Department of Veterans Affairs using data to map and predict the veteran journey

A new veterans initiative has come at a time when the veterans department is undertaking its multi-year Veteran Centric Reform program alongside Services Australia, where calls have been made by union members to bring its IT functions back in-house.

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The Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) is undergoing a large program of work known as Veteran Centric Reform. Announced as part of the 2017-18 Budget, the six-year project is aimed at transforming veteran services.

Funding allocated to DVA and Services Australia for the initiative, as of March 2021, has totalled AU$653.7 million.

According to the Australian National Audit Office, progress in implementing a number of business capabilities for the project has been slower than expected but it noted partnering with other entities, such as Services Australia, in the delivery of reform was "generally effective".

As part of building those capabilities, the DVA recently stood up a data and insights branch which department chief operating officer Mark Harrigan said in the first instance was focused on building a workforce capability. That focus has since stretched to mapping the journey of veterans in partnership with the Department of Defence.

"This is to share data between the agencies to give us a view of the lifecycle of a veteran from when they enter the ADF through to their transition and beyond," he explained. 

"We hold a lot of information from that point of transition onwards. Defence holds the information from enlistment through to transition -- we think there's a lot in predicting the service utilisation of these veterans, there's a lot to be learned from looking at their whole interaction … their experience, the nature of their injuries, the medical support they've received whilst in Defence, what they need post-transition."

Harrigan told the Finance and Public Administration References Committee on Tuesday, as part of its probe of the current capability of the Australian Public Service, that he expected the data would help DVA understand veteran demographics and aid with projections, such as reliance on health services and their financial needs.

"We're looking at it at a demographic level, but there's no reason why we won't be breaking that down into particular cohorts to focus on particular services: Air Force, Army, Navy, or by age cohorts. It's everything, really, it's a process of discovery for us," he said.

Other initiatives under the reform include upgrading DVA's telephony systems, where Services Australia introduced "1800 veteran", and the use of open speech technology and call routing "so veterans can get to the right person the first time".

DVA's commemorations and transformation division first assistant secretary Rachel Goddard added that the DVA was also working with Services Australia on robotic process automation, with "one successful process at the moment working" and using the agency's tech for income support payments.

Internally, the department has also gained a "single view of person", which can bring information from up to 20 legacy systems onto one screen.

She clarified that there was no need to build a large IT capability within the department, however, as a lot of the technical expertise sat within Services Australia as part of its shared services arrangement.

SHARED SERVICES ARRANGEMENT IS TROUBLESOME

In December 2015, then-Minister for Veteran Affairs Stuart Robert announced an expansion to a 2010 shared services arrangement that saw DVA co-locate its IT infrastructure within the then-Department of Human Services (DHS).

"DVA's computer systems are at the centre of everything we do and modern, more agile systems will significantly improve claim processing times and open up new avenues to interact with younger veterans. Co-locating DVA's ICT staff with DHS allows DVA staff to access the most modern and up-to-date ICT systems to provide the best possible support to veterans," Robert said at the time. 

In 2017-18, DVA spent AU$38.4 million on its shared services arrangement with DHS, which has since become the current Services Australia super agency. It then spent AU$50.2 million in 2018-19, and, in 2019-20, it spent another AU$54 million.

Almost six years after the expansion, the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) is now calling for a review into the shared services arrangement and for DVA's IT functions to be brought back in-house.

Appearing before the committee, CPSU members from DVA described the shared services arrangement as one that has made life hard for staff.

"The impact has been significant insofar as we used to have a help desk, used to be able to talk to people, and we no longer have any help desk function. We [now] have a system for requesting assistance where they're triaged in some mystical way and jobs can take months, and sometimes jobs get closed with no explanation," CPSU delegate Fiona Duffy said.

"Now that we're just a client of Services Australia, we're never a priority. We have to wait in line behind other departments to get the department-wide assistance that we might need with upgrades and such."

Section councillor Shane Wright said he has experienced "systems issues" multiple times per week, sometimes daily, such as not having access to certain information that he was attempting to prepare for the committee's hearing. 

"You lose the ability … to actually address an issue, it just becomes way more complex, because it's going through so many layers of extra bureaucracy to actually get a resolution," Wright added.  

Meanwhile, national president Melissa Donnelly said she was often unable to provide customers with the required information they needed by herself, due to her not having access to certain systems. 

"I think that happens much more often now than it did before the shared services arrangement," Donnelly said.  

When asked about the shared services arrangement later in the day, Harrigan chose to address the benchmarks Services Australia must reach and said the agency has hit them.

"We're always looking to mature our performance benchmarks and indeed the nature of the service that we're being provided by Services Australia, we are a purchaser here, so it's in our interest to make sure our interests and the interests of our staff who use particular systems and the interests of our veterans are looked after -- system outages are bad, system outages cause problems potentially for client service," he said.

The committee also asked whether the department was confident that using Services Australia IT talent and infrastructure would not result in a robo-debt type scenario at DVA, with Goddard saying the Veteran Centric Reform was being driven by the needs of the veteran community.

"DVA is the one that creates the forward program, and we understand the opportunities around what's available in the future of IT, from obviously the industry and working with Services Australia, but in the end, the program of work that goes forward … is guided by DVA itself," she said.

During the hearing, it was also revealed veterans have to wait between 178 and 186 days to resolve their compensation claims, with the committee being told there was a backlog of more than 49,000 unprocessed claims as of December 2020.

In the latest federal Budget, the government announced it was providing 440 additional staff to improve claims processing capability. DVA gave evidence that no new permanent positions were being created, only temporary contacts.

Last year during Senate Estimates it was revealed that 41.2% of DVA staff were classified as labour hires, including the majority of claims processing staff.

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