ADDRESS TO THE NATIONAL PRESS CLUB, CANBERRA
Posted December 16, 2009
Ladies and gentlemen,
Six months ago, the Prime Minister invited me to take on the Human Services portfolio alongside the Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law portfolios.
Human Services is not a portfolio you will often read about in the nation’s newspapers. If I’m on the nightly news in my capacity as Human Services Minister, it normally means that something has gone wrong.
As Australia grapples with global issues, such as climate change and the GFC, it is particularly understandable that drier issues, like better ways of delivering services, are not “front of mind” for many people.
This does not mean that the Human Services portfolio is unimportant. Far from it.
Human Services, which incorporates Centrelink, Medicare, the Child Support Agency, CRS Australia and Australian Hearing, is the everyday manifestation of the Australian belief in a social safety net.
For millions of Australians, service delivery through these agencies is vitally important, at least for a period – often a difficult period – of their lives.
For many Australians, it is important that our Commonwealth and state service delivery and welfare agencies intensively assist them through difficult periods as co-operatively and seamlessly as they can.
Others, living busy lives and short of time, need to interact with service delivery agencies as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The circumstances facing these individuals are diverse: working families, farmers, seniors, students, sole parents, people facing unemployment and homelessness, people facing the death of a loved one, or a disability, illness or injury or caring for someone who is.
The agencies within the Human Services portfolio – their staff, their shopfronts and their websites – are the face of Government for many Australians. For many Australians, these agencies are “the Government”.
Each year, the Australian Government delivers more than $100 billion in payments though the Human Services Portfolio.
The complexity and range of services delivered by the Government today is immense, with the Human Services Portfolio responsible for delivering over 200 different services.
Every day, there are 361,000 face-to-face contacts with Human Services agencies and 222,000 phone calls to 31 call centres across the country. The agencies send out 400,000 letters each working day – 100 million letters every year. And we have 70,000 online transactions each day.
This is an enormous machine with thousands of moving parts. It needs to work efficiently and effectively – both for the taxpayers who support it and for those Australians who need to deal with it.
Each one of those millions of contacts, each one of those transactions is an interaction with a person who relies on us to get it right.
In 2004, the Howard Government created the Department of Human Services to place a greater emphasis on service delivery. Separating service delivery agencies from policy agencies was, to give the previous Government its due, a positive step.
I hope that the Coalition’s recent appointment of the same person as Shadow Minister for Families and Shadow Minister for Human Services does not represent in any way an intention to water down the focus on the service delivery aspects of social policy.
Having a Minister, a Secretary, a Department focussed on service delivery means that, inevitably, there is greater concentration on finding the best ways to deliver our services, keeping the machine running as smoothly and efficiently as possible.
It is a portfolio that deals with almost the entire population – so keeping pace with modern Australian life is crucial.
For that reason, the time has come to reassess whether we – the Government and the nation – are getting enough out of the Department of Human Services.
The time has come to redesign our service delivery to maximise convenience for Australians who rely on us for services.
And, in the process, we need to take advantage of the obvious synergies available across our service delivery agencies.
We need to learn from our successes as well as our shortcomings. To give you one example: in the past 12 months, the Human Services Portfolio responded to 11 major emergency situations, including the Victorian bushfires and the South Queensland floods.
In all 11 cases, the various agencies came together to provide urgent, efficient and personalised support to thousands of Australians, often in circumstances of distress, all the while continuing to operate in a business-as-usual manner for the rest of the Australian community.
The experiences of cross-agency co-ordination in these emergency situations should not be lauded only to be forgotten. There are lessons to be learnt here.
We need to build on these experiences to deliver services better in an everyday, non-emergency environment.
As I said earlier, it is time to assess what we can do better.
Governments should always be assessing what can be improved.
This is all the more imperative with the ageing of the population.
The 2007 Intergenerational Report projects that, by 2047, the proportion of Australians who are of a working age will decline from 67.4 per cent of the total population to 59.7 per cent.
The increasing proportion of people reaching retirement age, combined with the reduced proportion of new labour force entrants, will present a major challenge for service delivery.
An ageing population will result in an increase in carer and disability related payments.
Retirement-related services will be more complex as the proportion of pensioners who work beyond age pension age or draw income from private savings continues to grow.
All this underlines the importance of, and challenges associated with, ensuring that Australians have access to services that are delivered in accordance with world’s best practice.
Service delivery reform
Our current service delivery structure is not up to scratch to meet these objectives.
Despite the co-ordinating role of the DHS, there is not enough collaboration between our service delivery agencies.
Many Australians find the services offered by the various agencies confusing. When their life circumstances change and they need to access Government services, they often don’t know where to go.
Better co-ordination of service delivery mechanisms will result in better services for Australians and savings for Government, some of which can be reinvested in better service delivery.
Accordingly, today I’m announcing the start of a major reform of the way we deliver services to Australians. This will be a bigger reform than the creation of the Department of Human Services itself.
The most visible aspect of the Government’s service delivery reform plan will be a move to co-locate Human Services agency offices to make it more convenient for Australians to deal with government.
