Revolution of the one-stop government shop

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The Independent Culture
The barriers between state and citizen are tumbling in Australia. Centrelink, a hi-tech `super-agency', has been set up to provide all the services and benefits of government departments under one roof. Claims have become streamlined and claimants are no longer `them', but part of a `business relationship'

If my Leicester constituents need income support or disability benefits, they go to one of two Benefits Agencies, depending on their surname. If it's job seeker's allowance or training they want, they head for one of four Job Centres, depending on their address. Although the Benefits Agencies are about to merge, it's a far cry from Tony Blair's vision of simpler, electronically enabled government.

In Australia, however, the vision is already becoming reality. In New South Wales, the Labour government is streamlining the administration of justice, linking solicitors and courts in an efficient network. In Victoria, the Liberal government is developing a competitive strategy based on multimedia. A few weeks ago, the Commonwealth government launched Centrelink - the new name for the Service Delivery Agency that is giving Australians a one-stop government shop.

On a recent visit to Canberra with former colleagues from Andersen Consulting, I met Centrelink's chief executive, Sue Vardon, and her senior managers. To a woman (and one man), they were fired by enthusiasm for their new role, combining commitment to public service with entrepreneurial zeal.

Like a Next Steps Agency in Britain, Centrelink holds contracts with government departments to deliver services to citizens. The difference is that Centrelink is a "super-agency" serving many departments.

Unlike a Next Steps Agency, whose boundaries mirror those of departments, Centrelink organises itself around groups of clients - for instance, bundling together all the services and benefits, "products" in the jargon, that government offers to the retired.

Centrelink has taken over all Department of Social Security (DSS) benefits, its benefits staff and local offices, leaving the rest of the department - a mere 1,000 people, compared with Centrelink's 24,000 - to focus on policy. But it also provides services previously delivered by the Departments of Employment and Education, Health and Family Services, and Primary Industries.

"People told us how they hated having to repeat their story again and again," Vardon told me. "If they wanted to change address, for example, they had to do it in at least two places. Now they register and get paid with us and we refer them to people who can help - all under one roof."

To overcome confidentiality problems involved in centralising different records in one agency, Centrelink worked with the Privacy Commissioner to adopt the strictest privacy standards that previously applied in the departments.

Vardon is determined to make Centrelink an Australian and then a world leader in customer service. The Citizen's Charter has made the words all too familiar in Britain, but the Australian reality is considerably more impressive. Government offices dispersed around a town or suburb are being streamlined into a single location. Internet access enables one officer in a small rural office to offer the entire range of services. In larger offices, multimedia kiosks allow people to search for jobs vacancies throughout Australia. Queues are being replaced by appointments systems; glass screens and counters by desks in open-plan offices.

The aim is to replace an "us and them" culture with a "business relationship" - and Vardon reports "a dramatic drop in customer aggression" in the new offices. Field officers are being located in community organisations, or sent out to remote areas with laptops and modems. Call centres are transforming the telephone inquiry service, while 1.6 million now access Centrelink via the Internet each year.

Decision-making has been transformed, too. Instead of handing forms between counter staff and the back office, Centrelink has introduced point of contact decision-making, giving the front-line staff member the authority to decide on the spot. Senior officers check ten per cent of the counter staff's work, to ensure compliance with procedures, devoting the rest of their time to staff training or to working on the counters themselves - thus raising the quality of service even further.

Britain's Benefits Agency describes its mission as "paying the right amount to the right person, on time, every time". As every claimant and MP knows, all too often they don't succeed. But the Australians regard the whole notion of "giving benefits to recipients" as hopelessly outdated, seeking instead to create a business relationship based on mutual respect and responsibilities. Centrelink's new jargon has its occasional absurdities: one report says that "the bureaucratic term "programmes" has been junked in favour of "customer support segments"!

But it is clear that Vardon and her team have a radically different vision of their real purpose - not merely to deliver government "products", but to help people through difficult transitions in their lives.

"We're in the complex problem-solving business," she said. "We're breaking down our barriers and actively becoming part of the community." Not surprisingly, Centrelink is on the lookout for other services they can offer to their clients, whether from state government, local councils or even the private sector.

For Australia's Liberal (ie, Tory) government, the establishment of Centrelink is part of a drive to make most government services "contestable" - open to market competition. But David Clark - visiting Australia later this month in advance of his "Better Government" White Paper - does not need to go down that road to learn from their experience.

First, government departments and agencies must not simply add multimedia to the present structure. We do not want competing, incompatible networks - one set of kiosks to deliver the New Deal for lone parents, another carrying jobs vacancies, a third for Business Links, and so on.

A single set of standards is urgently needed, along with a requirement that new initiatives be "piggy-backed" on to existing ones. Cambridge Childcare, the prototype for the lone parents' New Deal, for instance, was part of a multimedia strategy for the city of Cambridge itself.

Secondly, it is not necessary to reorganise government departments in order to simplify service to citizens. A British Centrelink could deliver services to the whole community. Or, more modestly, it could start with people over 60, or focus on people of working age. If the new agency were empowered to deliver some local as well as national government services, it could ensure that an elderly person eligible for housing benefit (local government) and income support (Benefits Agency) but claiming only the former, in future received all their entitlements.

Thirdly, we will need a serious investment in the next generation of information and communication technologies. Benefits Agency staff struggle with a combination of different systems that cannot talk to each other, let alone to the Employment Service, supplementing electronic records with piles of paper.

With effective systems in place, however, the new agency could not only support accurate point-of-contact decision-making, but also offer electronic access to job vacancies, training opportunities, childcare information and benefits advice in any library or community centre where people need it.

Finally, we will need to simplify the "what" as well as the "how" of government. The creation of a single agency like Centrelink would help enormously. But Centrelink's senior staff have found themselves not simply interpreting government to citizens, but also representing citizens to government - for instance, pointing out contradictions and overlaps in the benefits or services that different departments offer.

In Britain, the benefits system has become so impossibly unwieldy that radical surgery will be needed. But that is another story.

Patricia Hewitt is Labour Member of Parliament for Leicester West and a Trustee of the Institute for Public Policy Research. She was previously director of research for Andersen Consulting.