An independent review into the troubled redevelopment of the country’s child support IT system has told the Department of Human Services (DHS) to “immediately” prioritise upgrades to the 'Pluto' front-end SAP platform.
It has also ruled out returning to solely the legacy ‘Cuba’ back-end system, which continues to provide the core functionality for the newer front-end, or dumping Pluto in favour of a new commercial-off-the-shelf system.
The April 2018 Deloitte report [pdf], published in recent answers to questions on notice to Parliament, comes almost a year-and-a-half after the big four consultancy was first called into review the child support system redesign (CSSR) program.
The report's release is a significant embarrassment for DHS after it repeatedly refused to release the document to iTnews under Freedom of Information laws on the grounds that disclosure was contrary to the public interest and could damage the department’s reputation.
In managerialist jargon typical of the consulting trade, the damning 105-page document lays bare a series of “challenges” with the program during its life, stemming from changes to scope and technology and an inability to maintain a clear vision.
Some of these issues date back to a chief information officer (CIO) group decision to alter the program after the blueprint was signed-off so to ensure the platform's future reuse - an approach that has also been witnessed in the department's welfare payments infrastructure transformation program.
The report found that while the newer front-end Pluto system was “generally easier to learn for new staff” and had an improved “look and feel”, it's implementation was marred by “significant functional gaps and performance challenges”.
In simple terms, it just didn't work.
One of the “gaps” cited was staff being required to use both Pluto and the legacy ‘Cuba’ back-end system to complete their work, which Deloitte said created “inefficiencies in day to day operations” such as increased call handing times.
Again, in simple terms, the system is currently worse than the one it replaced.
“The current implementation does not achieve the core outcomes of the original business case, which set out to enable the full decommissioning of Cuba,” the report states.
“As such, there is still a strong burning platform for further investment.”
No return to Cuba
Despite this, continuing Pluto's development as either an end-to-end SAP system or a hybrid solution that retains key Cuba components has been recommended over other alternatives such as migrating Pluto to SAP S4/HANA, returning to Cuba or stopping work on the build altogether.
This explains a $6.5 million deal with Deloitte to upgrade the system last year.
“The preferred option is to proceed with an SAP solution, noting that a technology target state needs to be defined as part of the development of a business case,” the report states.
“The solution should build on the work that has been completed to date as part of the development of Pluto.”
Deloitte put this down to “the underlying solution components, the investment to date, broader enterprise SAP strategy and the current Pluto implementation being live across the business”.
Last year the department revealed it had spent a considerable amount developing its new child support system, with the original $102 million budget expended in the first two years.
“Based on a detailed functional and technical assessment completed by the assessment team, Pluto can be made fit for purpose,” the report states.
“This will however, require significant investment to both remediate current gaps and performance challenges, deliver on the original intent of the business case and any new and future business needs.”
iTnews has contacted the Human Services for comment on which approach it has taken.
Immediate action required
Deloitte said the department should “immediately mobilise design and delivery teams to enhance the current Pluto implementation”, with new functionality to be delivered in blocks starting with “priority improvements”.
These priority upgrades were to be “completed over two, three-month program increments with formal go or no-go decision at the end of each delivery cycle”, while underlying Cuba code was also modernised to “mitigate some of the medium-term risks” of continuing to use the platform.
“The focus should be on stabilising and improving performance, delivering usability enhancements for staff and improving the data quality across the two systems,” the report states.
Deloitte also recommended scaling back the use of Pluto so that only staff from new customer teams continued using the system while it was improved – advice the department appears to have heeded.
“All other business areas should revert back to Cuba as a short-term business performance improvement measure,” the report states.
“This will enable the Program to build and deliver enhancements and additional capabilities with sufficient quality to better facilitate change to the business.”
Alongside this, Deloitte has recommended the department beginning work on a business case for a longer term project to transform how child support services are delivered.
What went wrong?
Deloitte’s report reveals that the first problems with the child support system redevelopment (CCSR) program emerged shortly after the blueprint was signed off in April 2014.
In November 2014, the department’s CIOG opted to review and redesign the CSSR technology architecture so that it “contained patterns which were reusable for future departmental use”.
The report indicated that while “provid[ing] assurance for repeated pattern capability, in order to reduce future costs”, the redesign also “introduced delays to the program schedule and benefit realisation, and increased the cost in the immediate term”.
However it wasn’t until February 2016 – just weeks before the original 31 March 2016 milestone – that it became clear the core system build would not be ready “due to unforeseen complexity and requirements that extended the work effort”.
It was at this point in time that the department began looking at “alternatives to the planned end-to-end ‘big bang’ delivery approach to the Cuba replacement”.
Following a meeting of the CSSR’s senior responsible officer and the chief information officer and secretary in March 2016 to discuss ways forward, the department made the decision to prioritise the delivery of the front-end Pluto ‘wrapper’, pausing the core build in the process.
But just a prior to the revised June 2017 go-live, the CSSR executive steering committee agreed to “transition the user interface from Web UT to an updated version known as SAP UI5”.
“The decision was made approximately two months prior to the go-live of staff facing screens, with no change of the targeted go-live date,” the report states.
“Consequently, the Program faced issues relating to the short delivery timeframe, occurring immediately prior to the Smart Centre peak processing period.
“Staff faced challenges in establishing proficiency in the new system which, together with the need to use Cuba for many parts of the business process, resulted in productivity impacts.”
Although the wrapper was meant as an interim solution, it appears a lack of focus on delivery the remaining components of the system, possibly constrained by budget, derailed the project.
The report indicates “a clear plan including timeframe and approach to deliver the remaining end-to-end functions had not been finalised and communicated to staff and program stakeholder”.