New Human Services front line system takes blame for legacy tech

The Australian Department of Human Services' customer-facing system Customer First is taking the blame for issues that are often not the fault of the new system.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

As the Department of Human Services has begun integrating its customer-facing system Customer First into offices around the country, it has found that staff members are blaming that system for problems with some of the 20 to 30 older systems it is connected to.

The new Customer First system has been brought in as part of the AU$530 million Service Delivery Reform project to consolidate IT systems in the Department of Human Services in 2011-12 after the formation of the mega-agency combining Centrelink, Medicare, and the Child Support Agency.

Speaking at Senate Estimates last night, department associate secretary for service delivery transformation and performance Ben Rimmer said that the rollout of the frond-end system was commenced in September 2012, and was progressively deployed until May 2013.

In the last six months, he said that most day-to-day processing and transaction work for Centrelink staff is now done using Customer First.

"Our standard operating model now is to work with iPads, and the staff member is actually looking at a version of the Customer First system through the iPad," he said.

"They use that system to effectively book the customer in, so we know who they are and why they're there and book them in in the appropriate circumstances."

Human Services CIO Gary Sterrenberg added that the Customer First system is covering about 20 to 30 systems in the department.

"The technology is the presentation layer that takes the information from our current social services system and presents it back in a way that is more usable for our front line staff for processing and in a way to collect data from the front line," he said.

Rimmer said that while the project has been successful, given the size of the Department of Human Services, there are challenges.

"This project has had some times where the stability of the system hasn't been as good as we would have liked, and that has had an impact on front line staff," he said.

"That said, in any large organisation with complicated technology — a telecommunications company, a bank, that kind of thing — there are periods of time where some of the technology doesn't work as well as it could do.

"And not all of those kinds of problems that have happened in our organisation are related to the new system, some of them are related to the systems are part of what we've had for the past 10 to 15 years."

He said staff would often blame Customer First when the issue may lie elsewhere.

"The Customer First system, as such, is the way that the staff see their work, and it's also the most visible change from the way staff interact with customers," he said.

"We're now at the stage where if anything goes wrong at any stage in the new system, it looks to staff like it's happening in Customer First, so that's the challenge that's happening at the moment."

Sterrenberg noted that system disruptions were significantly lower for the department than in previous years — down to 119 incidents from 282 the previous year.

"Clearly, we have some way to go, and as we finalise the integration phase of the service delivery reform project, we expect that will continue, because part of that program was to modernise and improve the technology we had before," he said.

"[But] those sort of numbers are comparable to what you would see in the banking industry."

The spend on the project in the last year was AU$15 million. Rimmer said there would be ongoing maintenance and upgrade costs, but these would be cheaper than before the upgrade.

"What I would say, though, is that the new Customer First system is built in technology that, over time, should be cheaper and easier to change, and be easier for our staff to grapple with as new programs and services come into effect," he said.

"It should be, over time, a more efficient way of operating than our past systems."

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