Speech: National Press Club - Government Services in the digital age: the challenges, the plan and the delivery
The Hon Stuart Robert MP
It is great to join you all once again here at the National Press Club.
Ronald Reagan famously quipped that the most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.’
Even in its humour, President Reagan’s remarks resonate.
What if those words weren’t terrifying? What if they were true? What if Government not only helped, but helped in a delightful manner?
This is the very challenge we are solving with Services Australia.
In August last year, the Prime Minister stood in the Great Hall of Parliament House, and asked the nation’s Public Service to refocus their efforts on service.
“As we gather here in this Great Hall, I want to remind you of a poignant feature of this house of democracy.
This is one of the few parliamentary buildings in the world where you don’t have to walk up steps to enter it.
Our Parliament isn’t a Parliament over the people or above them, but one that people, that Australians, can freely and easily approach.”
This is a defining metaphor for the vision of how Australians should see their government and the establishment of Services Australia.
Today I’d like to take you through:
- What we have achieved for Australians in the first 12 months.
- The baptism of fire for government service delivery over the last six months; and
- The Government’s service delivery Vision and next steps going forward.
1. The first 12 Months of Services Australia
Historically there has been a stigma around government services. People associate government services with Centrelink queues, or long wait times on the phone. As a result, people cringe when they need to engage with government.
Unlike a bank or a business, when Australians face an unsatisfying government experience, they aren't able to shop around, they aren't able to look for a different service provider, but they will always share their negative experiences.
Our Vision is for people and businesses to access Government services as easily as they can and with as little intervention as possible, just like when you do online shopping, banking, or booking a holiday.
Having a vision is a good start, but we all know that it’s execution that matters.
12 months ago, we commenced a major transformation of Services Australia to realise our vision. I have given a number of speeches outlining the intent and plan for this transformation. I am very pleased to report that we are achieving significant results at rapid pace, results that Governments have been trying to achieve for over a decade.
- For well over the last decade, the Department of Human Services ‘call blocked’ or hung up on approximately 30 million social services and welfare calls each year. Following significant improvements in technology and work practices, today there is zero call blocking on this line. That is, more than 150,000 calls that were once blocked every day, now down to zero. And, we want to keep it that way, by continuing our work on simplifying and digitising services – more on that later.
- Over the last decade, people would wait well over 30 minutes for their call to be answered for Centrelink matters. Right now, the average speed of answer is less than 5 minutes.
- Over the last decade, all claims were made through paper forms and were manually processed. Today, all major claims are online and we have begun streamlining through automation and simplified end to end processing of claims, starting with Students and most recently Jobseekers.
- Over the last decade, digital channels could not handle more than 55,000 concurrent users. Today, they have capacity for over 300,000 concurrent users, easily managing over 123,000 users we saw on average online on July 1. In the month of June alone, there were over 60 million logins to myGov and the Centrelink online site and App.
- Over the last decade, creating the all-important Customer Reference Number could only be done at a shop front. Today, it can be created or retrieved securely online and in the last eight weeks, over 300,000 Australians have done just that.
- Over the last decade, people had no choice but to go into a service centre for most transactions. Today, there is no need to go into a shop front; the majority of transactions can be done online or over the phone.
- That’s why, over the last decade, digital transactions were measured only in the tens of millions. Today, they are measured in the hundreds of millions.
It has been a big year of delivery. With substantial runs on the board, Australians can have confidence in the direction we are heading. The next twelve months promises to deliver even more, but more on that later.
2. The Baptism by Fire over the last six months
The Services Australia story will be forever defined by the challenges it has faced over the last six months.
At the outset of 2020, Australia was facing a natural disaster on a scale rarely experienced, as bushfires—which started in August last year—raged across the country.
These bushfires took loved ones, damaged property, wrought destruction on our natural habitat and brought trauma to so many.
Services Australia’s role was critical in providing the connective tissue between Australians and their Government.
