Human Services looks to deliver welfare updates like Domino's

The Australian Department of Human Services is looking to adopt a number of the practices of Domino's and other commercial companies in tracking payments processing and communicating with customers.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

People lodging claims online with Centrelink should be able to track their claim like they would track ordering a pizza from Domino's, according to the Department of Human Services.

In the Federal Budget this year, the department scored AU$60.5 million for the first so-called tranche of the replacement of the agency's legacy welfare payments system.

The decades-old system in place today is used to process family support payments, letters, income assessments, and other notifications for around 100 programs, undertaking more than 50 million transactions daily.

The replacement of the whole system is a project titled "Welfare Payments Infrastructure Transformation", or known as "Whip It" internally. It is expected to take seven years in total, but the first tranche will be planning, scoping, and design work, and adding some initial "bolt-on" digital services for welfare recipients.

Department of Human Services Secretary Kathryn Campbell told a Budget Estimates hearing on Wednesday that while the department prepares to go to market, a decision was made to seek to deliver new services to the public in the first 18 months to improve what services the department can today.

"One of the lessons we learned from a range of large transformation programs is you have to get on and deliver as well as rebuild the systems.We will deliver a range of digital enhancements during tranche 1," she said.

Tam Shepherd, acting executive director of the Welfare Payments Infrastructure Transformation Program said that one of the first changes will be for customers to see the status of a claim, more than the "submitted" and "processed" statuses today. He said it would be similar to how the Domino's online ordering app works.
"You order the pizza, you see it has been submitted, you see someone is cooking it, and you see it has been delivered," he said.

He said users that were interacting with Centrelink online were also wanting to stay online, and for that reason, the agency would also be looking to implement "click to chat" so "you're actually talking to an operator in a smart centre", rather than calling the Centrelink hotline when stuck with an online transaction.

Campbell said it would drive uptake of digital services.

"That's what everybody else does. That's what Qantas does, that's what Telstra does. If we can keep people on digital channels, they'll continue to use them," she said.

Fewer than 100 staff are working on the project now, but that will grow over time. Shepherd indicated that it would be a mix of public sector employees and contractors.

"During the business case phase of the program... it was pretty clear that was a blended team of public servants who know [social security] very well, public servants who know our business very well, and experts who understand building large ICT systems, and experts who know how to procure those," he said.

Once the first tranche is underway, Campbell said the department will go back to government for funding for the remaining four tranches of the project once the business case has been developed.

"We would expect to go back to government in 18 months, with the business case, and ask for more money, and that money would be appropriated at that time," she said.

"We need to go to market to determine those costings. The estimates may be commercial-in-confidence."

Despite seeking more funding for the project, Campbell said the department had projected savings of $44 million and $64 million in the last two forward years due to savings in IT and processes.

"We looked at what efficiencies were likely to come from these programs we were putting in place," Campbell said.

"We looked at how these strategies would produce benefits in our operations."

Human Services Minister Marise Payne said that the business case would not be made public because it was a Cabinet document.

The agency has recently faced criticism over an Auditor-General's report stating the average wait time to speak to Centrelink was over 16 minutes.

A 2012 agreement signed with Telstra for AU$474 million had yet to reap benefits for the call centre, but Grant Tidswell, deputy secretary for the department said that while the deal won't reduce demand, it will help manage demand.

"This is one of our great opportunities for us to manage telephony traffic in the country. We hope by this calendar year, we'll have the capability to move calls around the entire network, and I'll have 15,000 handsets to be able to distribute calls to," he said.

"On top of that we've built a distribution system to parcel up and move the work around, and we're now in the process of working with our partner provider Telstra to schedule those 15,000 staff in terms of the work and activity. It gives us the chance to move the work.. around the country. It will mean improved management in terms of demand.

"I don't think we've ever said it will reduce demand, but it will give us a chance to manage that demand in a much more coordinated way than we do now."

Department CIO Gary Sterrenberg said that in the first three months of this year, the agency had just two "priority one" systems failures that meant customers were not able to access services for a period of time. He said this was a 95 percent improvement on the same three months in 2014.

Average system up time was 98.77 percent.

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