Malcolm Turnbull’s newly minted Digital Transformation Office (DTO) faces its first major test in untangling the often confusing and difficult process of accessing Centrelink services online.

The office was allocated $245.7 million in the federal budget to oversee implementation of the government’s digital-first strategy, designed to move more government interactions with the public online. The government has recruited CEO Paul Shetler from the United Kingdom, and is busy recruiting a variety of new employees, including an “ethical hacker”.

The Department of Human Services — the mega government agency that is responsible for all welfare payments, from child support to Medicare to Centrelink — is at the forefront of moving to online services as the default for public interaction with government. Before the Digital Transformation Office was event a glint in Turnbull’s eye, DHS was already working to get systems in place for more online transactions as a move to alleviate the ever-increasing queues in bricks-and-mortar offices, and on the phones.

Since the election of the Abbott government, however, as part of Turnbull’s digital transformation policy, DHS, along with the rest of the public service, has faced pressure to get more and more clients to go online in a time of tight funding. People are now often directed to use online services as the first port of call for contacting Centrelink, and one of DHS’ key performance indicators is to increase the percentage of online user interactions by 5% each year.

The system is having teething problems, however. Commonwealth Ombudsman Colin Neave first looked into service delivery complaints at Centrelink in April 2014 and recommended the agency increase support and assistance for customers using online services. In response, the department said it was aware that not all clients would want to take up online services, but it would continue to maximise the uptake for those who could get online using the myGov portal to access Centrelink services.

In a report released yesterday looking at how DHS is tracking against the Ombudsman’s recommendations, Neave said the agency’s move to digital services “does not work for all customers, and can, in itself, be the cause of customer complaints”.

“Despite DHS’s efforts, we continue to receive complaints about some service delivery problems that we had hoped the recommendations would address,” Neave said.

“We believe DHS will need to further improve the usability and reliability of its online service delivery channels to encourage people to voluntarily utilise these services. More critically, if DHS intends to automatically divert people to online service channels, as occurred with the withdrawal of the paper-based income reporting process, it is imperative that the online service works intuitively and reliably. This is not currently the case with all of DHS’s online service channels.”

Neave noted that the “deficiencies” with online services would likely not be fixed until DHS began replacing its ageing IT infrastructure, for which the department received $60 million funding in this year’s federal budget. Many Centrelink users still complain about online processes being slow.

Neave said in the report:

“People are often time-poor, and many have to meet work requirements or caring responsibilities for children and others. Others cannot afford the cost of a lengthy telephone call on a mobile phone to communicate with Centrelink. In both situations, Centrelink customers become understandably frustrated at their inability to quickly and simply complete online transactions, particularly where they are reliant on that transaction to ensure they receive their payment.”

The Ombudsman said DHS’ online services would now be “guided by the standards and approach promulgated” by the DTO. Neave said the DTO would be responsible for ensuring that the services meet customer expectations and are designed based on user research and usability testing.

For the government, the use of online services is considered a cheaper method to help the department meet its overall KPIs for Centrelink, which aims to keep wait times to speak with a representative to under 16 minutes. The Ombudsman acknowledges that while this is still quite a long time to be waiting on hold, the reality is a lack of funding — ideally, the department needs another $100 million and 1000 staff — means the department’s options are limited.

But opposition spokesman for human services Doug Cameron has warned against the government becoming too reliant on the DTO to solve all its problems with Centrelink. He said in a press release:

“Not everyone can access self-service options, but the government is relying on it as a panacea. The fact is Centrelink clients will continue to need to speak to real people to get advice about complex issues. And whenever the online system is overstretched, which seems to happen far too often, there will be a need for staff to step in.

“[Human Services Minister Marise Payne] wants the problem to just go away, but is exacerbating the issue by ignoring the management system problems, staffing issues and workplace morale as she pursues a discredited and ideological driven industrial relations agenda.”

Peter Fray

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