Public servants the weak link in $1.5 billion welfare reform job

The Department of Human Services’ John Murphy. Photo: Louise KennerleyBosses at the giant Department of Human Services have more faith in technology than in their 36,000 public servants in delivering welfare payment reform, a conference in Canberra has been told.
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DHS deputy secretary John Murphy said technology, an area where his department has struggled, was likely to be “the easiest part of the journey”€ of spending $1.5 billion in taxpayers’€™ money replacing the Centrelink payment system.

The former NAB banker has told a tech conference the biggest challenge of the change program would be engaging and winning over the department’™s 35,000 employees, according to news site Government News.

The department has been riven by industrial strife since 2014 with workers now having rejected three times a new workplace agreement they fear would strip them of conditions and entitlements.

The atmosphere in the department has become so volatile that at one point the human resources boss claims he was subjected to a death threat from an infuriated public servant and there was no end in sight to the dispute.

Human Services has also struggled in the technology realm, enduring a barrage of criticism for its management of the troubled myGov web portal.

The department has also kept under wraps big problems with its internal Customer First platform.

Insiders were dismayed when SAP, the tech giant that sold DHS the technology underpinning the Customer First platform, was chosen as “preferred vendor” to supply the core software for the new $1 billion project which it will also co-design and build.

Two other “usual suspects” in government tech procurement, Capgemini and Accenture, are vying to secure to secure the systems integration contract for stage one of the WPIT project.

But despite DHS’s patchy record, Mr Murphy told the GovInnovate summit in Canberra this week technology was the least of the department’s worries.

“€œGiven enough time and money the technology is the area that we would be the most confident about,” he said.

He told the conference the DHS was likely to bring in more private sector specialists, and a change management outfit, to help with the department’s transformative change.

He said Department of Human Services staff would have to get used to new ways of working.

“We want them to spend more time talking to welfare recipients about their needs rather than answering questions: ‘I lodged my claim three weeks ago. When will it be processed’?” Mr Murphy told his audience.

“A lot of calls are very routine.

“I want to focus the efforts of those people on helping people who are the most in need.”

The department envisaged a system where data gathered on its customers would allow it to build a profile on a client, vastly reducing the traditional reliance on forms that must be filled-in, checked and process, a costly and time-consuming process.

“We are very much looking to adopt the philosophy we’ll play back information to welfare recipients and ask them to confirm it, rather than many, many forms, questions and definitions of incomes,” Mr Murphy said.

“It is incredibly difficult for citizens to understand what they’re entitled to and what information to tell the department.

“We want to make it easier for people to understand what they’re entitled to and tell them straight away that they’re not eligible.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this article inferred the department of Human Services was managing the $1.5 billion project to replace the Centrelink and Medicare payment systems. Human Services is managing the replacement of the Centrelink system while the Health Department has carriage of the Medicare replacement.

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