Govt readies for another go at visa processing

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The federal government is getting ready to have another go at building a digital platform to handle visa processing, after its last a failed attempt to outsource these functions cost nearly $90 million.

The government has outlined new plans for a reusable permissions capability platform, which will first handle digital passenger declarations and digital visa processing and is to be built for a private sector contractor.

Department of Home Affairs representatives confirmed at a senate estimates hearing on Monday that the initial budget for this project is just under $75 million.

The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) will lead the project, with a tender to be issued by the end of the month.

Arrivals: Visa processing is now a post-COVID recovery project

In March the government quietly abandoned its highly controversial plan to outsource the visa processing systems, despite having already spent $87 million on the tender process in favour of a “broad new approach” focusing on an integrated, enterprise-scale workflow capability that could be used across government.

Private contractors raked in $65 million during the more than two years that this initial plan was being worked through, with the Boston Consulting Group scoring more than $40 million.

Further details of the new platform the government wants have now been revealed, with a contractor to build the base platform capable of handling two initial use cases: the digitisation of incoming passenger declaration cards and a simple digital visa application.

It is not the first time the government has said it plans to do away with paper-based incoming passenger cards, having previously announced this more than three years ago with an initial aim of scrapping them entirely in favour of a digital offering by the end of 2018, although this did not eventuate.

Acting immigration minister Alan Tudge is now positioning the digital transformation of the visa system as part of the COVID-19 recovery effort.

“This capability will put us in a prime position to successfully reopen our borders in a COVID-safe way to help with the rebuilding of Australia’s economy,” Mr Tudge said.

“On top of that, it will significantly streamline our national response to COVID-19 and our contact tracing capabilities by speeding up information collection and processing.”

“Currently, the government collects a range of passenger information, including contact details, customs and biosecurity information from citizens and non-citizens entering Australia using a manual, paper-based process. This new capability will strip away the need to scan paper cards.

“It will facilitate data sharing between state and territory health departments and enable swift verification of information provided by passengers. In the future, collection and verification of information will assist in managing risk at the international border when international travel returns.”

The current visa application and processing systems are out-of-date, often undertaken manually based on old technology and have limited risk assessment capabilities, the government said.

“Currently many services across government are complex, time-consuming, inconsistent and in some cases still paper-based. Even where they are delivered digitally, they often mirror paper-based processes and service delivery approaches,” a government information paper said.

“Designing the Capability with customers at the centre will ensure the experience for people and businesses accessing government services will be simple, clear, convenient, secure and fast.

“Reusing the Capability in multiple service lines and government agencies will improve the consistency of user’s experience when dealing with government, and the efficiency of service modernisation and service delivery.”

The new system will focus on biometrics data, automation and the ability for it to be reused across government for other services such as permits, accreditation, licences and registrations.

The initial use case for the platform is for the digitisation of passenger declaration cards completed when someone arrives in Australia. This includes risk profiling of the collection of health information, the use of biometrics to link with identity and health data, and automation to reduce the “over-reliance on people-based interventions across the border continuum and mitigating the threat posed by possible biosecurity and other risks”.

The base platform would also provide an easy to use digital visa application for certain people.

Tenderers are required to describe how the platform would be scalable and reusable to support other future use cases, such as the licencing of companies to import and sell tobacco, a request for a police check or Commonwealth security accreditation.

The Coalition’s previous attempts to contract a new visa processing platform to a private contract were widely criticised and labelled as a plan to outsource a core government role. Labor slammed the proposal and had pledged to scrap the plan if it had won last year’s election.

In the new plan, the government has affirmed that the platform will be publicly funded and operated, with the relevant government agencies retaining control of the responsibility, accountability and decision-making. All data related to the platform is to be stored in Australia.

A request for tender will be issued by the end of the month for a “scalable, innovative permissions capability”.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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