Interview

Integrated Sevice Delivery:The Australian Department of Human Services

Jeff Popple, from Australia’s Department of Human Services, discusses their experience in integrating service operations across different agencies, in order to achieve large-scale synergies.

Date Posted

1 Apr 2008

Issue

Issue 4, 14 Apr 2008

What is the Australian Public Service’s approach to innovation and excellence in service delivery? What are the factors behind your drive towards service innovation and service integration?

Like most Public Services around the world, the Australian Public Service constantly seeks to improve the quality of services it provides to the Australian people. One of the factors behind the establishment of the Department of Human Services was the desire to reinvigorate public administration and improve the delivery of services to the many Australians who have contact with the agencies that comprise the Human Services portfolio. This has led to a culture within Human Services, and its agencies, of always trying to improve the quality of services that are provided. The individual agencies undertake a range of activities to support this approach to excellence, including benchmarking, customer surveys and monitoring against performance standards. Agencies also explore more innovative ways of dealing with customers, such as the use of short message service (SMS) or text messaging, provided these innovations do not conflict with the policy intent of the programmes they are administrating and do not jeopardise the integrity of the payments they administer. If done well, innovative service delivery can result in higher satisfaction amongst customers and can also be more efficient and more cost effective.


There are advantages to integration, but it has to be managed in such a way that you do not compromise the expertise that individual delivery agencies have built up and do not weaken their current accessibility.

The search for improvement in service delivery can sometimes logically lead to service integration, but this is not necessarily always the case. If done in an effective manner, integration can lead to more convenient service delivery. In Australia, we have the complication of three different levels of government: local, state and commonwealth. Often, each of these levels of government can have involvement in the same areas, such as childcare.

The Australian people, however, often do not differentiate between the different levels and just see it as being “government”. Achieving greater synergy between the three levels of government is one of the biggest challenges that we face.

In your experience, what are the challenges of pursuing an integrated approach to service delivery, and what are the key opportunities and advantages?

An integrated approach to service delivery can lead to more convenience for customers, especially if they only have to visit one location to do their business. We have had some success in Australia with the Flexible Service Delivery Trials, involving Medicare Australia, which primarily administers health rebates, and Centrelink,1 which delivers welfare and family payments to Australians. The trials involved Centrelink delivering some of their services for older Australians and carers through four Medicare sites and, in turn, Medicare trial-tested the delivery of some of their services in four Centrelink sites. The trials were reasonably successful and the benefits included:

  • more convenience with people able to conduct a range of government business in one place at the same time;
  • better customer service designed to suit people’s specific needs; and
  • more choices of sites in which to conduct government related business.

The Australian Government is currently considering the outcomes of the trials.

There are advantages to integration, but it has to be managed in such a way that you do not compromise the expertise that individual delivery agencies have built up and do not weaken their current accessibility, i.e., by forcing them into less suitable locations.

Has technology, or new models of management and organisation supported your pursuit of service excellence? What achievements would you highlight and what are the factors underlying their success?

Technological advances have certainly provided new opportunities to improve service excellence. The most obvious examples involve the use of the Internet, mobile phone communication and the electronic sharing of data.

Australia is still developing new ways of improving electronic service delivery, although nearly 60% of people now report having contacted the Government using the Internet at least once in the previous 12 months. This is nearly a doubling of Internet contact since 2004.

One significant improvement has been the development of the Human Services Portal,2 which provides a single entry point to the online services offered by Centrelink, Medicare Australia and the Child Support Agency. The Portal also has a single sign-on to the online services of the agencies, so instead of having to go through three separate identification processes, the customer now only has to do it once before being able to easily access the services of the three agencies. Another noteworthy advance has been the introduction of electronic claiming processes for Medicare services, so that Australians can now receive their rebates electronically at the point of service, instead of having to make a separate trip to a shopfront to receive their rebate.

How does the Department of Human Services harness the natural strengths of its component agencies in order to achieve whole-of-government policy objectives?

By looking across the six agencies that make up the portfolio, Human Services is able to see the possible synergies and advantages by using a range of agencies. An example of this was the delivery of the Liquid Petroleum Gas Scheme, which provided a rebate to Australians who converted their petrol cars to liquid petroleum gas. The scheme was jointly delivered by Centrelink and Medicare Australia. Working with these agencies, we were able to develop a delivery arrangement which used the natural advantages of the two agencies:

  • Centrelink’s ability to quickly implement payment systems and efficiently make payments; and
  • Medicare’s network, which is largely based in easily accessible shopfronts in shopping centres.

This meant that in a matter of weeks, the system was set up and people were able to lodge claim forms at a convenient shopfront, which then sent the claim forms to a processing centre that quickly processed them and made payments to customers.

Is the Department of Human Services involved in ensuring that service outcomes are considered in the policymaking process?

I think that this has been one of the main achievements of the Department. Too often in the past, the service delivery arm of government was separate from the policymaking process. This meant that sometimes good policy ideas were unable to achieve the envisaged outcomes for Government because too little consideration had been given to the implementation issues. With the formation of Human Services, greater emphasis has been given to service delivery. On the practical level, this means that service delivery has a more prominent role in policy development by being involved in the Cabinet process. With the establishment of a department of state with a specific responsibility for service delivery, policy departments have also been more willing to engage in discussions about service delivery at a much earlier stage. Proper consideration of service delivery means that the customer is better served when the individual policies are implemented.

THE AUSTRALIAN DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES

The Department of Human Services (DHS) was created on 26 October 2004 to achieve improved governance, clearer accountability and better performance in government service delivery by:

Read More

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeff Popple is the Acting Deputy Secretary in the Australian Department of Human Services. He is responsible for the overall management of the service delivery role of the Department, advising on the performance of the Portfolio’s Agencies and providing strategic and policy advice on a range of service delivery issues.


NOTES

  1. Centrelink (http://www.centrelink.gov.au) is an Australian Government Statutory Agency, assisting people to become self-sufficient and supporting those in need.
  2. Single entry signon: http://myaccount.humanservices.gov.au/wps/portal/ linked from the Human Services Portfolio Portal at http://www.humanservices.gov.au/

Back to Ethos homepage