Government Services in digital age: challenges, plan and delivery

Introduction –

It is great to join you all once again here at the National Press Club.

Ronald Reagan famously quipped that the most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’

Even in its humour, President Reagan’s remarks resonate.


What if those words weren’t terrifying? What if they were true? What if Government not only helped, but helped in a delightful manner?

This is the very challenge we are solving with Services Australia.

In August last year, the Prime Minister stood in the Great Hall of Parliament House, and asked the nation’s Public Service to refocus their efforts on service.

He said:

“As we gather here in this Great Hall, I want to remind you of a poignant feature of this house of democracy.

This is one of the few parliamentary buildings in the world where you don’t have to walk up steps to enter it.

Our Parliament isn’t a Parliament over the people or above them, but one that people, that Australians, can freely and easily approach.”

This is a defining metaphor for the vision of how Australians should see their government and the establishment of Services Australia.

Today I’d like to take you through:

  1. What we have achieved for Australians in the first 12 months.
  2. The baptism of fire for government service delivery over the last six months; and
  3. The Government’s service delivery Vision and next steps going forward.

1. The first 12 Months of Services Australia

Historically there has been a stigma around government services. People associate government services with Centrelink queues, or long wait times on the phone. As a result, people cringe when they need to engage with government.

Unlike a bank or a business, when Australians face an unsatisfying government experience, they aren’t able to shop around, they aren’t able to look for a different service provider, but they will always share their negative experiences.

Our Vision is for people and businesses to access Government services as easily as they can and with as little intervention as possible, just like when you do online shopping, banking, or booking a holiday.

Having a vision is a good start, but we all know that it’s execution that matters.

12 months ago, we commenced a major transformation of Services Australia to realise our vision. I have given a number of speeches outlining the intent and plan for this transformation. I am very pleased to report that we are achieving significant results at rapid pace, results that Governments have been trying to achieve for over a decade.

  • For well over the last decade, the Department of Human Services ‘call blocked’ or hung up on approximately 30 million social services and welfare calls each year. Following significant improvements in technology and work practices, today there is zero call blocking on this line. That is, more than 150,000 calls that were once blocked every day, now down to zero. And, we want to keep it that way, by continuing our work on simplifying and digitising services – more on that later.
  • Over the last decade, people would wait well over 30 minutes for their call to be answered for Centrelink matters. Right now, the average speed of answer is less than 5 minutes.
  • Over the last decade, all claims were made through paper forms and were manually processed. Today, all major claims are online and we have begun streamlining through automation and simplified end to end processing of claims, starting with Students and most recently Jobseekers.
  • Over the last decade, digital channels could not handle more than 55,000 concurrent users. Today, they have capacity for over 300,000 concurrent users, easily managing over 123,000 users we saw on average online on July 1. In the month of June alone, there were over 60 million logins to myGov and the Centrelink online site and App.
  • Over the last decade, creating the all-important Customer Reference Number could only be done at a shop front. Today, it can be created or retrieved securely online and in the last eight weeks, over 300,000 Australians have done just that.
  • Over the last decade, people had no choice but to go into a service centre for most transactions. Today, there is no need to go into a shop front; the majority of transactions can be done online or over the phone.
  • That’s why, over the last decade, digital transactions were measured only in the tens of millions. Today, they are measured in the hundreds of millions.

It has been a big year of delivery. With substantial runs on the board, Australians can have confidence in the direction we are heading. The next twelve months promises to deliver even more, but more on that later.

2. The Baptism by Fire over the last six months

The Services Australia story will be forever defined by the challenges it has faced over the last six months.

At the outset of 2020, Australia was facing a natural disaster on a scale rarely experienced, as bushfires-which started in August last year-raged across the country.

These bushfires took loved ones, damaged property, wrought destruction on our natural habitat and brought trauma to so many.

Services Australia’s role was critical in providing the connective tissue between Australians and their Government.

Across the country, Services Australia:

  • Deployed mobile service teams and mobile service centres over 420 times into 200 communities where staff served more than 7,500 people. Assisted by the Defence Force, our people provided support in otherwise inaccessible locations, and worked side by side with other State and Federal agencies to deliver an all of Government response to people in impacted areas. They provided disaster payments, temporary accommodation and up to date information, all in the one place.
  • During the 2019-20 Bushfire season, Services Australia paid out more than $223 million in Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payments and took over 200,000 calls via our disaster payments hotline. The average speed of answer of these calls was measured in seconds and, in most cases, these payments were made in minutes using the New Payments Platform.

