Sterrenberg takes lessons from CBA for Centrelink IT overhaul

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Sterrenberg takes lessons from CBA for Centrelink IT overhaul
Gary Sterrenberg

Human Services reveals the depths of its IT woes.

Department of Human Services CIO Gary Sterrenberg has turned to the banking sector to learn lessons from Australia’s biggest IT overhauls before he gets started on his own.

Sterrenberg last week told senate estimates he was looking to the Commonwealth Bank’s $1.1 billion core banking overhaul for guidance as the Government prepares to decide whether it is willing to fund a replacement of Centrelink’s similarly vast payments platform.

The five-year CBA initiative, which the bank declared a success in 2012, is one of the few Australian tech overhaul projects that match the upcoming Centrelink overhaul in terms of scale and expense.

In senate estimates last week, DHS executives said the replacement of the Income Support Integrated System (ISIS) – projected to cost between $1 billion and $1.5 billion – is already being considered in the context of the 2015 budget.

The 30 year-old system has variously been referred to as being “antiquated” and “mature” on either side of the bench.

A former banking CIO himself, Sterrenberg said he had already begun talks with the Australian IT industry to “get the lessons learnt” both locally and overseas.

He is looking to CBA in particular to learn how the bank sequenced the ‘building blocks’ of such a mammoth system implementation in a way that preserved the customer experience.

“They made sure that they had robust user experience…to make sure that the backward engineering was not experienced by their customer sets,” Sterrenberg said.

He also commended the bank on the way it engaged with the vendor community ahead of the overhaul.

Getting the pieces of ISIS in the right order could make or break the critical project, Sterrenberg said.

“The unanimous advice that we have been given by those we have consulted is to break this into smaller pieces—work packages—to make sure they are governed clearly.

“I think those that have failed have tried to spend a lot of time in dark rooms building things, and by the time they have come out the world has changed.”

Department secretary Kathryn Campbell conceded she was deeply worried about the risk ISIS poses to the welfare system if the Government does not take action to replace it.

“My opinion is that we need to do something about the system now because it is not able to meet the flexibility requirements and it is not a modern system,” she said, pointing out that some of the code is now so old no-one fully knows where it links and whether changes will have trickle-down impacts.

“One example from a couple of years ago is that we made some changes to enable disaster recovery payments,” she said.

“We made those payments and it inadvertently stopped someone getting their family tax benefit the next week. That was because there had been some sort of link, which we had not been aware of and it had not been documented.”

Another DHS executive, Tam Shepherd, said the “payment-by-payment” structure of the underlying code is the reason DHS cannot pre-fill Centrelink forms with details it already has on record, to the frustration of its millions of customers.

“Our customers get very frustrated and think, 'Why am I doing this again? I've told you this over and over again’,” he said.

“[Staff] have to re-handle work. They have to re-key and re-process work that on a sophisticated platform would be able to be processed automatically, that would deal with the sections and the complex stuff they want to be dealing with.”

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