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Meet the woman remaking a government mega-agency

After reaching a low with robo-debt, Services Australia is being reborn with a powerful new tech platform and a focus on being a trusted provider of services.

Tom BurtonGovernment editor

The night of Sunday, September 4, was a make or break moment for Services Australia chief executive Rebecca Skinner.

After years of planning, brand research and $200 million of technical development, the myGov accounts of 24 million Australians were due to be transferred to a new service portal.

Following almost a decade of derision, the clunky, “work horse” green myGov website was finally being retired, in favour of what Skinner describes as a bright fresh blue for Australia’s largest authenticated website. Beyond the paint job, the myGov site, which brings together a diaspora of high-volume government services such as Centrelink, Medicare, the Australian Taxation Office and personal health records, received a massive technological overhaul.

Services Australia CEO Rebecca Skinner with a new sky-blue wall in her office. The same brand colour is being rolled out across the federal agency. Alex Ellinghausen

Built on mainframe technologies, the old site was well past its technical use-by date. Too often it had been overwhelmed, most recently in March 2020 when nearly 90,000 people tried to access the site after national cabinet suddenly shut the country down to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Citizens and commentators set a very high bar for federal government tech, and with memories of the 2016 #censusfail, Skinner and her technical team were understandably anxious about this month’s change.

“While everyone slept, 24 million accounts were all migrated. It is probably one of the biggest technical uplifts we’ve seen and everybody slept through it, so that was an outstanding moment, everything worked seamlessly,” a relieved Skinner says.

It was a seminal moment for the former senior Defence bureaucrat who came to Services Australia just days before the infamous March 2020 lockdown led to epic queues at Centrelink offices around the country.

Over the previous decade, billions of dollars had been poured into combining the payment systems, call centres and digitised workflows into one platform, all framed around customers.

At the same time, and with little preparation, the new Morrison government had decided to copy NSW, announcing the creation of a single service brand and platform so users no longer had to try to navigate through the painful complexity of government to access federal services and payments.

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For years, employees in the 34,000-strong organisation had strongly identified with their own “shops”, be it Centrelink, Medicare or child support.

Skinner’s “masterplan” was not to try to remake the organisation with big change programs. “Rather than doing massive cultural programs, we are driving change through doing,” she says.

This is built around a simple mantra of offering services that are “simple, helpful, respectful and transparent”.

Robo-debt lessons

While many government service transformations have focused on making it easier to deal with government, for Services Australia this had a deeper meaning.

Well before Skinner’s time, the agency, then known as Human Services, had notoriously launched an automated debt recovery scheme that came to be known as robo-debt.

After a class action settlement costing about $1.2 billion in compensation, waivers and repayments, it is now the subject of royal commission.

The affair required people to prove their debt was not owed, and was a tragic low point for the agency.

Skinner is clear what the key lesson is: “You look at the customer approach. The customer approach did not seem to be simple, helpful, respectful and transparent.”

The organisation now faces another testing time as the royal commission starts next week to wade through the no doubt ugly entrails of an automation program that went badly wrong.

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Skinner understands this reality, but says it is important for the organisation to look forward and not be forever weighed down by the affair as it “continues to apply the lessons of customer-centred design”.

Humans are now built into the decisions that involve any “straight through processing”, together with strong governance and assurance controls.

Repayments are now managed through a self-service facility that enables welfare recipients to check their income via the new single touch payroll system managed by the tax office.

“It shows people that there is money they owe and it gives people an opportunity to make their own payment arrangements. So, it was simple and helpful. And it was transparent. People felt it was respectful because we gave them their own agency to manage their own affairs where they could online.”

People queue outside a Centrelink office in Sydney in March 2020, after lockdowns had just been imposed. Janie Barrett

Skinner’s pragmatic mantra to her staff is to “follow the new approach of focusing on people over process”.

That is a big change for a traditionally rules-based organisation. Central to this reform is the embracing of the new sky-blue colour for the brand and website.

Skinner wanted a colour that was fresh and that could be owned by the whole organisation.

“There was a lot of customer research around that colour, it’s a good colour. And the progress symbol is the little arrows which helps just trying to symbolise that it’s about moving forward.”

