Human Services finally reveals details of bungled child support IT project

The Department of Human Services blew AU$135 million on a bad and functionally incomplete system. Now we know just how bad it is.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

"The current implementation does not achieve the core outcomes of the original business case," wrote Deloitte in their independent assessment of the Department of Human Services child support system redesign project.

That is to say, it doesn't do its job.

Actual users of the system were less diplomatic.

"It is slow, unreliable and subject to regular errors," said one. Others complained that the lag in processing webforms was adding unnecessary time to every call, leading to "increased customer aggression".

Tasks which used to take a few tens of seconds now take several minutes to complete, and staff still have to use the old system in parallel.

"We waited 8 years... and we got this?"

"This" is Pluto, the product of the department's Child Support System Replacement Programme. The project was launched in 2013 to replace the mainframe-based legacy platform, called Cuba, used by roughly 3,000 Human Services staff who oversee the collection and distribution of AU$1.5 billion in child support payments each year.

Paid for a new system, got an interface wrapper

Pluto was meant to be an "end to end replacement" for Cuba, but it isn't. The project was subtly renamed as the Redesign Programme. Child support teams got a new staff interface, and some online users got a new website, but the back end is still Cuba.

In March 2018, it was eventually revealed that the entire AU$103 million budget had been spent, along with another AU$33.4 million from the department's general IT budget, before the project was put on hold in mid-2016.

"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," said Maree Bridger, GM of Child Support and Redress, in evidence to a Senate committee.

Currently, Human Services 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.

Deloitte was commissioned to conduct an independent assessment at a cost of AU$550,000. That review was extended, and eventually cost AU$1.09 million. The report was delivered in April 2018, but until now,  the department had been reluctant to release it.

In December 2018, the department said they were still thinking about it.

"The department is considering the assessment undertaken by Deloitte and is yet to finalise its response," it wrote. "The assessment is not publicly available while the department's considerations are ongoing."

After further pressure from the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee in April this year, the Deloitte report (PDF) was finally released -- snuck out on the day of Australia's federal election.

Shorn of its diplomatic language, the report is scathing.

Pluto has been built using SAP CRM and ERP, and a custom user interface built in the UI5 JavaScript library, but the core functionality is still provided by Cuba. The result is untidy.

Deloitte reports that in Pluto, users need to navigate more pages, with more input steps, than they did in Cuba. Certain notes are not automatically generated and are being generated by Cuba macros and pasted in, resulting in a duplication of effort.

"There are significant performance challenges observed, as tasks requiring 10 - 30 seconds in Cuba can take several minutes to complete in Pluto," they write.

Each screen can take up to 20 seconds to load and completing a task often requires staff seeing five or more loading screens.

"Gaps in business requirements have ultimately resulted in some functionality not being built or not fully functional to meet user expectation. Key functionalities such as calculation, assessment, payments, correspondence letters and external interface calls are not available in Pluto," Deloitte wrote.

The systems integration is even missing business validation rules. 

"In many scenarios data is not being correctly updated in Pluto from Cuba, and vice versa," the report states.

At the time of Deloitte's review, there were still nearly 100 open defects logged, out of more than 3,000 reported. However some staff had said they'd given up reporting bugs due to "reporting fatigue".

There are also delays. Cuba is the one source of truth. Notes saved in Pluto are written to Cuba directly, but are not reflected back in Pluto for up to 15 minutes.

"There are very few processes that can be completed end-to-end in Pluto. Commonly staff are required to at least open Cuba in order to copy and paste information from Cuba into a task."

Staff also complained about poor training and communication. They received just two hours of up-front instruction before being left to fend for themselves.

Meanwhile, they were sent three updates per week describing what functionality was or wasn't available in Pluto -- but changes weren't highlighted, so the entire document had to be read every time.

"Two hours looking at someone perform something on one computer terminal in one room is NOT training," one wrote.

There's a recommended strategy, but no plan or budget yet

"Pluto can be made fit for purpose," Deloitte wrote. "This will however, require significant investment to both remediate current gaps and performance challenges, [and] deliver on the original intent of the business case and any new and future business needs."

As for Cuba, "while it is currently stable, any further changes present a high risk to the Department of Human Services (DHS) as Cuba experts are limited and there are very complex and unknown interdependencies for even small changes."

The program "should continue to explore opportunities to modernise the Cuba code to mitigate some of the medium-term risks of continuing to leverage on the Cuba platform".

Deloitte has outlined a 18 to 24-month program to "regain momentum" and deliver the intended business transformation outcomes.

They recommend all staff except the New Customers section revert to Cuba, which "while enhancements and additional capabilities" for Pluto are built, tested, and deployed.

Deloitte also recommends significant organisational and project governance changes to reduce risk and improve incident management.

"The preferred option is to proceed with an SAP solution, noting that a technology target state needs to be defined as part of the development of a business case," they wrote.

"The solution should build on the work that has been completed to date as part of the development of Pluto. Given the challenges faced with the current Cuba back-end, modernisation of the underlying code should be considered as an immediate next step, while working to move forward with the Pluto (SAP) solution as quickly as possible to alleviate pressure on service delivery staff."

Human Services has not yet budgeted for this work. Maintaining the current system since the mid-2016 hold is costing AU$6 to AU$7 million per year, the department told the Senate committee in April.

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