The newly formed Department of Human Services has revealed it is likely to end the long-running relationship that some of its component agencies have had with IBM’s troubled Lotus Notes/Domino suite and standardise on Microsoft’s rival Outlook/Exchange platform as part of its long-term integration project.
In December last year the Federal Government announced the consolidation of a number of agencies – including Centrelink, Medicare, the Child Support Agency, Australian Hearing, CRS Australia and the existing Department of Human Services into one mega-department, with its technology support operations to be led by long-time Centrelink chief information officer John Wadeson, who received a bump in title to deputy secretary of ICT Infrastructure.
Various of the agencies to be consolidated – especially Centrelink, but also Medicare Australia, which runs Lotus Notes on its users desktops but uses Exchange on the back end – have used the ailing Notes platform – which is struggling to win new customers in Australia against the Exchange juggernaut – for years.
But in an extensive email interview, Wadeson this week said it was likely the new super-department would standardise on Exchange.
“I couldn’t say that it was set in stone, but we are at this minute certainly looking at moving to a Microsoft platform in that layer,” he said. “First of all, the Child Support Agencies and the Human Services Department are already there, and there’s a view that, because of the central role that this new group will play, and our requirements to connect to everybody, that’s a much more ubiquitous platform.”
Such a shift is the latest nail in the coffin for Notes in Australia, which is facing ongoing problems maintaining its customer base in the face of the Exchange threat and newcomers like Gmail. Qantas, too, has recently confirmed it would dump Lotus for Exchange, and IBM has not disclosed any major new customes of Notes for some time.
In a wider sense, the massive integration project that Wadeson will steer over the next few years will touch almost every aspect of the new super-department’s systems.
The CIO confirmed that email, unified communications, human resources (including payroll) and financial management systems were all in-scope to be integrated under the merger, as well as the combined desktop PC footprint of the portfolio.
Centrelink is currently planning to upgrade its 27,000 desktops to Microsoft’s latest Windows 7 platform, with the migration to start in the second half of this year. The other agencies are using Windows XP but will probably eventually follow suit. In total Human Services has about 55,000 desktop PCs, giving it one of the largest fleets in the country.
“Once again, if I hold to my principle of no-one goes backwards, then everyone will be on Windows 7,” said Wadeson. “Because we won’t be going backwards. But I don’t have to give a timeframe to do that, it’s just expected that we do it as we get opportunity to. Sometimes we get government projects that allow us to do these things as part of the project,” while the bonnet’s up.”
The different agencies are all using different versions of SAP for their finance and administration platforms, but the CIO noted the new super-department would consolidate these onto a single SAP platform, with one guidepost along the way to be the move to a single staff agreement, that would enable “a complete start”.
“Generally if you talk to Human Services secretary Finn Pratt he talks about dates like 1 July next year for those sorts of things,” said Wadeson. “So whoever’s got the latest version, that’s where we’ll all go.”
Going to market
It’s obvious that DHS’s relationship with vendors will need to be consolidated over time due to its much larger purchasing scale. But Wadeson wouldn’t be drawn just yet on what such a strategy might entail. Centrelink and Medicare have had significant relations with IBM for some time, and Centrelink has also in the past handed off quite a bit of work to other companies like CSC and Dimension Data.
Wadeson said while DHS would “undoubtedly” consolidate its vendor relationships, any such announcements would not be made at this stage. “The department will work with multiple vendors to achieve the best outcome for the end-user – just as before, but especially so given the scale and scope of the services that will be delivered,” he said.
“Commercial relationships will no doubt be formed as and when required to equip the system with what it needs to perform properly. These relationships will be managed with the usual high levels of transparency and integrity that we expect from the public service.”
The department will also take some of its cues from the Australian Government Information Management Office — which has a strong role to play in coordinating IT usage across the entire Federal Government sector and which Wadeson said Human Services had a good working relationship with.
When asked whether the systems integration work would be undertaken in-house or externally with the assistance of IT services providers, Wadeson said in general there was a theme for the project of service delivery reform being cost-neutral, in that “efficiency dividends are ploughed back into the work of creating more efficiency”, with IT acting as a “key enabler of the whole process”.
“There isn’t a big bucket of money for this or anything right now,” he said, “so we will probably just implement as we go when the opportunity is right — “while the bonnet’s up” — perhaps as part of a government program or similar.”
In some ways Centrelink — which had the biggest IT operation out of all the agencies — will take a prime role in the work. For example, Wadeson said the welfare agency had already had a datacentre reform agenda which it was achieving through the Federal Government’s interim datacentre panel of suppliers (the final arrangements have yet to take force). “In a beautiful way, these things come together,” the CIO said.
Likewise, Centrelink’s new contactless smartcard for staff identification — which it has been rolling out to staff — will “in time” be extended across the Human Services portfolio. But in another areas, other agencies will take the prime focus.
“Medicare applications will continue to be handled by Medicare chief information officer Graham Gathercole,” said Wadeson when asked what role his team will have in the $466.7 million e-health national Health Identifier project announced in the Federal Budget. And some areas won’t be consolidated at all.
For example, Wadeson echoed statements in December that DHS would not be building a single database containing joint customer data for those who access both Centrelink and Medicare services, for example. “The Minister made that breathtakingly clear in December,” he said, noting the Office of the Privacy Commissioner was involved in making sure data was kept discrete.
“Databases will be separate and any sharing of parts of customer records across agencies will be at the express choice of the customer themself, through choosing a “tell us once” option that can pre-populate forms with relevant information so that you don’t have to keep filling in the same information on different forms. If you choose not to “tell us once” then your separate records remain entirely separate as before.”
Likewise, agency specific applications themselves — such as Medicare apps that run the medical and pharmaceutical benefits schemes will remain separate as they are, although their underlying infrastructure may be consolidated. “I think people in IT can understand that you can house these things on one mainframe, there is no risk of leakage from one database to another,” said Wadeson.
The CIO wouldn’t be drawn on the project’s total budget — with agencies operating off business as usual funding. “There will be some up-front expenditure but business cases need to be drawn up. It’s early days,” he said. And staff roles will change (see right for the new DHS IT organisation structure under Wadeson), but there are expected to be no redundancies on the IT side of things.
Overall, the reform under Wadeson over the next few years is likely to be one of the biggest packages of technology work undertaken in Federal Government circles this decade. So does the CIO consider it risky?
“People use terms like probably the largest integration to be undertaken in Government, all those sort of terms, but on the other hand, because of the focus of these agencies on business as usual, we can’t afford to let anything drop, and the timetable is very much in our hands.”
Image credit: Department of Human Services