Services Australia has used a Senate Committee submission to come out with guns blazing over its heavy use of outsourced labour, services and contractors, saying lumpy workloads and “critical” IT projects demand flexible workforce options.
The submission comes as as the bureaucracy awaits delivery of both a strategic review of the former Department of Human Services by Martin Hoffman, and a wider Public Service review by David Thodey, documents likely to reset expectations around how tech skills are sourced.
Notably, the mega-agency reckons it’s got the sourcing mix about right.
“Non-APS staff arrangements are used as a timely, cost-effective way to complement, not replace, the Department’s current service delivery workforce,” Services Australia’s submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee probe into “the impact of changes to service delivery models on the administration and running of government programs”.
The submission is an important line in the sand in terms of the future use of outsourcing contracting with Centrelink as the welfare agency attempts to automate many of its manual processes and deliver them online.
The problem the submission essentially spells out is that as the agency digitises, it simply doesn’t have access to a technology labour pool in the same way it can recruit generalist administrative of customer service staff, even with a very large full time internal IT shop.
“The Department is the government’s primary service delivery department; as an organisation our size and scope are matched by few others in Australia, public or private. Our national footprint covers 339 service centres, 126 telephony centres and two mobile service centres,” Services Australia’s submission said.
“The ability to access contractors and consultants with highly specialised skills helps us to meet needs that are difficult to address through reassigning staff internally, or through APS recruitment. Contracting in specialist skills has also allowed for the upskilling of existing APS staff and the acceleration of specific work programs, such as IT projects.
“Many of the projects for which these specialist staff are engaged require different skills and levels of resourcing at different points in the development process. For example, we are currently transforming the nature of our business processes and IT systems. This is a critical, complex and technically challenging program of work, comprising multiple concurrent projects.”
The realpolitik of Services Australia’s position to the committee is that if it is to deliver a contemporary customer service experience, including greater automation, it realistically has no choice but to shop outside because it can’t attract the labour in the current budget context.
Notably, other agencies have addressed the critical tech skills shortage by quietly getting clearance for so-called ‘out-of-band’ salaries for highly sought after tech staff, with defence and security agencies understood to use the booster shot for pay.
Many expect the Thodey review to question whether tech-related pay grades in the APS have created a handbrake on productivity and innovation.
The Services Australia submission also contains a dogged defence of the widely loathed Robodebt compliance program that continues to attract sharp criticism from welfare advocates and with preparations for a class action against it now underway.
“Since 1 July 2016, less than one per cent of the cases that have been formally appealed have resulted in the overpayment being changed,” the submission says.
It also defends the use of debt collectors.
“Consistent with other public sector agencies, the Department engages external collection agents to undertake some debt recovery work for non-current customers, that is, people who are no longer in receipt of an income support payment. These agents must comply with relevant Australian laws, standards, industry codes, good industry practice, policies and guidelines.”
Last week iTnews revealed that Human Services had awarded a $3.3 million contract to debt collection agency wholly owned by controversial Queensland recoveries company Panthera which has been hauled before the courts on for a raft of alleged consumer abuses.