Services Australia has a lot of data and it's trying to use it for the greater good

CEO says the agency isn't going back to pre-pandemic service and design.

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Image: Australian Labor Party

Services Australia CEO Rebecca Skinner joined the agency in March, a week before the country started to feel the impacts of COVID-19. She said the pandemic fast-tracked the agency's focus on "agility" but touted the use of "human-centred design" had helped it make quick change.

"We've known for years that digital and agile was where we were headed, but now when there was this thing called a pandemic on our doorstep, meaning we needed to be advancing quickly towards the future," she said, speaking at the Digital Transformation Agency's Human-centred Services Digital Summit on Thursday. "There's no pandemic playbook you can pull off the shelf to manage this.

"Our pathway to the future is through human-centred design."

With thousands of citizens flocking to Centrelink shopfronts to determine if they qualified for support, Skinner detailed what the agency did to up its response to those making JobSeeker claims.

See also: A fake DDoS and Centrelink queues spurred Australia.gov.au to appear in six hours

"In the public sector it's easy to think about the scale of what we're facing as the problem. But every startup founder will tell you scale like this is the holy grail … because it's scale that gives you data and it's that data that gives you information and intelligence about your systems in action," she said.

Staff were taking tens of thousands of phone calls. Skinner said with speech analytics, that was an asset -- a "bank of intelligence".

"We could take the thousands of hours of audio and work out very quickly what people were finding difficult," she said.

Services Australia also had online interaction data.

"Here's a lot of people logging into myGov, navigating to Centrelink, starting a JobSeeker payment claim, and stopping somewhere in the process before they hit submit. Have they moved to JobKeeper, or are they just stuck in a Bermuda Triangle called next steps?" she continued. "Well, with a program called Tealeaf, we could track the customer pathways and work out what was happening."

The agency also had "screens and screens" of payment and performance data.

"We started to build a data heat map, who's accessing what and where, how is this changing? And do we have the capability in place to respond?" Skinner said. "We could monitor all these things and report that information to government day to day. In future, we want to make it more like minute to minute."

The agency has since pushed out a new guide after sending it through two rounds of testing with customers. She said there was an "immediate uptick" in the number of people who moved from the guide to myGov and a decline in people going straight from the JobSeeker claim guide to the Phone Us page.

Also helping the agency, she said, was public servants temporarily moving into frontline roles, including the IT development team.

"Now they had to use the systems they built. … there are three of them that our customer facing staff has to grapple with, often simultaneously, all designed differently, and using different words," Skinner explained. "It turns out that working in three separate systems, while you're trying to help a customer, isn't anyone's idea of great design."

She said moving to a single interface was a "massive and ongoing project".

"We are not going back to pre-pandemic service and design," she said.

Another example Skinner shared was its adoption of Single Touch Payroll (STP) data through the Australian Taxation Office.

"We won't just be relying on customers to tell us their income anymore,. We'll take the pace of information from their employers instead so when the customer opens up the app … it's all prefilled. Less time, fewer errors, less potential for debt," she said.

The agency's child support team will also benefit from STP data, as a lot of their time is spent chasing up employers for salary information, she added.

"We're basically just calling to confirm information that's already there in Single Touch Payroll," Skinner explained. "So this year, we came up with a design for a more automated system that would actually use the information in STP, then we tested it through a 10-week pilot.

"It turns out, we can reduce the need to contact employers to set up deductions from 97% to less than 20%. And more than half of those deductions were set up within a day."

Services Australia still after more debt collectors

The Department of Human Services, now Services Australia, kicked off a data-matching program of work in 2016, which saw the automatic issuing of debt notices to those in receipt of welfare payments through Centrelink. 

From 1 July 2016 through 31 August 2019, Centrelink's Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) scheme, colloquially known as robo-debt, saw 1,159,662 assessments be initiated using the automated data-matching technique.

In May, the government admitted it got around 470,000 "debts" issued under the OCI initiative wrong, and that it was refunding an estimated AU$721 million back to Australians who paid.

Refunds begun in July, and as of 26 October 2020, the total amount refunded was AU$697 million, accounting for 94% of all refunds that are due.

Services Australia in February revealed it spent AU$129.5 million on robo-debt labour hire arrangements, with former Labor leader and now Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten calling the labour-hire cohort an "army of debt collectors and banks" funded by public money to "hassle struggling Australians with inaccurate and illegal debt claims".

See also: Labor claims Commonwealth racked up AU$34 million robo-debt legal bill

The agency has this week gone to market, seeking "suitably qualified external debt collection agents (ECAs) to deliver debt management services that supplement the agency's internal debt management activities for managing and collecting debt owed to the Commonwealth".

"The agency has an obligation to make attempts to recover debt owed to the Commonwealth by its customers," the request for tender (RFT) says.

Debts referred to an ECA, Services Australia says, are owed by customers who were previously in receipt of a government payment which has ceased or is at a zero rate. The majority of debts are typically referred 56 days after they are raised -- a minimum of 28 days after payment became due.

At present, customers receive an initial account payable letter requesting payment when the debt is first raised; they also receive one or more reminder letters inclusive of interest charge warning/application and/or telephone or SMS contacts, before a referral to an ECA is made.

Total debts recovered in 2019-20 was AU$1.75 billion. ECAs brought in AU$105 million of that -- 6% of total funds.

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