Skinner has created a “welcome wall” in her office painted the same colour, and the blue is now being used across the remade Services Australia website and the “big blue” buses the agency uses as part of its mobile outreach. Uniforms and the agency’s nearly 320 shopfronts are being redone using the sky-blue colour.

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The embrace of a strong brand is new territory for the public sector. Governments are babes in the woods when it comes to their own brands, often trashing years of brand equity with one change in the machinery.

Payments engine in action

But it is under the hood where the real changes are being seen. Skinner says in her relatively short time at the helm, the agency has had to deal with nine natural and COVID-19 emergencies.

It was only March last year when the agency, responding to floods on the NSW north coast, brought in 6000 of its staff to take more than 300,000 phone calls. Staff had to complete forms for people wanting to get emergency payments.

“We said to ourselves, on our own steam can we reimagine how we could do Australian government disaster recovery payments, and give citizens an opportunity to come into us online?”

Services Australia had built a $3 billion payments engine to replace the ageing welfare payments system. At the same time, the Reserve Bank had created new infrastructure to enable near real-time payments.

“We used that capability to build the COVID disaster payment. Then using what we had learnt, we built the Australian government disaster recovery payment on the back of that.

“We saw floods in March and then again in July this year. If we hadn’t done that, I think we’d still be on the telephone. We couldn’t have processed 160,000 claims in a day if you had to do it via telephone service.”

For an organisation whose core job is managing more than 450 million transactions a year, it has been an impressive and rapid shift into the digital age, exploiting the power of the platform taxpayers have invested in.

Not that the telephone has been abandoned. Skinner likens the agency to being “like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain”.

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Services Australia recently stood up a telephone voter service for the electoral commission, for 85,000 federal voters who had tested positive to COVID-19.

Similarly, the agency took more than 300,000 calls on behalf of last year’s Census. Working with Foreign Affairs, it supported the department’s evacuation of hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan and more recent efforts in Ukraine.

Identity, data sharing opportunities

The new Services Australia website has been redesigned around life events, and this week a new service has been piloted in Queensland and the ACT to enable people to register their child’s name in one place.

Government Services Minister Bill Shorten has said he wants to start integrating with other state government services, something that will need new federal identity legislation to pass.

Ditto for the ambition to stop requiring citizens to retell their personal details and story multiple times.

“We all know that citizens’ data is collected lots of times, and that frustrates citizens. We see it cause problems with the current architectures. We collect someone’s name for Medicare, and it’s not the same as the tax name, and therefore people can’t link. We saw a lot of that with the vaccination certificate,” Skinner says.

New federal data-sharing legislation will finally break down the many tight controls that have limited the ability to share information between federal agencies.

“I’m the CEO of Medicare under legislation. I’m also the CEO of Centrelink, but I’ve got restrictions on what I can share with myself in relation to your information,” Skinner says.

The next improvement is to enable people to update their address once for multiple services. In time, personalisation of services are expected to enable notifications and nudges for people to get health check-ups or to enrol to vote.

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With the technology now doing a lot of the transactional heavy lifting, Skinner’s focus is to shift resources into supporting people with more complex needs.

As part of the aged care reforms, a network of aged care service officers are being deployed to assist elderly and their families through the complexity of the aged care system.

“Some of the stories that are coming from those people almost make you cry. People are so grateful for the help that they’re receiving.”

The agency is also piloting outreach programs with some of the bigger NGOs, including the Salvation Army. Skinner says NGOs often act as the “customer integrator” for their clients, and the new approach has a Services Australia person do that role.

“Our person is empowered to make it happen straight away because they have the delegation to do so,” Skinner says.

“I think that’s really showing us that where you’ve got really complex citizen needs, you need to build a really strong wrap-around capability.”

Read More

  • Public service
  • Services Australia
  • Centrelink
  • Digital transformation
Tom BurtonGovernment editorTom Burton has held senior editorial and publishing roles with The Mandarin, The Sydney Morning Herald and as Canberra bureau chief for The Australian Financial Review. He has won three Walkley awards. Connect with Tom on Twitter. Email Tom at [email protected]

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