Technology only one part of Human Services' welfare payment revamp

The Department of Human Services has pointed out that while it looks to digitise as far as it possibly can, it remains focused on delivering an omni-channel experience for its customers.

While technology is only one part of the Department of Human Services' welfare payment infrastructure transformation program (WPIT), it will play an important role in underpinning a lot of the processes and systems that are expected to be introduced, according to John Murphy, the Department of Human Services Payments Reform deputy secretary.

"The welfare payment infrastructure transformation program is really a business-led transformation because what we are looking to do is fundamentally change the processes, the way that welfare is delivered to recipients, and one of the products of that will be a new ICT system. It is not the only one, [but] it is an important one," he said at the annual Technology in Government conference.

On Tuesday, the department announced SAP as the preferred tenderer to update the ageing welfare payments system, currently responsible for processing over AU$100 billion in Centrelink payments annually.

Official discussions with SAP began after the department published a Request for Expressions of Interest (REOI) in September to gather suggestions from the IT industry on how to design and begin construction of the new welfare payment system.

The department has yet to sign the technology company as contract negotiations are still underway to begin overhauling the 30-year-old system the department has in place, the Income Security Integrated System (ISIS).

Former Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey noted previously that the upgrade is set to cost the Australian government billions.

WPIT is expected to take seven years in total to be carried out in five phases, with the REOI falling under the first tranche of the project, which also includes planning, scoping, and design work, and adding some initial "bolt-on" digital services for welfare recipients.

Murphy admitted that while the existing system is "pretty robust and solid", it was not built to be very flexible or handle the growing complexity of the welfare system.

For example, within the existing technology environment there are over 350 components and 30 million lines of code; each of the 40 welfare payments has its own processing engine and approximately 30 add-ons; there are up to 12 different definitions of income that makes it difficult to reuse capability across different welfare payments; every single eligibility criteria is underpinned by over 100 rules; it takes weeks, months, and a significant amount of money to make relatively simple changes such as renaming a program; and there are multiple legacy and new technologies running as parallel systems, instead of one whole system.

Murphy said the vision for WPIT is to eventually have a system and processes that are "far more agile, far more responsive to policy implementation ... much less red tape, significantly better end-to-end digital service delivery, better real time data and analytics".

He added that one of the more important aspects of the transformation will be to capture data from multiple sources, whether that's existing government sources or from commercial entities, and reuse it to feed that information back to welfare recipients to allow them to only provide the department with any missing information.

"Rather than welfare recipients providing us with information, we want to be able to take that information from existing sources. A good example of that would be students who are studying at universities," he said.

"Today, they have to apply to study at university, they have to provide their courses. What we want to do is take the data feeds that already exists, take that into our welfare payment system, and essentially take that back to students to ask them to acknowledge and confirm their status, rather than them provide all the information to the university and then having to come to tell us essentially the same information."

Murphy also acknowledged that given the welfare system services a range of cohorts from students, who are more likely to welcome the use of more digital services, through to others who are not as tech savvy, the department's technology transformation will only form one key part of the entire overhaul.

"Whilst we will look to digitise as far as we possibly can, we will continue to provide a full omni-channel experience. We will continue to support customers through branches, we will continue to support customers through the telephone, we will continue to support and build out our digital capabilities, we will need to take into account people who are visually impaired," he said.

He further noted that despite the enhancement of digital services, the department has not experienced any significant declines in visits to its shopfronts or the amount of calls it receives through its call centres.

Earlier this week, the department also published a request for tender to establish a panel of systems integrators to support the WPIT program. The latest request for tender will close on August 23, 2016 with "competitive dialogue on-board and execution" to kick off in November.

According to Murphy, the department will select up to six system integrators to support the overall life of WPIT, with intentions to select one system integrator in the next few months to deliver the design aspect of the program from next year, which form part of tranche two of the program.

"Over the next six years we want to be able to select firms from that panel and have that flexibility to appoint and allocate particular pieces of work to the system integrators," he said.