Across the country, Services Australia:
- Deployed mobile service teams and mobile service centres over 420 times into 200 communities where staff served more than 7,500 people. Assisted by the Defence Force, our people provided support in otherwise inaccessible locations, and worked side by side with other State and Federal agencies to deliver an all of Government response to people in impacted areas. They provided disaster payments, temporary accommodation and up to date information, all in the one place.
- During the 2019-20 Bushfire season, Services Australia paid out more than $223 million in Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payments and took over 200,000 calls via our disaster payments hotline. The average speed of answer of these calls was measured in seconds and, in most cases, these payments were made in minutes using the New Payments Platform.
As the drenching rains brought a reprieve from bushfires and smoke for so many Australians, Government had to find another gear as COVID-19 gripped the globe.
The nation’s leaders made extraordinary decisions that resulted in unprecedented demands for government social supports, arguably not seen in this country since the Great Depression. Indeed, the immediacy and scale of this demand is surely without precedent in the history of the Commonwealth.
We had tasked Services Australia to prepare for this and they did, preparing ‘office in a box’ kits for thousands of our staff to work from home and massively upgrading our digital channels, our telephony network and getting our staff ready to respond to people’s needs.
However, the Coronavirus pandemic was evolving so rapidly that, come the 22nd of March, National Cabinet had to put Australia into widespread lockdown. Well over a million Australians found themselves out of work on that fateful Monday in March and looked for immediate assistance from their Government.
We witnessed how Australians reached out in record numbers for support, queuing up at Centrelink and putting myGov under a significant and sudden load which had never been seen before.
Government acted swiftly to manage this demand:
- An ‘intent to claim’ process was quickly established to allow Australians to register their unemployment and secure the Jobseeker benefit from the date of unemployment. Over the next 27 days, 1.9 million intention to claim forms were lodged online.
- JobKeeper was introduced to keep people employed. However, Services Australia would still process 1.3m JobSeeker claims in 55 days, a claim volume normally processed in two and a half years. At the peak, more than 53,000 claims were completed in a single day.
- Government directed a wide scale APS recruitment drive to redeploy resources from across government to increase claims processing capability and to answer the large influx of phone calls. Picture a line of people, spaced 1.5 metres apart, stretched out 22 kilometres. That’s 14,800 additional short term staff, mobilised by Government to accelerate the delivery of support to Australians, including 2,000 redeployed public servants from a wide range of government departments and agencies that helped answering phones and processing payments.
- Government also ensured more than three hundred walk-in service centres located around the country could stay open, while keeping customers and a critical workforce safe. Local police helpfully visited our sites a total of 152 times, including once on horseback, and noted that social distancing measures were being correctly maintained, despite the volume of customers.
- Simultaneously, we had to grapple with nationwide shortages of the most basic supplies, like hand sanitiser.
Even as the calls kept flooding in, we had to ensure Services Australia would be ready to implement all the policy changes that would be required, as the National Cabinet was continually assessing the scale of the crisis and the necessary response.
Over the next 55 days, the Agency would implement 50 policy changes to 20 payments on behalf of numerous Government Departments. Tech teams worked every day, service centres operated every day and call centre hours were extended to 8am to 8pm, seven days a week.
The Agency would add almost 300 new services to the Medicare Benefits Schedule, often within hours of the Government making a decision.
The Agency grasped early on what many of us feared – that widespread lockdowns would heighten the risk for all those affected by family and domestic abuse. That’s why every person recruited to work on the call lines was given training in identifying and responding to the indicators that a caller might be experiencing domestic violence.
Over those 55 days, our Channel Operations Facility (picture the stock exchange, or NASA’s mission control room: a room that’s wall-to-wall with screens) monitored:
- 3.7 million phone calls;
- 1.9 million service centre walk-ins;
- A quarter of a million Facebook messages and tweets.
On our busiest day, myGov recorded over 3 million users - all successfully lodging claims or conducting other business with government.
What makes these figures even more remarkable is the new JobSeeker payment people were claiming was literally just hours old.
