A shock to the system

Wednesday, 01 March 2023

Denise Cullen

    One of the country’s largest public service agencies is transforming the way it interacts with clients following the grim revelations of the Robodebt scheme. Services Australia CEO Rebecca Skinner PSM GAICD is embracing the challenge. 

    As the second block of Royal Commission hearings into the botched “Robodebt” scheme began in Brisbane on 5 December 2022, Services Australia unveiled its much-anticipated new myGov mobile app. Robodebt, the old Online Compliance Intervention, had resulted in the government being forced to pay around $1.7b to hundreds of thousands of people in a class action settlement after the flawed automated debt recovery program operating from 2015–19 led to what the presiding judge described as “a massive failure of public administration”. Royal Commissioner Catherine Holmes AC SC is scheduled to deliver her final report to the Governor-General by 18 April.

    In September, ahead of the hearings, Services Australia CEO Rebecca Skinner PSM GAICD — who did not oversee Robodebt — reflected on the scheme, telling the Australian Financial Review, “You look at the customer approach. The customer approach did not seem to be simple, helpful, respectful and transparent.”

    She says the new app puts technology at the heart of a vastly improved, personalised customer experience and is the next step in a bold modernisation designed to turn Services Australia into a world-leading government service delivery agency by 2025. “It’s a question of how do we maximise for the Australian people, in a citizen- centric way, the investments that governments have already made going forward?”

    As one of Australia’s largest public service agencies, Services Australia distributes more money than the four major banks combined, with more than 450 million interactions with Australian citizens annually. Established in 2020 out of the former Department of Human Services, Services Australia employs more than 32,000 public servants, has a very broad remit after agency amalgamations, and oversees $226.7b of Centrelink welfare, Medicare and child support payments a year.

    Technology transformation projects are core to its future success in expanding the myGov platform’s capabilities as a single “doorway” for government services, upgrading health and aged care payment systems for more flexibility, and revitalising service delivery telecommunications.

    The agency says the pandemic and a series of floods and other natural disasters tested its surge capacity, a precedent that will now serve as a foundation for its digital transformation. In its 2022–23 corporate plan, Services Australia reported, “Our ongoing digital modernisation has been critical in scaling up to meet demand and respond rapidly so customers get the help they need when they need it.”

    Skinner, a public service veteran who has served as deputy secretary Strategic Policy and Intelligence; deputy secretary Defence People; and assistant secretary Defence and Intelligence at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, says simple routines keep her grounded. She came to the top job just days before the March 2020 lockdown, which led to the crash of the old myGov site, followed by epic queues at Centrelink offices around the country.

    Pandemic response

    Early morning walks helped Skinner hold her sizeable remit together when it seemed the rest of the country was falling apart. “My friend and I would go for a walk and chat, which enabled me to look after my own personal wellbeing and keep going,” she says.

    While workers across other industries were in lockdown or working from home, Services Australia’s business meant staff needed to attend in person, every day, during a time of anxiety and uncertainty. However, Skinner’s down-to-earth style helped staff to manage an inevitable sense of overwhelm.

    “[The potential for] confusion was one of the risks we needed to manage. With the help of the communications team, I put out a message to staff every day, saying, this is where we are, this is what we’re doing,” she says. “We’d celebrate successes like the photos staff sent in of drawings people had done outside the Centrelink office, or gift baskets they’d delivered to thank staff for their help.

    “One staff member came up to me a little later that year and thanked me for the daily notes, saying, ‘There was so much going on, but I’d come to work and read that one thing every day and knew I’d be OK.’ We’d been trying to manage the risk of lots of different messages. What we hadn’t realised was that we were also assisting some people to be anchored.”

    Disorienting as it was, she says the pandemic provided an opportunity for the agency to do things differently. “When it’s never happened before, it gives you a platform to challenge everything, to move quickly and to adjust an organisation’s approach to dealing with a crisis, to being more agile and experimental.”

    A daily stand-up attended by Skinner and around 10 members of the executive team formed the core of the organisation’s operational governance. She says having that morning operational check-in is a feature of the defence model where she has a lot of experience — “and we do that still through to today”.

    A longer-term focus on developing modern payment systems and maximising reusable technologies — such as through the seven-year Welfare Payment Infrastructure Transformation (WPIT) program — turned out to be fortuitous, as it enabled the agency to make high-volume payments in real time when the pandemic and a series of floods struck. This project smoothed the way towards record claim volumes for COVID-19 disaster payments during the Delta outbreak — which saw 4.9 million COVID-related claims processed in four months and 2.7 million pandemic leave disaster payment claims over the financial year.

    Other projects include the refresh of 318 service delivery centres — including 16 in remote areas — and the deployment of the largest call centre in the Southern Hemisphere to assist the Australian Bureau of Statistics to administer the census, and to take the 85,000 phone calls that assisted pandemic-affected Australians to vote during the election period.


    According to Services Australia’s 2020–21 corporate plan, with its establishment as an executive agency within the Social Services portfolio, it would review and improve its existing agency governance framework and arrangements “to ensure they are fit-for-purpose and meet our executive and business requirements”.

    Skinner says enterprise governance committees provide transparency, direction and oversight on complex strategic and operational matters and risks that affect multiple areas of the agency. Governance committee arrangements are periodically reviewed and continue to evolve to ensure they are contemporary and fit-for-purpose.

    Services Australia’s executive committee is supported by an enterprise business and risk committee and a transformation and integration committee, which are supported by a number of function-specific subcommittees.

