Audit puts heat on DHS digital shift

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The Department of Human Services does not have the “appropriate mechanisms” in place to effectively measure its large-scale digital transformation efforts, an audit has found.

The Australian National Audit Office released its report on the Department of Human Services’ (DHS) management of Smart Centres’ Centrelink Telephone Services on Thursday afternoon, at the same time the department was appearing before a senate estimates hearing.

The department’s digital efforts were also slammed during that hearing, where it was revealed that the highly controversial robo-debt program has barely clawed back as much money as it has cost to administer.

The audit looks at how the department has implemented recommendations from a previous audit report from nearly four years ago. The ANAO found that it had only fully implemented one of the three key recommendations.

Through Centrelink, DHS has a number of digital services strategies, including increasing the available digital services with more end-to-end services, improving staff digital capabilities, building a digital platform and open ecosystem, understanding the barriers to digital take-up and providing a “circumstance-driven experience for customers”.

The audit found that the only performance indicator used by the department to measure the effectiveness of this digital transformation was the number of Centrelink customer interactions completed each year through digital tools.

The aim was to increase this number by 5 percent each year, and this has been achieved over the last three years.

But the ANAO audit found that this KPI does not provide a realistic picture of how the digital transformation project is actually performing.

“DHS does not have appropriate mechanisms in place to monitor and report on the effectiveness of its transition to digital services, with only one high-level performance measure in place. That measure, which is the percentage increase in the total number of interactions conducted via digital channels compared to the previous year, does not examine the effectiveness, intended outcomes or the impact on other channels of the shift to digital services across the department,” the report said.

“Human Services has identified a need to improve indicators in this area and is working to address these limitations.”

The report found that the department currently does not measure customers behaviours across the digital channels, drop-out points, what prevented an individual from using a digital option and staff attitudes towards the services.

“Increased take-up under this performance measure does not necessarily represent a reduced need for staff resources, improved efficiency or an improved customer experience and therefore does not provide insights into the impact of the digital transition target on call wait times,” it said.

The Department is currently working to address these limitations and is developing new measures of “suitability and effectiveness of digital service delivery” and investigating options for new digital business models.

“The Department agrees with the ANAO recommendations and has commenced the work necessary to implement them. The Department has implemented improvements to monitoring and reporting arrangements, which will provide the Department’s executive leadership team with enhanced visibility of progress in delivering its digital transformation strategy,” DHS said in response to the audit.

The Department’s digital efforts were also slammed during senate estimates last week, where it was revealed that the controversial robo-debt program had cost at least $400 million to administer yet only recovered $500 million from welfare recipients.

While the program has “raised” $1.5 billion in debts, only $500 million of this has been repaid.

“It’s not a reason to allow the integrity of the welfare programs to deteriorate because our customers can’t necessarily repay what they owe immediately. In the most recent budget we readjusted the costs and the savings because the original measure was costed on the assumption that the great bulk of the work would be done online without staff involvement. We have now applied more staff support and involvement to it,” DHS secretary Renee Leon told senate estimates.

This was criticised by Labor senator Murray Watt, who questioned whether the scheme has been worth it, considering the damage it has done to numerous individuals.

“I’m just concerned there’s been a litany of terrible stories. So far, to have only recovered $100 million, does that meet your expectations?” Senator Watt said.

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