Consuming government services like Netflix: Minister Robert's pipedream for Australia

Following the disaster that was robo-debt, Stuart Robert is touting transparency in 'everything we do'.

Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert has shared his vision for the future of Australian government service delivery, along with his brave goal of having the public trust a government that refused to apologise for demanding money off people for debts that shouldn't have existed.

Fresh from his admission that Services Australia would refund around AU$721 million that had been raised in error under the Centrelink Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) initiative, Robert on Tuesday said the government is preparing for a future where services are "simple, helpful, respectful, and transparent" and where trust is key.

See also: Australian government to bring all services online by 2025

"A future, dare I say, where people may actually believe us when we say we're from the government and we're here to help," he said, addressing the National Press Club. "What if government not only helped, but helped in a delightful manner?"

While the past is usually a pretty good indicator to future behaviour -- the Census fiasco and ATO outages to name a few -- Robert ignored those incidents, and instead touched on the work that people under his portfolio have completed over the last six months; a six month-period that saw Australians face bushfires, floods, and a global pandemic.

During the 2019-20 bushfire season, Services Australia paid out more than AU$223 million in disaster recovery payments; staff processed 1.3 million JobSeeker claims in 55 days, a claim volume normally processed in two and a half years; tech teams worked every day while service centres and call centres operated from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week; and staff focused on a lot of the domino effects of lockdown-like life, such as a heightened domestic violence rate; as well as many other things.

But what has not helped Robert's goal is his misunderstanding of technology, highlighted earlier this year when Robert cried DDoS as the myGov website fell over at a time when citizens were flocking to the site to see if they qualified for welfare during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What actually happened was that legitimate traffic pushed past the 55,000 concurrent users limit the government had set, with 95,000 Australians attempting to submit a claim being the reason why a DDoS alert was triggered.

"On the 22nd of March, we prepared myGov for 50,000 concurrent users, it blew out to 100,000 -- we should have prepared it for 300,000. Should I have gone for a 600% increase not knowing what National Cabinet would do?" Robert said.

"Obviously it set off our distributed denial of service alarms, but we didn't check and actually investigate before saying, 'Hey, it's a denial of service attack'. We investigate all of them now and I get a report every day in terms of the cyber activity that's weekly for us, so investigating is always wise."

In admitting his error on Tuesday, Robert also said that on its busiest day, myGov recorded over 3 million users and said they all successfully lodged claims or conducted other business with government.

myGov gets a facelift

Robert used his Press Club address to discuss the beta release of a revamped myGov.

"It's a modern platform capable of scaling up to include digital identity and to become a fully fledged all-of-government customer experience," he said. "The site is trialling ways to make it easier to find the information and services people need quickly and simply. We're bringing together multiple services across federal, state, and territory governments in a single location to achieve the just that."

He called it the "one digital front door for all of government" that will leverage the new online capability already delivered for Centrelink customers through the Welfare Payments Infrastructure Program (WPIT). At a cost of around AU$1 billion, WPIT is touted as the biggest digital transformation the government has embarked on to date and is estimated to take seven years in total to complete.

"If you go to your Netflix or Facebook page you can personalise it; there's no excuse why you shouldn't be able to personalise your dealing with government," Robert continued.

The enhanced myGov, he explained, through a personalised dashboard, would allow an individual to see how much they paid in tax, what benefits they're claiming, what their payments are, and "if there's a debt, what the debt is exactly and how it was raised".

"You'll love it. If you're a Netflix fan, you're about to become the front door of Australian government fan," the minister said.

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

But Robert wants to continue this re-use of kit already purchased by government for other projects, calling it the "core architectural building blocks for all of government". This includes the whole-of-government enterprise resource planning (ERP) program and a government private cloud that he said would be scaled up across other parts of government.

After binning the visa privatisation project that cost around AU$92 million, Stuart said the government is also developing a new whole-of-government permissions and permits platform, which he said would leverage previous work in the area.

The platform, he said, would be used for visas and other areas of permitting across government.

The government is also developing a common set of API standards for government systems to be able to talk to each other, starting with the rollout of APIs for providers to connect with the National Disability Insurance Agency.

He said the Commonwealth has already built a payment utility linked to the New Payments Platform that would be reused across government for making payments to customers; as well as a PEGA business rules platform that would help calculate entitlements.

Government procurement, but make it the tech sector's job

As well as reusing tech it's already purchased, Robert said government needs to make better collective use of its money through procurement activities.

"We currently have to seek hardware, software, integrators, consultants, providers, and advisors in very separate approaches to market in order to get the end-to-end capabilities we need for a platform," Robert said.

"Going forward, I want to see those providers come together and work collaboratively to see effective solutions that ensure better collaboration, very clear accountability for delivery, and far better value for money.

"If we're going to spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars on platforms and tech, these platforms should be scalable and repeatable across government."

Robert said the Commonwealth is "well and truly prepared to play its role" and will initiate procurement reforms that he said would enable the private sector to "work collaboratively to deliver whole of government and potentially whole-of-nation platforms".

But they will also focus on promoting the role of Australian innovation, he said, which he flagged as particularly important in a post-COVID world.

Voice biometrics is a go

With the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) in March saying the biometric component of its digital identity play would be ready for public testing by mid-year, Robert said the government has had over 1.5 million voice biometric enrolments, with over 3,600 new enrolments each day.

"In the 19-20 financial year, which just finished, we saw over 3 million authenticated calls which enable better service through personalised messaging, digital assistance, and process automation," Robert said Tuesday.

myGov ID, Robert said, is currently being used by 1.4 million Australians to access 70 services across the Commonwealth. He said it is the intention of government by the end of the year to "step it up a notch" into facial authentication services.

"It'll authenticate against driver's licence and the passport office, where we already have your photograph per se, and that'll allow you to securely connect and authenticate through to a service so you won't need to worry about forgetting a credential, changing a phone number, or anything else, you'll simply use the native biometric on a phone or computing device and then authenticate through your phone," he said.

"You'll get the highest level of services and you won't have to fear about any of your credentials being stolen from yourself, from your phone, from your computer, and appearing on the dark web because it's very difficult to steal your face, isn't it?"

Robert said that, historically, there has been a stigma around government services with people associating government services to Centrelink queues or long wait times on the phone.

"As a result, people cringe when they need to engage with government," he said.

"Unlike a bank or a business, when Australians face an unsatisfying government experience, they aren't able to shop around, they aren't able to look for a different service provider, but they will always share their negative experiences.

"Our vision is for people and businesses to access government services as easily as they can and with as little intervention as possible, just like when you do online shopping, banking, or booking a holiday."

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