18 months prior, the then Department of Human Services had begun the process of consolidating seven different payments for working-age people into one.
On Friday March 20, the new claim went live, and just two days later in the Sunday night of 22 March, National Cabinet mandated widespread lockdowns.
These are not the circumstances in which any of us would have chosen to introduce Australians to Services Australia and the new JobSeeker payment.
Rarely are we afforded actions on our own terms.
The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), also in my portfolio, found this out very quickly, as we grasped from very early on that we were not only facing a health and economic crisis, but an information crisis as well.
The DTA was tasked to ensure all Australians could access up-to-date and reliable information on how the Government is responding to the coronavirus pandemic and what they can do to protect themselves and their families.
Within days of Australia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, we established australia.gov.au as the source of truth alongside the Coronavirus Australia information app to help Australians navigate the complex web of information about coronavirus, followed by a WhatsApp channel.
Nearly 24 million visits to australia.gov.au to access the latest coronavirus news, updates and advice from government agencies across Australia.
In a matter of weeks, the DTA and the Department of Health then developed the COVIDSafe app, to assist and speed up our contact tracing efforts. The app has had some of the greatest take up of sovereign contact tracing apps all over the world, with over 6.5 million registrations.
There are detractors of the app, but the Government strongly believes we got it right: we had to balance security and privacy concerns with operational requirements. The app does and continues to have significant benefits in supplementing our heath response to the coronavirus pandemic as evidenced by the recent peer reviewed study conducted by the Sax Institute and published recently in the Public Health and Practice journal.
It has not been an ordinary 12 months and it has been an extraordinary six months.
Over this time, in the Government Services part of the portfolio, my unrelenting focus has been to create Services Australia as an agency that thinks about its purpose not as the business of administering payments, but of serving Australians.
For as I tell my executives: if service is beneath you, then leadership is beyond you.
Was it easy? No (it’s been really hard).
Were there mistakes? Yes (plenty of them, but we only made them once and when we failed, we failed fast and tried again).
3. Our Service Delivery Vision and next steps
No matter how historic these last few months have been or how much has already been achieved, we remained focused on the next steps of executing our plan.
We have a big and ambitious vision anchored on addressing one big question: what do people want?
Well, we asked Australians what they expect of us, and they told us:
- Getting help should be simple;
- The systems and people should be helpful and intuitive;
- The service should be respectful of time and people’s circumstances; and
- The process should be transparent.
Simple, helpful, respectful, transparent.
Easy to say, complex to achieve. So let’s unpack the next steps of the transformation plan – that is – how we are going to get there.
Let me start with ‘simple’.
Not that long ago, ‘simple’ meant lining up at a Medicare counter in your lunch break with a fistful of receipts.
Now it means swiping your card at the doctor’s office. In fact, you can now do everything you need to do with Medicare online, no office visit required.
In the not too distant future, ‘simple’ will mean Australians are able to access the information and services they need in one place, tailored to their individual circumstances, regardless of government structures or the level of government the service comes from.
There is a lot of work required to make things simple.
To achieve this, we will need to have systems that interact with each other seamlessly and can assess the needs of the customer not simply at a transactional level, but also across multiple policy domains. To give you an example, “looking for work” is different for a VET student compared to a single parent, compared to a farmer who lost everything due to drought, or compared to a person with a disability.
In order to achieve this level of interaction across systems, in November I flagged that we will be developing a whole of federal government architecture.
This is well under way. It is mapping current capabilities against our needs going forward, with the goal of identifying and investing in the strategic platforms and technologies that can scale across agencies to deliver services consistently and effectively.
Buy, build or develop once and use many times.
Let me give you an example.
Services Australia is implementing a new Entitlement Calculation Engine. The software is PEGA and the systems integrator is Infosys – and the capability will replace the heart of the 30-year-old system running on the mainframe. This will mean welfare entitlements will be calculated faster, more accurately and enable government to more readily explore the effects of new policies prior to rolling them out.
