Why the government is spending $1 billion on Centrelink IT

Simple changes to the system can be time-consuming and expensive

The government earlier today confirmed it would push ahead with the mammoth task of overhauling Centrelink's payments platform.

The $1 billion, multi-year project will overhaul the Income Security Integrated System, which dates back to 1983, and is used to manage welfare payment delivery, support customer service functions and perform compliance activities for the Department of Human Services' Centrelink program.

In 1983 the Department of Social Security began using the Model 204 (M204) database for IBM mainframes to manage the system.

Today, the system is a composite of over 350 additional components that have been bolted on top of the M204 database.

“The system meets current functional requirements, but layers of business rules, processes and policy changes built up over the past three decades have made it extremely complex, inflexible and costly to maintain,” a government backgrounder issued by the Minister for Human Services, Senator Marise Payne, states

“Even simple changes can be time-consuming, expensive and can have unforseen impacts on other parts of the system. The highly complicated nature of the old technology also requires costly ongoing support from a declining number of specialised staff familiar with the technology.”

For example, nearly half of Centrelink transactions still result in face-to-face or over the phone contact.

The current system is built around specific payments and not the individual customer and their circumstance. This means that when a person starts a new claim they are treated by the system as a “new” customer and have to provide some or all of their details again even if they are already known to the department.

The current system cannot send real-time information about the progress of a claim to a customer’s digital account. This leads to customers having to enquire about their claim in person or on the phone.

Last year almost a quarter of the calls to the welfare contact centre line were customers checking on the progress of their claim, according to the government.

The new system is due to be completely implemented by 2022. The system will be customer focused and take advantage of real-time data monitoring and analysis to deliver significant benefits to government, taxpayers and welfare recipients, the government said.

For example, the new system will “fully capitalise” on digital technology, giving customers access to more online services.

“Customers will only have to call or come in to an office if they need intensive support, with improved online functions and access to real-time information about their payments,” the backgrounder said.

Most transactions will be completed from start to finish online or using a mobile device without the need to fill out or provide paper documents.

With the customer's consent, improved data-sharing capability across government agencies means customers will no longer have to provide information twice.

For example, a single mother would not need to reapply to move from the Parenting payment to Newstart when her youngest child turned 8.

“We will streamline her movement to a new payment leaving her more time to look for work and look after her children rather than dealing with government,” said Payne.

Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

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