As far as complex federal government IT projects go, very few come close to the high-risk overhaul of Centrelink’s legacy payments entitlements calculation engine now underway at Services Australia.
Touching the lives of more than three million Australians each year, the mission critical IT system sits at the very heart of one of the largest welfare systems in the world.
The system, which is critical to both customers and the broader economy, is used to work out the entitlements eligibility of welfare recipients – and thus how much to pay them through Centrelink’s new SAP-based payments platform – with pinpoint accuracy.
Any error here would be operationally disastrous for a department already suffering backlash over its online compliance intervention program, pejoratively labelled Robodebt.
But that’s the task that now lies ahead for Infosys, which last week was announced the winner of a ten-year contract to deliver a new calculation engine based on Pegasystems’ Pega platform.
The choice is an unexpected break with protocol for a department that has history with IBM and Accenture, which both fell short during the 13-week competitive dialogue (CD) process for the work.
For Infosys’ ANZ public sector general manager Allen Koehn, however, the decision validates the solution and wider transformation proposed by the Indian technology services outsourcer.
“The department didn’t just issue specs and say go build it,” he told iTnews of the “exhaustive” CD process that allowed the company to further understand the department's requirements.
“They said, ‘this is the business outcome we want’, so based on that, we put forward a business transformation approach and had the opportunity to pick any technology that we wanted.”
Koehn said the company ultimately settled on Pega as the core platform as it is “fundamentally a rules engine”, and would afford the department “a lot of flexibility going forward”.
“If [the department] choose to, they can use the platform for more than just business rules,” he said.
Two projects, not one
The overhaul, which officially kicked off on November 18, will see Infosys transform the department's current calculation engine, which has sat largely unchanged since it was introduced in the 1980s.
Koehn told iTnews that this meant completely reimagining the solution embedded in Centrelink’s legacy income security integrated system (ISIS), which is being progressively replaced under the welfare payments infrastructure transformation (WPIT) program.
“What we’re not doing [is], we’re not actually rebuilding ISIS,” Koehn said.
“We were very, very careful from the very beginning to come up with a strategy and to make sure that the government understood that we’re not rebuilding ISIS.
“And so because of that, we can actually stand up a set of benefit types fairly quickly.”
But the project, which promises to be Infosys’ biggest and most lucrative federal government IT project in recent years, actually consists of two equally complex projects.
Infosys is also required to decouple the business rules that have been “encapsulated in very, very old code” for more than 30 years, which Koehn said was – in many ways – more difficult than building a new solution.
“The risk of building a new system and getting those rules rights in the new system is a huge risk - you can’t calculate entitlements incorrectly,” he said.
“So the strategy of how you build the engine and how you would prove that it comes out with the exact calculation out of ISIS was a critical strategy.”
“Just building that Pega platform, that's complex enough, but then how you actually get the business rules in their purest form into the Pega platform. That’s arguably just as complex as actually building the new the new platform.”
With the new solution expected to be introduced sometime during 2021, Infosys will spend the next seven months working on the “proof of design”.
Around 80 staff are involved in this phase, which will build on the proof of concept work done during the CD process. A further 200 staff are expected to then join the project when it reaches the build phase in the second half of 2020.
“The whole idea is to really build the entire system in an offline matter, but using all the tools and all the pieces and parts that we’ve proposed, including the actual approach to designing and building it,” Koehn said.
“We’ve got a team focused on standing up the Pega platform and taking a set of business rules and getting them up and running based upon the current legislation, rules, policy, etc.
“Then we have a team looking at the business rules in the legacy application and figuring out how to extract those when we need to.
“Then we have folks looking at change management – what’s going to be the impact to the users from this new system.
“And so you’re trialling the technology itself and more importantly you’re trialling the approach – and in my view trialling the approach is just as important as trialling the actual technology because we have high confidence in the technology.”
Infosys will then take onboard the “lessons learned” at the end of the seven months proof of design and apply tweaks before starting the build phase, which is expected to kick off in July granted the departments signs off.
“Once we get into the actual build phase and we’re building groups of benefits at a time, then we’re actually running them in production parallel and comparing the results,” Koehn said.
“And if the results is different to the legacy applications, that’s where the rules extraction out of the legacy application becomes important to do the tweaking that we need.
“At any point in time, the government can decide to turn off the old bits and pieces of those benefits and go solely on the new system.
“But we’ve left that completely open to when that’s appropriate to do.
“Ultimately both systems will probably run in some form to the very end of the project, and in the end, it’s up to the government to decide when to completely turn off the old system.”
With as many as 275 employees expected to work on the project at its peak, Infosys will use the calculation engine overhaul as another driver for its locations initiative.
The initiative, which began last year, will see the company create 1200 positions within its local operations in the wake of the abolition of 457 visas.
“We’re actually splitting the hiring between here [Canberra] and Melbourne,” Koehn said.
“There’s just not enough people left in Canberra and the price points are getting a bit expensive, so we’re splitting it up.
“Services Australia themselves have a fair amount of folks working out of Melbourne, so it actually is a good fit in that sense.”
Koehn said the company would also repurpose some of its Australian citizens for some of the business rules extraction, though this would also be performed offshore.
“[Services Australia] are allowing some of the business rule extraction work to be done from offshore, but the access – the base code – is sitting here physically in Australia and just simply in essence VPNing back into the AWS instance here in Australia.
“But that but that's just looking at, you know, boring Model 204 COBOL code in looking at business rules that are already public.”