Five years and ​AU$103m later, DHS' new child support system has a staff interface

After spending all of its AU$103.2 million child support system upgrade budget, the Department of Human Services has merely delivered staff an interface and provided some online users with an updated website.

The Australian Department of Human Services (DHS) went to tender back in 2013, seeking a provider to deliver an upgraded child support system as the existing system Cuba was flagged in 2009 as reaching end-of-life at the end of 2017.

During a probe from the Finance and Public Administration References Committee on Friday, it was revealed that instead of going live with the new Pluto platform, DHS has actually paused it, requiring staff to continue use of the old, mainframe-based Cuba.

After being given a budget of AU$103.2 million in 2013-14 to deliver Pluto from start to finish, the committee heard from DHS GM of Child Support and Redress Maree Bridger that despite spending the entire AU$103.2 million -- and more from elsewhere in the department -- DHS has merely delivered a staff interface to be able to access accounts and make changes. It also launched a new online service for customers that is being rolled out in stages, and it is currently not in use by all online users of child support.

"We have launched some new screens and some new functionality for staff to access accounts, however not all of the existing legacy processes have been transferred into the new system, we're on the path to doing that and picking up all of the processes," Bridger told the committee looking into the digital delivery of government services.

Bridger, alongside DHS acting CIO Charles McHardie, said that after the department had selected both Accenture and SAP to help deliver the new system and had paid the pair around AU$62 million, it decided in 2016 to pause the delivery of Pluto on the advice of DHS secretary Kathryn Campbell.

Instead, DHS decided to take some work already developed as part of the department's Welfare Payment Infrastructure Transformation (WPIT) program, a billion-dollar project to overhaul Australia's 30-year-old payment system, which processes over AU$100 billion in Centrelink payments each year.

Labelled the biggest digital transformation the government has embarked on to date by former Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge, WPIT is expected to take seven years to complete.

"We had been doing some precursor work to get ready for the WPIT program to start moving staff-facing processing screens, and also the front-end that the customer sees into a new pattern utilising SAP technology that we were building in-house," McHardie explained.

After pausing Pluto, DHS embarked on an internal evaluation to allow staff to provide feedback on what they expect the new system to deliver.

Bridger said Deloitte is helping the department conduct the review for a cost of AU$490,000.

With no more funding at its disposal to deliver Pluto, McHardie told the committee the department will be accessing its business as usual (BAU) budget to complete the project, although it does not know how much further investment is required.

"The expected spend is dependent on the work that we're currently doing with staff," Bridger said. "We will need to cost up what comes out of this review ... we will cost it and then see what is affordable within recourses."

Currently, staff are using three IT platforms to complete child support-related work: Cuba, Pluto, and a series of web forms that are completed before being copied and pasted into either -- or both -- Cuba and Pluto.

"Many of the processes, particularly new applications for child support are taken in Pluto," Bridger continued. "But you still do have the copying and dragging of information from the web forms into the new system.

"Cuba has traditionally looked after front-end functions for processing staff, but it's also had a calculation engine that sits in the backend and helps with assessments ... and also stores data in a legacy database. What we have done with Pluto is put a new staff-facing front end, but the assessments and calculations are still done in Cuba," McHardie added.

"If you look at the way Cuba is put together, it is a collection of many different systems, many technologies that power the Cuba system."

The next step, he said, is replacing the backend, which he hopes will be able to heavily leverage WPIT.

Rejecting the idea the initial work conducted with SAP and Accenture was a waste, McHardie said DHS learned a lot from the process.

"We've got a much more agile approach to the way we deliver projects now, service design as we call it is at the heart, which involves us sitting down with members from the public and indeed with our processing officers that look after core processing in these large systems to be able to build out our capability in multi-disciplinary teams and iterate them," he said.

"That is a large evolution from where projects such as this one several years ago were kicking off to where they are now."

McHardie also said he thinks contracts with both tech giants had expired and were simply not renewed, but could not tell the committee if either completed their contracted work, nor if any penalties were handed down as a result of the system not being fit for use by now.

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