Mega call-centre could affect thousands of jobs

TOM PULLAR-STRECKER
Last updated 10:40 13/06/2011

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Two views have emerged on how the Government might create a new agency, ServiceLink, that would provide a ''one-stop shop'' for people carrying out everyday transactions with government departments over the internet or by phone.

Thousands of public servants could find themselves working for the new people-facing agency as the ministers set their sights on squeezing out hundreds of millions of dollars of savings by breaking down "silos'' in the public service.

ServiceLink would be dedicated to dealing with common transactions, such as receiving applications, collecting fines and payments and processing changes of address.

Social Development Ministry deputy chief executive Marc Warner said that based on an indicative business case, savings of $100 million a year appeared possible, but ServiceLink might be a year away from having the critical mass to warrant being an independent agency.

Mr Warner said there was a ''school of thought'' that it made sense to establish it up front. ''That could give it some focus, and then you would move the workload into it. Having an entity would send a very clear signal. The other theory is you create the workload first. Both of those options are one of the things we are going to explore for ministers.''

The project is being driven by the chief executives of the Social Development Ministry, Inland  Revenue and Internal Affairs.

Mr Warner said their preference was that ServiceLink was established as a new agency that was solely focused on dealing with the public. ServiceLink might start small, but could potentially grow to take on thousands of staff from other departments, such as contact centre workers, over a period of five to seven years, he said.

ServiceLink would provide a single ''front office'' for government that people could go to when they needed to ''pay something, register for something, or renew something''.

The initiative has been in the wings for about a year but planning is still at the early stages. A paper setting out a ''low-risk'' strategy for gradually constructing the service was due to go to the Cabinet later this month, Mr Warner said.

If ministers gave the green light, funding was likely to be sought in next year's Budget.

Mr Warner said  about 17 government departments regularly had transactions with the public but were ''working in silos''.

People viewed them as one entity  and ServiceLink would ''turn the whole thing round the other way, putting the client at the centre.

''The ultimate end point is where clients can deal with all their transactions from one account  register their car, pay a fine, apply for an Inland Revenue number. And you can construct that around life events, so if someone was having a baby they could do everything from understanding their entitlements and registering the birth to applying for a passport, in one place, without having to go to each agency and find their way.''

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The strategy that will be put to the Cabinet would see the Social Development Ministry, Inland Revenue and Internal Affairs get the ball rolling before other agencies were brought on board.

Government chief information officer Brendan Boyle, who is also chief executive of Internal Affairs, said it had yet to be decided how broad a scope  ServiceLink might have.

While its focus was on three departments ''we want to be as flexible as possible about what can be done in the future'', he said. 

The goal was both to save money by avoiding duplication and to improve services to the public by making them more convenient.

Internal Affairs is managing a project, iGovt, that provides a secure means people can use to log on to government websites using a single logon, password and two-factor authentication device.

Mr Boyle said that neatly dovetailed with ServiceLink.

Mr Warner said the Government had yet to get solid data on what it was costing to provide frontline transactions, but estimated its spending at $500m to $800m a year.

''The modelling we have done suggests efficiencies of between 5 per cent and 15 per  cent could be obtained.''

One example of how savings could be achieved was in merging the software platforms used to support the Social Development Ministry's and Inland Revenue's contact centres, he said.

''The contact centres have the same Genesys technology platform, so in Christchurch we are looking at co-locating our contact centres with a view to sharing some of that infrastructure and training facilities, and potentially over time you could end up with some sharing of the work,'' Mr Warner said.

Public Services Association national secretary Brenda Pilott reacted cautiously, saying it had yet to be formally briefed.

''We have members in the three agencies that are presently involved  the Social Development Ministry, Inland Revenue and Internal Affairs so the PSA expects to be engaged.''

Ms Pilott said the union supported initiatives that helped ''join up services'' and make life easier for the public.

''But that change shouldn't be used as an excuse to cut jobs. If jobs become surplus because of new initiatives, those workers should be redeployed to provide more extended services to the public.

''Also, if ServiceLink is going to be a success, an enhanced working environment for staff is vital for improving service delivery,'' she said.

More than 2000 public servants have lost their jobs since National took office and the union fears hundreds more may go as a result of plans to axe five Crown entities and three tribunals, merging two government agencies and setting up shared corporate services across three central agencies.

The ServiceLink initiative would involve spending some money on information technology, to achieve the expected savings.

On Budget day, Information Technology Minister Steven Joyce said the Government was about to make ''billions of dollars'' of investment in public sector information technology projects, despite the Government announcing $1b of public service cuts over three years.

He said he was not sure whether the scale of the impending investment had been understood.

So far agencies have funded the preparatory work for ServiceLink from their existing baselines.

Social Development Ministry chief information officer David Habershon said the ministry's IT  systems had been set up with a ''service-orientated architecture'' and middleware that made it easier for its back-end systems to communicate with any computer system ServiceLink might use to deal with the public.

Other agencies' systems were at ''varying stages of maturity'' in that regard, he said.

ServiceLink is on a list of major IT initiatives being monitored by the State Services Commission.

The commission has classified it as ''high risk'', but only on the basis that it cuts across multiple departments, a spokesman said.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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