Prime Minister Scott Morrison has singled-out Centrelink’s $1 billion core system replacement as crucial for rebuilding the confidence of everyday Australians dealing with government online, warning public servants it must deliver improvements for customers, not just bureaucrats.
In his first major public address to the federal bureaucracy at Parliament's Great Hall on Monday, the former social services minister demanded “a step change in service delivery” from agency chiefs, warning them that the creation of Services Australia was not a “fancy rebranding exercise.”
Morrison’s tough talk is the strongest signal yet that he is personally prepared to come down hard on persistent customer experience issues across the former Human Services portfolio that range from ham fisted Robodebt calculations to unacceptable call-centre waiting times.
“The process we have been going through with WPIT now for some time is the biggest ICT program we have seen in the public service. It is a beast of a thing to accomplish. It has been going for many years and I think we are making extraordinary progress,” Morrison said before putting bureaucrats on notice.
“What we have to keep in mind when we drive those ICT projects is again, keep the customer in sight.
“It is not about making the public service’s job easier, it is actually about making the service deliver to the customer. To the public. To the citizen.
“You have to look at these systems from the outside in, not just inside out,” Morrison said.
The PM’s stance is an important recalibration of the Coalition’s stance on the use of technology in the welfare and social services sector because it overtly shifts the focus from automation, efficiency and fraud crackdowns to making the bureaucracy easier to deal with.
It also sends a signal that the notion of a welfare system so cumbersome and slow it acts as punitive discouragement to those using it has had its time, and could become a vote-loser unless everyday functions improve.
Having remodeled the Howard-era creation of Human Services into Services Australia following the successful New South Wales tech-led omni-channel government services model, Morrison soon after his re-election sent in seasoned state and federal IT reformer Martin Hoffman to spearhead the reform taskforce.
Since then, Morrison has also appointed Treasury Secretary Phil Gaetjens to become the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the public service chief. A former NSW Treasury chief, Gaetjens has also acted as chief of staff to Morrison as well as former Treasurer Peter Costello.
A fundamental frustration between agencies has been the sheer size and legacy architecture of Centrelink’s 30 year old transactional system that has slowed down and encumbered a range of policy changes and initiatives distributed through the welfare system.
Under the Howard government, means testing for a range of benefits was often avoided altogether in order to land electoral welfare sweetners into bank accounts before polls were held, essentially a policy hack to avoid recoding welfare systems.
After respectfully warning bureaucrats that the lack of talent in its upper and senior ranks that did not have experience outside the public services amounted to a “failure of public sector management”, Morrison said he now expected the public service to “look beyond the bubble”.
The public service needed to be more open to outsiders he said, before setting out broader tech expectations, but keeping major changes under wraps ahead of the delivery of former Tesltra CEO David Thodey’s root and branch review of the APS.
That review, which is being assisted by the head of ANZ’s digital bank and transformation program Maile Carnegie, is expected to land shortly and provide the catalyst for wholesale reform of APS technology and service delivery.
There is some expectation the review will revisit the possibility of the government buying in some common transactional processing capacity from the financial services sector rather than trying to build giant monolithic mainframe estates in each agency.
On the digital efficiency front, Morrison said public servants needs to be able to grasp the potential for tech-led improvements, not for the tech but for the outcomes
“I am a big fan of regtech, whether that’s in the financial sector or elsewhere,” he said.
“Regulation is supposed to help get better decisions. I don’t think the public see it that way because [they] often can’t see the benefits of what the regulation is intending to achieve. That’s because it’s bound up in these massive big thick volumes. Digital technologies have the ability to demystify all of that.”
Morrison said he hoped legislation would start to be written as “computer code” within the next decade, if not sooner.
“Because when it is written in code that makes for its very rapid implementation and application to the various practices it is seeking to regulate,” the PM said.
“Government needs to connect instantaneously and seamlessly with Australians to answer questions, provide services, make payments and solve problems,” Morrison said of the state he wants the public service to get to.
“When they engage with the public service, they should not feel like they are going back in time.”