Given the tried and tested scalability of the platform, the government will also be able to re-use the platform in other areas that require similar functionality – starting with Aged Care, and then expanding to other initiatives such as Veterans income support and the modernisation of our health systems.
This is saving taxpayers’ enormous amounts of money, increasing the speed of implementation and removing friction for customers across government.
We are methodically and purposefully building the architectural blocks that will sustain the future of delivering services to all Australians. Leveraging our investment in major transformation programs is delivering reusable technology components to reduce cost and complexity while speeding up delivery. Some of the most recent architectural blocks delivered by Government include:
- A common set of API standards for government systems to be able to talk to each other, agreed with all the States and Territories. We’re already rolling out APIs for providers to connect seamlessly with the National Disability Insurance Agency, also in my portfolio.
- A national approach for digital identity across all states and territories to make supporting customers easy and consistent.
- We have already built a Payment Utility linked to the New Payments Platform that will be reused across government for making payments to customers.
- We now have the PEGA business rules platform that will help calculate entitlements as we roll out new capabilities across government.
- Government is also developing a new Whole of Government Permissions and Permits platform – which will leverage previous work in this key area and will deliver a modern visas and permits processing capability as a priority. This project, run by the DTA and reporting to me, is a government priority.
- We have launched the beta of the enhanced myGov. It is a modern platform capable of scaling up to include digital identity and become a fully-fledged all of government customer experience. One front door for Government, leveraging the new online capability already delivered for Centrelink customers through the Welfare Payments Infrastructure Program and reused by Veteran Centric Reform.
The list goes on: Whole of Government Enterprise Resource Planning, government private cloud and other platforms and technologies that will be scaled up across the whole of government and potentially whole of nation as we work with our colleagues in the States and Territories.
Because delivering services that are simple to access and use does not stop at the boundary of one tier of government.
The second area of the future is 'helpful'.
I regularly talk to my counterparts in state and territory governments and the desire to provide helpful and intuitive services that eliminate friction is universal.
Through the Australian Data and Digital Ministerial Council, which I chair and has been meeting quarterly since last June and monthly since April, we have been pursuing an unrelenting agenda of simplification and alignment across the Commonwealth.
So far, we have covered an amazing amount of ground, achieving agreement on a wide range of areas.
Going forward, we will continue to share and align our initiatives to deliver services that are helpful for Australians and – this is very important in the current economic climate – to make better use of taxpayers’ dollars.
A significant amount of money is spent across all tiers of government on technology.
I believe we must make better collective use of that money, as well as use government procurement as an effective tool for creating jobs and contributing to economic recovery in the period ahead.
We currently have to seek hardware and software providers, system integrators, consultants and advisers in separate approaches to market in order to get the end-to-end capabilities we need to deliver a platform. It takes a lot of time, money and effort on all sides to do this. Going forward, I want to see these providers come together and work collaboratively. I want to see effective solutions that ensure better collaboration, clear accountability for delivery and better value for money.
If we are to spend hundreds of millions on certain platforms or technologies, these platforms should be scalable or repeatable across government so we can achieve that vision of simple and helpful government services.
The Commonwealth is ready to play a leadership role in this, initiating procurement reforms that will enable the private sector to work collaboratively to deliver whole of government and potentially whole of nation platforms.
At the same time, we must look at procurement reforms that promote the role of Australian innovation and ensure that we prioritise Australian jobs and capabilities as an integral part of delivering such strategic platforms.
In a post coronavirus world, we need to be able to help our fellow Australians not only through services, but also through ensuring we continue to stimulate jobs and economic growth.
A close cousin of simple and helpful is ‘respectful’.
‘Respectful’ means respectful of people’s time, as well as their goals in life.
Respectful must be inclusive of everyone, including those who cannot take advantage of streamlined digital services delivered through a 'one app' experience.
- Reimagining our telephony services with a single whole of government voice biometric service and ensuring every caller’s needs are met, whilst giving opportunities to access digital channels and assistants. We already have over 1.5 million voice biometric enrolments, with over 3,600 new enrolments each day. In the 2019-20 financial year, we saw over three million authenticated calls enabling better service through personalised messaging, digital assistance and process automation.
