CIO50 2021 #6 Michael McNamara, Services Australia
Services Australia reports more than one billion interactions with citizens each year, with an increasing proportion of people using the agency’s digital channels. Each one of these interactions is dependent on the capacity of the organisation’s IT systems with every change having a direct and immediate impact on the way customers live each day.
When COVID-19 first hit in March 2020, the Federal Government announced that Services Australia would provide economic support payments to millions of Australians. Days later, the government announced further changes to improve access to income support by streamlining the JobSeeker payment.
“We looked at innovative, tech-driven solutions that could be developed in-house and delivered at speed," says former Services Australia chief information officer, and now CEO at Service Victoria, Michael McNamara. "This resulted in a ‘register intention to claim’ feature and an online identity verification and registration solution, Connected ID, in myGov.”
This feature allows people to register their intention to claim COVID-related support payments online and receive a call back with next steps. Within a day of going live, around 890,000 Australians had already used the feature. It was then used more than 3.4 million times before customers were able to claim online without having to verify their identity in person.
Connected ID removes the need for people to visit a service centre to verify their identity and submit a claim. The solution was based on a previous beta trial and embedded online by providing two identity documents for online verification.
Meanwhile, to streamline the JobSeeker claim process and improve access to income support, McNamara and his team designed a solution that allowed eligible customers with non-complex situations to apply and receive an outcome seamlessly.
“The end-to-end digital experience takes half the time to process and removes complexity and red tape for customers seeking government assistance from their home,” McNamara says.
The streamlined JobSeeker payment went live in early April 2020. In 55 days, the agency processed 1.3 million claims, a volume normally processed in two-and-a-half years. At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 53,000 claims were processed in a single day.
Hand in glove
McNamara joined Services Australia in January 2019 and led the implementation of a new operating model for the Technology Services Group, which enabled the business and IT group to work ‘hand-in-glove’ and shift the agency’s focus to a whole-of-government approach. A new operating model has also helped embed new ways of working, particularly around DevOps, and created shared accountability across the agency to promote outcomes.
For instance, the new Payment Utility Platform is a centralised capability for whole-of-government. It was built on the principal of being agency-agnostic and enables other departments to securely connect to the platform’s API set and distribute and manage payments to customers on their behalf.
“Thanks to this new capability, on August 15 we were able to process more than $500 million in COVID-19 disaster payments on behalf of the government,” McNamara says. "And we did this in just one day".
Under his leadership, Service Australia digitised critical economic support payments and claims to help millions of Australians in need while delivering the transformation program.
McNamara and his team also ensured agency staff were able to work remotely and continue to deliver government services. They introduced video conferencing applications, online collaboration tools and equipped staff with laptops. This included delivering around 9,000 ‘office-in-a-box’ kits in just over five weeks.
“We also had around 2,000 additional staff join us from across the Australian public service who, within weeks, were trained and on-boarded with the tools they needed to assist us in taking calls and processing claims,” he says.
Finally, the team rolled out digitally-enabled processing to deliver an automated claims grant process for straight-forward claims. The solution can gather information, determine eligibility, provide code updates and make payments without human interaction.
“Being an automated solution means that it can run 24/7. This reduces the demand on our service delivery network removing the simplest claims from the queue and freeing up staff to serve customers with more complex needs,” McNamara says.
Learning from mistakes
McNamara admits to making “a lot of mistakes” throughout his career. But he doesn’t beat himself up about it unless he makes the same errors twice.
“I have made a conscious effort to ensure that at the end of every role, I allow myself the time to self-reflect, to celebrate the things that I achieved and to learn from the things I didn’t. My most valuable lesson to date is to always be true to yourself and your values,” he says.
Reflecting about what single lesson he's gleaned over the years, McNamara no longer tries to "be all things to all people", changing himself to fit in with his environment and taking others’ values on as his own.
"What I have realised is that being the odd one out is what can make you special, what can differentiate you," he says. "In a world where leadership is often taught from the same books doing the global rounds, being different is an asset to be cherished,”
As CIO at Services Australia, McNamara says he made a conscious decision from the outset to present a balanced approach back to government in relation to risk around technology delivery, particularly during the pandemic.
“This ensured we could scale and deliver quality outcomes quickly for the Australian community. As a result, we were able to build a very respectful relationship with government and a partnership that has led to quality outcomes for all Australians through what has been one of the most challenging periods in our history.”