    Its audit and risk committee provides advice to the CEO on the appropriateness of the agency’s financial reporting, performance reporting, system of risk oversight and management, and system of internal control. It comprises three independent members — chair Jennifer Clark FAICD, Carol Lilley GAICD and Greg Divall GAICD.


    total claims (Centrelink, Medicare, Emergency, Child Support) processed 


    locations where remote teams have provided services 


    of telephone customers served within 15 minutes 

    Source: Services Australia Annual Report 2021–22

    Streamlining process

    The new myGov app has been designed to bring all digital services together and allow users to confirm their identity with a service provider, using a QR code. It follows the September 2022 retirement of the old myGov website and the migration of 25 million accounts to the new site in one of the biggest technological uplifts the country has seen.

    The multibillion-dollar investment in Service Australia’s payments platform is the centrepiece of a broader strategy led by the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) to consolidate key capabilities such as permissions, payments, revenue and identity — and end costly duplication of back-office functions. It comes at a time when trust in government is a big issue.

    The 2022 Trust in Australian Government Services survey by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet revealed significantly more people trusted public services in June 2020, when COVID-19 supports were introduced, varying according to agency. The ATO emerged as the most trusted (81 per cent) while Centrelink, part of Services Australia, was lowest (63 per cent).

    However, Skinner notes that the rating for Centrelink did not reflect how the Australian community felt about Services Australia as a whole. In 2021–22, the agency introduced an alternative customer trust rating as a more reflective measure of how the broader agency was travelling. Last year’s benchmark was 77.9 per cent.

    “We know good customer experience is the key to gaining people’s trust,” says Skinner. “Our focus is firmly on improving our services based on customer-centred design. Recent improvements like our modernised service centres, video chat and our aged care specialist officers are being really well received.”

    In tackling the technological overhaul, Skinner has drawn lessons from the successful Service NSW, which drove change using technology to support the service environment. “We also seek inspiration from other countries to innovate our services, cherry-picking approaches that will work best for our customers,” she says. “Recently, agency staff responsible for the design of our systems visited Estonia, Europe’s e-governance leader, where almost every bureaucratic task can be done online. We’re looking at how we can apply these learnings to our own service model.”

    In January, the federal government released the results of a user review into the myGov digital platform, which found it is essential to the lives of Australians and critical national infrastructure.

    MyGov User Audit chair David Thodey AO FAICD, also chair of Xero and Tyro, noted Australians conducted up to 1.4 million sessions in myGov each day, more than triple the usage three years ago. “Future development of myGov needs to have a user focus,” he said. “It must be easy to use, secure, leave no-one behind and deliver smart, tailored services that meet people’s needs.”

    Using those insights, Services Australia will continue to build capabilities for people to access everything they need in one spot. “It won’t happen overnight,” says Skinner. “We have an ambitious transformation agenda, but are well on our way to providing tailored services for all Australians.”

    Representing the people

    The Diversity Council Australia ranked Services Australia as one of its 30 Inclusive Employers for 2022–23 — the second year in a row it has made the list.

    Diversity Council Australia CEO Lisa Annese says the Inclusive Employer Index isn’t
    an award, but rather provides a rigorous way to measure the work employers are doing around inclusion — including elements like awareness, engagement and leadership — in a robust way.

    Services Australia CEO Rebecca Skinner PSM GAICD says the agency supports almost every Australian at some point in their life, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender,
    gender expression, sexual orientation, age or ability. “If you’re going to serve the Australian people, it’s very important that your workforce reflects the Australian people, and this agency does a pretty good job of that,” she says.

    Approximately 26 per cent of its staff are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, 5.9 per cent identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and 7.5 per cent as having a disability.

    “Diversity enriches any workplace, and when you are designing services for people, you need every perspective that you can get,” says Skinner.

    Services Australia provides an employment pathway for university students, including students with disability, through its National Graduate Program and affirmative measures for disability recruitment. Through a contract arrangement with Koomarri, the agency also supports people with intellectual disability, who work in administration and office support roles. It recruits neurodiverse talent under its Aurora Neurodiversity Program in partnership with Specialisterne Australia.

    “In terms of our cybersecurity and big data work, people who have an amazing capacity to see patterns and work with numbers in really detailed ways have been really instrumental,” says Skinner.


    tasks self-managed by customers in digital channels 


    COVID-19 vaccination certificates added to digital wallets 


    mobile service centres travelling to rural/regional communities across Australia


    total funding 

    Source: Services Australia Annual Report 2021–22

    Digital identity

    The Australian Financial Review Government Services Summit in August 2022 heard there has been a nearly 20 per cent pandemic shift in the use of digital channels, with almost 80 per cent of government services now delivered via the internet. Yet in the wake of the Optus and Medibank cyber scandals, the challenges associated with protecting critical Australian privacy and data are all too apparent. “Literally 99.9 per cent of Australians will need a service from us at some point, and we hold all their data,” says Services Australia CEO Rebecca Skinner PSM GAICD.

    Hot debate is also building around key issues such as the need for a secure national digital identity scheme and better ways to allow people to securely control their own data, with the game having long moved on from the controversial proposed Australia Card of the 1980s.

    Developed by the ATO, the myGovID app — which is different to the myGov app and myGov account — is a digital identity, which allows people to access government services without having to tell their story or prove who they are again and again.

    Services Australia is working with the ATO to integrate the digital identity into its own systems, providing a seamless experience that minimises clicks.

    “It enables people to not have to carry passwords around in their heads — they can access their information using their strong digital identity, reducing the risk that credentials are later compromised,” says Skinner. “At some point, someone will be able to log in with a digital identity and part of their claim will be populated already, because we already have assured data from an authenticated place.”

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