- A renewed shopfront experience, supporting self-service, while increasing support for complex cases. Why can’t going to a service centre be a much more productive experience and be respectful of your time?
- Simplifying processes and integrating data and systems to make the experience of customers at particular stages in their lives 'just work' – because services should fit around your life and circumstances, not the other way around.
We are already making good progress on the journey to achieve this, as demonstrated by the new myGov beta site.
This site is trialing ways to make it easier for people to find the information and services they need, quickly and simply. We are bringing together multiple services across federal, state and territory governments in a single location to achieve just this.
The site currently has a focus on helping Australians to navigate and recover from emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic and the recent bushfires.
If English is not someone’s first language, we’ve made it easy to understand: the site is available in 110 languages.
This is about getting the underlying foundation for state of the art government services right for all Australians.
For example, today you can personalise your Netflix feed or your Facebook page, so there is no excuse why you shouldn’t be able to do it when dealing with government.
We know Australians already expect the new myGov to proactively serve relevant content and personalise experiences by anticipating and delivering services in a similar way to consumer products like Netflix.
Since we launched it three weeks ago, around 40,000 people have visited the site. Customer feedback from the trial site will guide us on the areas to focus for the future of myGov, such as authenticated services that bring together information and high value transactional services - such as the Jobseeker payment - that Australians need.
I encourage you all to go and visit the new myGov beta website and provide your feedback so we can ensure we are providing the best services for Australians.
Finally, let me talk about our fourth principle: 'transparency'.
I mean transparency at the very core of everything we do.
Transparency for the customer in how the process works, how long it takes and clarity on where they are at a given point in time.
Imagine having a personalised dashboard so Australians can see their claims, their payments, if they have debts and how they were raised and other services or payments and assistance available to them.
Then on top of that, transparency in how their government agency is monitoring and addressing their concerns.
And to me, that’s not just about transparency for its own sake. It’s about sharing information that drives us towards our goals.
When developing the COVIDSafe app, Australians were loud and clear that they expect government to respect their privacy and have their data stored, secured and protected here, in Australia. We have enacted legislation that achieves this. We made a deliberate decision to publish the privacy impact assessment and the source code.
The tech community has worked with us and we have now completed seven updates to the App, including addressing over 30 potential bugs and areas for improvement raised by the tech industry. Consequently, the University of Adelaide has rated the Australian COVIDSafe App the safest globally, after comparing it to 34 similar apps. My conversations with peer digital ministers around the world echo this sentiment.
Going forward, we need to acknowledge community expectations and be transparent about how we manage the information that Australians are concerned about sharing with us.
Accordingly, I can announce we are examining the sovereignty requirements that should apply to certain data sets held by government, in addition to the existing Protected Security Policy Framework.
This will include considering whether certain data sets of concern to the public should be declared sovereign data sets and should only be hosted in Australia, in an accredited Australian data centre, across Australian networks and only accessed by the Australian government and our Australian service providers.
We need to ensure that Australians can trust that Government will appropriately manage the information that they provide to us – whether it is for a tracing app or for the Census.
Through the Data Availability and Transparency legislation the Government will seek to introduce in the period ahead, we will ensure services are designed so we don’t have to ask Australians to provide the same information repeatedly. This will enable us to streamline the processes of applying for a service, benefit, permission or permit, while providing visibility and transparency of that process.
This transparency and trust will be critical as we pursue our goal to make all government services available digitally by 2025 and enable our country and people to grow and prosper.
This is the future we are driving toward, together.
A future where government services are simple, helpful, respectful and transparent.
A future where people share data with government because they can see the benefits clearly for themselves and they trust us to keep it safe and secure.
A future where Australian innovation is at the centre of economic recovery and government works with the private sector to deliver seamless services across the nation.
A future where people actually believe us when we say: ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.’