Services Australia's proud achievements include answering the phone

Minister Stuart Robert talks about respect and transparency, but they require more than just answering the phone. They even require more than a personalised dashboard. They require wholesale culture change.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor
Image: Asha Barbaschow/ZDNet

When government services minister Stuart Robert addressed the National Press Club (NPC) in Canberra on Tuesday, he seemed to be speaking from an alternate reality where neither he nor the much-loved computering skills of the Australian government ever existed.

The Services Australia brand, for that is how the government thinks of these things, is a year old. Robert delivered a progress report on the government's "bold" 2018 plan to have all its services delivered online by 2025.

Back then in the beforetimes, the aim was that government services would be "easy to deal with", "informed by you", and "fit for the digital age". Whatever that last one means.

Now, Robert said, it's about "a future where government services are simple, helpful, respectful, and transparent".

OK, let's look at respect.

"The tech communities have shown potential little bugs," Robert said during an interview on Sky News Australia, the transcript of which has yet to be published transparently on his ministerial website. After publication, word was received it was published on this ministerial site instead.

The problem with Robert's comment is that they weren't "little bugs". They were security vulnerabilities. And they weren't "potential". They were real. Otherwise why were they fixed, eventually?

As a politician, Robert is of course trying to spin this into a "nothing to see here move along" piece of nothing. But watering down the importance of these external contributions is kind of disrespectful.

This is the same Stuart Robert who disrespected us all by being complicit in fake COVIDSafe download targets, fudging its effectiveness, denying states' claims about data access, and letting the Digital Transformation Agency take its own sweet time in releasing the app's source code.

And let's talk about transparency.

Services Australia and its associated brands -- sorry but this is how the government speaks now -- are notorious among journalists for their reluctance to release documents under freedom of information laws.

They rarely answer specific questions with concrete answers, preferring to copy and paste a bland regurgitation of generic talking points like some bureaucratic pelican. It's standard procedure across government departments.

Analyst Justin Warren, a freedom of information request enthusiast, is sceptical that anything will change.

"The purpose of a system is what it does. Services Australia is working as intended. Why would it change?," Warren said.

"Talk is cheap. It's easy for a minister to make empty claims without providing any evidence backing it up, which is why we see so much of it. I'll believe Services Australia is capable of change when I've seen a measurable improvement in three things it does, and not a second before."

Or as journalist Sabra Lane said more politely in the Q&A that followed the NPC speech: "The past is usually a pretty good indicator to future behaviour".

"Many people watching this would probably think one, robo-debt, how did all of those principles apply on being simple, helpful, respectful and transparent?"

And there's the real problem. Culture.

When Robert said that the government isn't geared to do refunds, he's right -- at least as far as his department goes. At least he admitted it, so a bonus point there.

As anyone applying for the unemployment benefit JobKeeper could tell you, the current attitude is that the citizen is the enemy and has to prove that they're not a mastermind out to defraud the system.

The government can't fix that with a "personalised dashboard" or an "intuitive" website or a "delightful" experience.

It can only be fixed with wholesale culture change.

It needs a culture where the attitude genuinely is, as Robert said, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

Perhaps for starters by treating citizens as largely honest humans rather than criminals, and going out of its way to ensure they receive all the benefits they're entitled to.

Thing is, Robert's speech and the two conversations I've cited have literally nothing on culture change. Not even the word itself.

And we have a patronising analogy positing government as Netflix, and a plethora of buzzwords such as "seamless", "end to end", "connective tissue", "scalability", and so many more.

Hint: The government isn't a startup.

Hint: Netflix just allows you to choose a movie and TV show and it dumps a file at you. It's the same file whoever you are and whatever your circumstances.

Hint: Comparing something to Netflix is a trope almost as dated as "It's the Uber for X", and makes you look like a drongo.

The astounding achievements of Services Australia's first year

To be fair, Robert did list a few useful things that his department achieved in its first year.

Some of the "architectural blocks" were a common set of API standards for government systems, a payment utility linked to the New Payments Platform, the PEGA business rules platform, and a beta of the "enhanced myGov" which one can only hope isn't as dreadful as the current one.

But so much of it was ho-hum.

"For well over the last decade, the Department of Human Services [as Services Australia was called previously] 'call blocked' or hung up on approximately 30 million social services and welfare calls each year," he said.

"Following significant improvements in technology and work practices, today there is zero call blocking on this line."

They worked out how to answer the phone. Respect.

Call waiting times have been reduced too, he said. Most claims can be now made online, and most transactions can be completed online or on the phone, rather than in person or on paper.

But they're not anything special. They're just what everyone else has been doing for the past 20 years. They should be business as usual, not something boast about. Not in 2020.

He also boasted that digital channels can now handle "over 300,000 concurrent users", up from 55,000. But that only happened because systems fell over, because no one had foreseen the possibility of traffic spikes. Sound familiar?

But I repeat, there was nothing about achieving the culture change.

A fish rots from the head, as the old saying goes. For many of us in the tech industry or the media, Services Australia is still on the nose, and we've yet to see any real sign of deodorant.

Updated at 1:46pm AEST, 10 July 2020: Added location of transcripts.

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