Child support is a $130m mess

James Riley
Editorial Director

The federal government’s new child support IT system is “not able to meet the needs of the business” and has led to increased workloads for public servants despite more than $130 million already being spent on it, a just-released report has found.

The Department of Human Services embarked on a project to replace Cuba, the end-to-end legacy platform handling the collection and disbursement of $1.5 billion in child support collect payments and is used by 3000 staff, back in 2013.

More than $100 million was spent on the project in just two years, with an extra $33 million allocated to the program as of July last year.

Troubled: The Child Support Agency tech program is struggling

The new Pluto replacement system was rolled out in July 2017 but immediately faced troubles, with staff often forced to use both the new system and the legacy platform to complete their work.

Development work on the project was put on hold in November 2017, and consultancy firm Deloitte was called in to conduct a review of the rollout and where it should go in early 2018.

The federal government gave Deloitte more than $1 million to complete the report, which it completed in mid-2018. But it has only just been publicly released in response to a Senate estimates question on notice from Labor senator Murray Watt.

Deloitte has now been handed a further $5.6 million to modernise the child support IT platform further, based on the report’s recommendations.

The report details a troubled digital transformation project that stumbled, and one that has so far just made things more difficult and burdensome for public servants, with real-world consequences.

Soon after the project was launched six years ago, it faced a “number of challenges over its duration which resulted in reduced scope and the partial delivery of the programme”, the report found.

Despite being fully implemented in 2017, the new Pluto service had “significant functional gaps and performance challenges in the current implementation”, meaning staff had to go between the two systems, creating a series of inefficiencies.

Since the Pluto system was implemented, the average handle time for child support staff increased by two minutes across the business, and by more than three minutes in the Mainstream Services division, Deloitte found.

“In some cases, teams are executing business process entirely out of the legacy Cuba system, while in other cases, staff are required to operate on three or more systems including web form-based macros, Centrelink and ATO systems,” the report said.

“The use of workarounds and having to use multiple systems in the same process has impacted on staff productivity when using Pluto.”

“This reduced productivity is reflected in increasing call times. Based on these findings, the current functionality is not fit for purpose to enable the Child Support business to perform and function effectively.”

Staff reported the new platform as being “difficult” and having “significant performance challenges”. The report includes quotes from frontline staff, who said the new Pluto service added “unnecessary time to every call”, and is “slow, unreliable and subject to regular errors”.

“We waited eight years … and we got this?” one frontline staff said.

Despite more than $100 million already being spent on the troubled project, Deloitte found that “significant investment” would still be needed to make Pluto fit for purpose, while work would also need to be done to modernise the legacy Cuba system in the interim.

“The current state Pluto solution is a significant departure from the complete Cuba replacement and decommissioning envisaged by the original business case,” it said.

“The original solution was intended to deliver an end-to-end capability in SAP that did not simply deliver a like-for-like replacement of Cuba.”

Deloitte provided five alternate solutions to the project: continuing and completing the current Pluto solution, continuing development of a Pluto-Cuba hybrid solution, migrating Pluto to SAP S4HANA, stopping work and looking at a new COTS solution or rolling back to the Cuba solution.

Deloitte recommended that the government continue with its original goal of entirely replacing the legacy platform with an end-to-end SAP solution, labelled Pluto.

The Department is believed to have made its decision after receiving the Deloitte report last year, but is yet to publicly reveal which direction it has opted.

The Department has also struggled to even evaluate how the project is going, the report found.

“The programme was unable to establish a clear measure of actual progress and often proceeded in the absence of a plan, schedule or agreed scope,” it said.

“Subsequently, the program was late to identify and take action in relation to process gaps that impacted on the programme’s ability to meet milestones. The effect of this was compounded by the pivot to and rapid delivery of the SAP UI5 solutions.”

It was revealed in April senate estimates that the Cuba IT system is still in use, and the Department has “deferred decisions about its replacement for the time being”.

Department staff confirmed that while the new Pluto platform is being used for new applications under child support, the legacy platform Cuba is still being used for all existing clients and back-end calculations.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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