Let me give you an example of what we can achieve. In Narooma, on the South Coast of NSW, we have a new, joint Centrelink/Medicare office.
Both agencies now offer their full range of services in the one location, a first for Australian Government service delivery.
This permanent, purpose-built co-location of Centrelink and Medicare is designed to make dealing with government a better experience for customers.
The feedback from customers and staff about the improvement in customer service as a result has been very positive.
For example, if a member of the public has experienced a medical event which has affected their ability to work, or if they have experienced a family bereavement, they can come into the joint Medicare-Centrelink office and, in a private room, talk to Medicare and Centrelink staff together about their circumstances and what support is available.
In other words, they tell the Government their story once, instead of going through the inconvenience, and sometimes trauma, of repeating it on multiple occasions.
Another example of what is possible is at Batemans Bay, also on the NSW South Coast.
In January, we’ll be turning the sod on a new community hub, a purpose-built building which will house all the Human Services agencies – Centrelink, Medicare, Commonwealth Rehabilitation Services, Australian Hearing and visiting Child Support services.
We are in discussions with other government and non-government agencies about locating there to make it a truly one-stop shop.
I can announce today that, by the end of 2010, there will be at least another 20 co-located offices around Australia and, by 2012, around 40 offices will house Medicare, Centrelink and CSA under one roof.
If we were designing the system from scratch, this kind of idea would probably seem obvious. But, as is so often the case, these things have their own histories and their own realities – so these sorts of reforms take enormous planning and will and careful implementation.
Rural and regional Australia
For rural and regional areas, where limited resources exist to serve the sparse populations spread out over our vast continent, combined service delivery is particularly important.
Traditionally, people have had to travel to larger towns to access services. Others may have been reluctant to approach the government for help or be unaware that assistance is available.
The Government has specifically identified 29 priority indigenous communities where government services and facilities will be improved, something that will require co-ordination between all levels of government.
Meanwhile, the Centrelink-led Mobile Office – or drought bus – initiative has brought together a wide range of payments and services offered through Centrelink and Medicare Australia directly to remote Australians.
Seniors, students, families, farmers and agriculture-dependent small businesses have been able to talk with experienced rural servicing specialists on these Mobile Offices. These staff live and work in the communities they serve and understand the local issues.
In its three years on the road, the Drought Bus program helped more than 30,000 people – the majority of whom had never previously approached agencies such as Centrelink for help.
The Mobile Office builds on this servicing model. It’s physically much larger and offers many of the facilities you’d find in a Centrelink office, such as waiting areas, private interview rooms and information stands.
A priority of this reform agenda will be bringing services directly to where people live – by finding the right mix of mobile offices and visiting services that improve access for rural and remote Australians.
Enabling greater self-sufficiency
In addition to these examples of face-to-face support, there is, of course, a range of other ways Australians interact with our service delivery agencies.
To make dealing with government easier, Human Services agencies will have a single phone number and a single website by the end of 2010.
People will be able to call the one phone number to access any service across the portfolio.
This number will effectively act as a triage service. When you call it, we will take responsibility to connect you to the right person, rather than leaving you to navigate your own way through our bureaucracy.
If you do know the precise area you’re after, however, you will still be able to call it directly.
We also know people want to be self-sufficient wherever possible.
Queuing to conduct a simple or routine transaction with a government agency can be a very frustrating experience and one we want to reduce as far as possible.
We are going to put greater control in the hands of individuals.
By providing a single online access point for a wide range of government services, we will give Australians the means to deal with government in their own time from their own homes.
Information that’s relevant to you should be in one place and easy to find. You shouldn’t have to remember multiple usernames and passwords for multiple websites.
The upgrade of online services is in response to an ever-increasing demand for this option.
The Human Services portfolio already supports over 17 million online transactions by customers each year and our intention is that, by 2013, all forms across the portfolio will be digitised.
Technology is revolutionising how services can be – and are – delivered but, without broader changes, it can actually exacerbate the confusion and information overload.
We are not forcing – and we will never force – people online. Human contact is so essential in the work the Human Services agencies do, and these reforms are, in many ways, designed to free up resources for case management of those with more complex needs.
The challenge for the Australian Government is to determine how we can better serve individuals with vastly different needs. Some people want to do everything online. Others don’t own a computer.
Our job is to provide the most efficient and effective service for all of them.
In short, this reform is about delivering services in ways that suit individual Australians, not ways designed primarily to maximise the convenience to government agencies: service delivery that is easy, high quality and works for you.
In order to obtain the necessary seamlessness and co-ordination, the Prime Minister has agreed to my proposal that Medicare and Centrelink should become part of the Department of Human Services.
In the process, we will bring together their IT, finance, property management, procurement and human resources, freeing up back office resources.
Importantly, the Medicare and Centrelink brands and business lines, which many Australians have come to know and understand, will remain intact and their roles will remain distinct.
Medicare and Centrelink will also continue to have their own Chief Executives. The Chief Executives will also become Associate Secretaries of DHS.
