Dancing a new digital tune

Mobile apps are no longer the preserve of smaller, more nimble organisations; they are being adopted for frontline services by even the largest government agencies to provide high-volume transactional applications.

The Australian Department of Human Services (DHS) is at the forefront of deploying mobile apps to transform the way services are delivered and reduce costs. The agency’s Express Plus apps provide citizens with a new interface option and create a catalyst for both user-centered re-engineering of services and more agile app development.

The apps are an excellent example of the transformational changes being delivered to the public sector with a new generation of digital solutions. They also illustrate the fact that mobile apps are no longer the preserve of smaller, more nimble organisations; they are being adopted for frontline services by even the largest government agencies and used in high-volume transactional applications.

Dancing a new digital tune

DHS is Australia’s largest civilian government agency. Its 36,000 staff provide services to over 23 million people, delivered via 467 service centres and 579 agencies and access points. The department is in the midst of a large-scale enterprise transformation program, comprising three main elements: the merging of the operations of Centrelink, CRS Australia, Medicare Australia, and the Child Support Agency; adapting to changes in the government’s policy approach; and transforming the way services are delivered to boost operational productivity and meet changing citizen preferences and expectations.

The transition to digital services delivery is a major focus of DHS’s service transformation agenda. Key initiatives that are underway include: the scaling-up of self-service online transactions; the creation of mobile phone apps; the launch of a whole-of-government online service portal at mygov.au; the modernisation of customer information and workflow systems; the implementation of an online email channel for customers; improvements to large-volume document digitisation processes; and the increased use of high-definition video conferencing for customer interactions.

Payment Finder, a recently implemented self-service online application, is a useful example of the new breed of digital service. Payment Finder uses a simple interactive dialog to identify the services for which a person may be eligible – cutting through the maze of benefits and entitlement rules.

However, one of the most exciting and intriguing of DHS’s digital innovations is its growing use of the mobile device as a service interface. DHS is living proof that even large and unwieldy agencies can be taught to dance to the tune of a new generation of digital and mobile technologies.

Express plus

DHS has been experimenting with mobile app development for the past year, and has launched a range of apps that provide transactional interfaces to services. Five apps are currently in production, each targeted to a specific life-event use case: one each for students, job seekers, families, and seniors, and a “lite” app for reporting of employment income every two weeks.

The apps have been designed using user-centered design principles and an agile approach, enabled by development timeframes measured in days and weeks rather than months and years. This process has created a catalyst for true end-to-end process re-engineering.

 Registered DHS customers can download the apps from either the Apple AppStore or Google Play. Apps are personalised based on background analytics and user details, and a core element of the design is aimed at creating bi-directional digital interaction – presenting users with useful reminders and prompts to stimulate engagement. For example, “claim now” or “subscribe now” badges are displayed on appropriate icons at relevant stages in the process to prompt the next-step action.

The combination of the increasing ubiquity and functionality of mobile devices and DHS’s careful attention to user-centered design has paid off. DHS CIO Gary Sterrenberg has stated that the apps have been assessed to be 69 per cent more effective at helping people find the services they need, compared to the alternative online interface. He has also released usage statistics, which reveal the impact of the apps:

  •  975,000 Express Plus downloaded
  • 15 million transactions processed
  • 100,000 customers reporting every two weeks via Express Plus.

In addition, the apps are reducing the workload related to alternative, more costly, face-to-face and telephone channels and other ways of processing customer transactions. DHS reports that the implementation of the apps has reduced networking processing time by over 200,000 hours.

A further benefit has been created by customers using smartphone cameras. The apps allow customers to upload photos of evidentiary documents instead of posting printed documents and signed forms. DHS historically scans around 75,000 documents each day, which is an expensive exercise. Daily uploads of document photos from the apps reportedly exceeded 1,300 in June 2013, and this number is growing as customers discover how convenient this approach is.

Transformation is as transformation does

DHS has also reported an interesting example of how the Express Plus apps are materially transforming service delivery to improve the customer experience. The process of registering a newborn child for family assistance and Medicare benefits was previously an onerous manual, paper-based process, which involved the parents and doctors jointly completing a 10-page form, the FA101.

Typically, it would take six to eight weeks for benefits to be received, but the re-engineered process can be completed using the family app reportedly in under an hour, including the crediting of benefit payments to the customer’s bank account. Birth certificates can simply be photographed and uploaded to the app to provide evidence of the child’s arrival, and back-office processes for the provision of documentation from doctors have been streamlined.

The Express Plus apps are an excellent example of the transformational changes being delivered to the public sector by a new generation of digital solutions. They also illustrate that mobile apps are no longer the preserve of smaller, more nimble organisations; they are being adopted for frontline services by even the largest government agencies and used in high-volume transactional applications.

Steve Hodgkinson is a research director at analyst firm Ovum.

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