‘Serious problem’ with Services Australia’s tech

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

Services Australia has a “serious problem” with its tech capabilities and ICT expertise, with staff often forced to rely on sending information through the post and unstable legacy systems, a Senate inquiry has heard.

At a public hearing for the Senate inquiry into the capability of the Australian Public Service, members from the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) raised significant concerns with the number of insecure workers and reliance on contracts at Service Australia, and with a lack of technology skills within the agency.

CPSU national president Alastair Waters told the senators that there are now fewer permanent staff at Services Australian than before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since June 2013, the number of permanent staff at the agency had fallen by more than 7000, a drop of more than 20 per cent.

The proportion of Services Australia workers who are permanent staff has fallen from 95 per cent to 79 per cent, while the number of casuals has jumped from 1 per cent in 2013 to nearly 10 per cent currently.

Parliament Canberra
Parliament House Canberra

In contrast, the proportion of permanent workers in the APS total headcount has only fallen from 91 per cent to 88 per cent in the same timeframe, Mr Waters said.

“The agency is held back by a reliance on an insecure workforce and a failure to invest properly in the workforce, which affects negatively the capability of the department,” Mr Waters told the committee.

“On top of this is the rampant use of labour hire in parts of the agency, and the massive use of contractors and consultants and privatised call centres that the agency has spent well over $1.46 billion on. The widespread use of insecure work … has led to multiple problems, including a dramatic rise in errors, increased complaints and trust and reputational damage. And it raises real public policy issues.”

Also appearing at the hearing, Services Australia general manager Michael Nelson said this is a “modern approach” to the workforce, which offers flexibility to meet demand.

“It supports the growth of our capability. What we’re able to do is convert some of our labour hire people into the organisation – they’re experienced, they come in and they’re given the opportunity to apply for roles. They’ve already developed some skills and they’ve had training,” Mr Nelson said.

“I don’t think it undermines or diminishes the capability of the workforce at all.”

Services Australia’s tech systems are also being impacted by the increasing reliance on insecure workers, Mr Waters said.

“It is widely acknowledged that Services Australia’s ICT systems and tech capability is not as good as it should be,” he said.

“There is an extensive reliance on ICT contractors, and Services Australia has failed to build longer term capabilities. Contractors can build ICT platforms but they struggle to interpret legislation and how it should apply. That results in situations where they are only partially used and multiple systems must be used.”

A key area impacted by this is in child support, according to CPSU section secretary and Services Australia employee Emma White, where a legacy system is still in use.

“Quite some time ago it was determined to be end of life and there was a program put in place to replace that system. But it wasn’t replaced and we were given a system that sits alongside or on top of that in order to try to provide a better service to our customers on a legacy system that really isn’t able to deliver that,” Ms White said.

Staff at Services Australia are then forced to rely on the post to gather information from employers for certain services.

“What we have is a situation where we need to contact employers and have conversations and send notices to request information,” Ms White said.

“When we make contact with them, usually their first question is, ‘can you email that to us?’. We don’t have a secure mechanism to deliver that information to them via email, so it’s via surface mail or faxing it.

“While there have been significant developments in the capabilities of myGov, what we haven’t really seen is it keeping up with our needs. By having to send information by surface mail, what we’re looking at is a 28 day turnaround to give customers time to receive it and respond to it. That significantly delays any decision we’re making. There is a serious problem with legacy systems and the technology we’re using.”

With child support, there is also a concern that there is too much reliance on a system that was seen to be outdated several years ago, Ms White said.

“There is a concern that given that system hasn’t been replaced and it still acts as the brain, that if it falls over, will the new system be able to stand alone?” she said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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