As the drenching rains brought a reprieve from bushfires and smoke for so many Australians, Government had to find another gear as COVID-19 gripped the globe.

The nation’s leaders made extraordinary decisions that resulted in unprecedented demands for government social supports, arguably not seen in this country since the Great Depression. Indeed, the immediacy and scale of this demand is surely without precedent in the history of the Commonwealth.

We had tasked Services Australia to prepare for this and they did, preparing ‘office in a box’ kits for thousands of our staff to work from home and massively upgrading our digital channels, our telephony network and getting our staff ready to respond to people’s needs.

However, the Coronavirus pandemic was evolving so rapidly that, come the 22nd of March, National Cabinet had to put Australia into widespread lockdown. Well over a million Australians found themselves out of work on that fateful Monday in March and looked for immediate assistance from their Government.

We witnessed how Australians reached out in record numbers for support, queuing up at Centrelink and putting myGov under a significant and sudden load which had never been seen before.

Government acted swiftly to manage this demand:

  • An ‘intent to claim’ process was quickly established to allow Australians to register their unemployment and secure the Jobseeker benefit from the date of unemployment. Over the next 27 days, 1.9 million intention to claim forms were lodged online.
  • JobKeeper was introduced to keep people employed. However, Services Australia would still process 1.3m JobSeeker claims in 55 days, a claim volume normally processed in two and a half years. At the peak, more than 53,000 claims were completed in a single day.
  • Government directed a wide scale APS recruitment drive to redeploy resources from across government to increase claims processing capability and to answer the large influx of phone calls. Picture a line of people, spaced 1.5 metres apart, stretched out 22 kilometres. That’s 14,800 additional short term staff, mobilised by Government to accelerate the delivery of support to Australians, including 2,000 redeployed public servants from a wide range of government departments and agencies that helped answering phones and processing payments.
  • Government also ensured more than three hundred walk-in service centres located around the country could stay open, while keeping customers and a critical workforce safe. Local police helpfully visited our sites a total of 152 times, including once on horseback, and noted that social distancing measures were being correctly maintained, despite the volume of customers.
  • Simultaneously, we had to grapple with nationwide shortages of the most basic supplies, like hand sanitiser.

Even as the calls kept flooding in, we had to ensure Services Australia would be ready to implement all the policy changes that would be required, as the National Cabinet was continually assessing the scale of the crisis and the necessary response.

Over the next 55 days, the Agency would implement 50 policy changes to 20 payments on behalf of numerous Government Departments. Tech teams worked every day, service centres operated every day and call centre hours were extended to 8am to 8pm, seven days a week.

The Agency would add almost 300 new services to the Medicare Benefits Schedule, often within hours of the Government making a decision.

The Agency grasped early on what many of us feared – that widespread lockdowns would heighten the risk for all those affected by family and domestic abuse. That’s why every person recruited to work on the call lines was given training in identifying and responding to the indicators that a caller might be experiencing domestic violence.

Over those 55 days, our Channel Operations Facility (picture the stock exchange, or NASA’s mission control room: a room that’s wall-to-wall with screens) monitored:

  • 3.7 million phone calls;
  • 1.9 million service centre walk-ins;
  • A quarter of a million Facebook messages and tweets.

On our busiest day, myGov recorded over 3 million users – all successfully lodging claims or conducting other business with government.

What makes these figures even more remarkable is the new JobSeeker payment people were claiming was literally just hours old.

18 months prior, the then Department of Human Services had begun the process of consolidating seven different payments for working-age people into one.

On Friday March 20, the new claim went live, and just two days later in the Sunday night of 22 March, National Cabinet mandated widespread lockdowns.

These are not the circumstances in which any of us would have chosen to introduce Australians to Services Australia and the new JobSeeker payment.

Rarely are we afforded actions on our own terms.

The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), also in my portfolio, found this out very quickly, as we grasped from very early on that we were not only facing a health and economic crisis, but an information crisis as well.

The DTA was tasked to ensure all Australians could access up-to-date and reliable information on how the Government is responding to the coronavirus pandemic and what they can do to protect themselves and their families.

Within days of Australia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, we established as the source of truth alongside the Coronavirus Australia information app to help Australians navigate the complex web of information about coronavirus, followed by a WhatsApp channel.

Nearly 24 million visits to to access the latest coronavirus news, updates and advice from government agencies across Australia.

/Public Release. View in full here.