I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the support and collaboration of the CEO of Medicare, Lynelle Briggs, and the Acting CEO of Centrelink, Carolyn Hogg, in the development of this service delivery reform.
I am also pleased to announce that Cabinet has agreed to my nomination of Carolyn to become the CEO of Centrelink.
Having combined back office operations – instead of separate administration for each agency – will mean Lynelle and Carolyn have to spend less time managing their back offices, enabling them to focus more of their energies on their key stakeholders and delivering services to Australians.
Protecting privacy and jobs
At this point, I would like to take a few moments to talk about what this reform is not.
It is not a central database.
We will not house an individual’s personal, sensitive information in one place, vesting all control with one body or one card. This is not an Australia Card and we will not be merging agency databases.
The community has genuine concerns about this, concerns that I recognise and understand.
We are bringing IT platforms together, not information itself. Apart from the limited data that is already shared between agencies like Medicare and Centrelink, no more information will be shared, unless the individual concerned asks us to share the information for their convenience.
Personal health information is of particular sensitivity for most people, which is why we have excluded health information from these reforms.
Further, we are working with the Privacy Commissioner from the outset, putting in place a formal Memorandum of Understanding between the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and the Department of Human Services to cover these reforms.
I want privacy protections built into this transformation from the very start rather than treated as an afterthought.
We also have a robust consultation process on this and other parts of these reforms, to make sure the community can be properly involved as we move forward.
That’s not to say we are closing our minds to the advantages or benefits of the agencies’ closer integration for people who deal with us regularly.
If, for example, you inform Medicare of a change of address, we’ll ask if you would like us to let other parts of DHS know.
If, however, you would prefer to fill your details in every time you deal with a different part of DHS, rather than having fields pre-populated, that will be your prerogative.
The point is – we will give full control to individuals about how their sensitive information is shared across agencies for their convenience.
So this isn’t about a consolidation of information.
Nor is it about staff cuts. Rather, it is about freeing up staff to do more meaningful work for the direct benefit of Australians. Instead of having two staff spending their time on identical administrative tasks, one will do the job and the other will be released to work on service delivery – the very reason these agencies exist.
Any reduction in total staff numbers that arises out of these reforms will occur primarily through natural attrition. I have invited the CPSU, which represents many DHS employees, to form a joint working party with DHS to discuss implementation of this reform program.
This reform will generate efficiencies and savings for government. Some of these will be reinvested in better service delivery.
So, although this reform is not about staff cuts, staff will notice a change. You only have to listen to the passion of our staff at Narooma, passion for the improved service provided, to know that our staff will be passionate about the improved customer service that will result.
Of course, the agencies in my portfolio don’t deliver services in isolation
Medicare’s success in supporting the delivery of universal health care has in a large part been because it seeks to harness the strengths of private practices rather than seeking to displace them.
Medicare has a vital role in providing health professionals with support and certainty. This will not change, nor will it be compromised in any way as the reform agenda plays out.
The Government and Medicare have already begun making it easier for health professionals to conduct their business and to access high quality information and support services.
For health professionals, we will continue to reduce red tape through the Health Professionals Online Service. We will continue to provide clarity and certainty around billing regulations by providing high quality education, such as Administrative Position Statements and eLearning.
We will continue to work closely with health industry stakeholders on areas such as compliance, education and product and service design.
This reform is about cutting red tape and making processes more efficient – for those who require a government service and those who provide it.
This is the start of the process that will take several years to fully bear fruit. But it has the potential to revolutionise the way Australians access their government services.
While Australia remains in the top 10 in the world in terms of service delivery, we are not keeping up with the leaders internationally.
The Advisory Group on Australian Public Sector recently found a number of countries are ahead of Australia, despite some great strides we have made in recent years.
The Prime Minister recently called on the Australian Public Service as a whole to learn from examples of excellence overseas and within its own agencies.
The Netherlands, Denmark, and New Zealand have all adopted innovative and integrated service delivery strategies. Canada. in particular, has been outperforming governments around the world with its one-stop point of access for federal programs and services, and increased use of outreach services in remote locations
Australians deserve world’s best practice and I’m confident these reforms will deliver it.
Future possibilities and vision
The reforms I’m announcing today relate only to my Human Services portfolio. But, if we get them right, they offer the potential for co-location and joint service delivery between my portfolio and other federal government agencies.
I know that Minister Tanner is looking into service delivery across the government, in particular through the Government 2.0 Taskforce. We are expecting the Taskforce to report shortly on how Australians can be more involved in the design, delivery and prioritisation of the services that they use.
Imagine the possibilities in terms of time savings for Australians who spend time dealing with various different Government agencies in different locations.
In, say, 10 years’ time, what’s to say state governments will not have chosen to co-locate their service delivery with the Commonwealth both physically and through the internet?
Australians can only benefit from their governments focussing on better service delivery.
This will be a long journey but today I am announcing the first, vitally important step towards better, more efficient service delivery. The dividend will be substantial.
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