 

"I'm trying to understand how we've come to a point where you've spent AU$91 million on the visa privatisation that was then dumped in March, and now we've only got $74 million for simple visas, and yet experts say it's going to take, again, another billion-dollar to rebuild the visa processing system," she said.

"You've even agreed there were warning bells that have been going up since 2017. So, how do we have a Budget that has got a trillion dollars of debt, but yet has so little money allocated for … a visa system that is failing?"

An open market request for tender to build and deliver the DPD and simple digital visa product will be issued before the end of October, the Department of Home Affairs said.

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