21 February 2023

Trying to understand welfare payments in Jurassic Park

| Chris Johnson
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Centrelink payments are under the Senate estimates spotlight. Photo: File.

When Services Australia bosses appeared before the recent Senate estimates hearings, a lot was asked and answered about the Infosys project overseeing the entitlement calculation engine (ECE).

The ECE was meant to be the ultimate in working out just how much to pay someone seeking welfare benefits.

‘Modern’, ‘flexible, and ‘rules based’ are all words that have been associated with the ECE, which by simply being based on legislation and business rules, would apparently calculate the amount of Centrelink pension support someone should get.

Infosys won the lucrative government contract in 2019 to develop the new ECE to replace how calculations were working within the legacy program Income Security Integrated System, or ISIS (interesting acronym).

It’s been all downhill since then.

The project hasn’t been able to deliver. It hasn’t come close.

While Services Australia bureaucrats have appeared before estimates with prepared excuses for a number of years now, the simple fact is, it’s all a mess.

Mess is an appropriate word to use because ISIS is one big tangled spaghetti web of ancient codes that no one seems to be able to understand.

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There are more than 30 million lines of code in the ISIS system.

Thirty is an interesting number because the ISIS software itself is more than 30 years old.

That is truly archaic.

It was built before any of the technology systems we take for granted today were even thought of.

So it’s not a matter of ISIS not being able to keep up with the modern world, it’s that ISIS doesn’t know what the term modern means.

The people who built it aren’t around anymore and there is barely anyone left in the department who was there at its introduction and who has any idea what its big old computer mind is thinking.

With about 4 million of the 30 million lines of code related specifically to entitlement calculations, ISIS is too complex and too old to be fathomable.

Add to that problem the fact that every time a new policy is created, it’s tacked onto the ISIS spaghetti bowl to make the tangled web even more of an unworkable mystery.

Despite talk of decoupling, no one in government has the confidence to turn ISIS off.

Successive governments keep using it, keep pouring good money after bad and keep providing a massive disservice to Australians seeking their entitlements.

And Infosys keeps getting multi-million-dollar top-ups to its original contract.

Infosys has delivered promise followed by excuse since it secured the contract.

It took forever for the project to get off ground zero.

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Services Australia chief executive officer Rebecca Skinner told this latest round of Senate estimates that problems with the Infosys project became clear “very early”.

How about, like, straight away?

Much of the estimates discussion went to how much the former Coalition cabinet minister in charge of it from the outset, Stuart Robert, knew about it.

The deal itself was linked to his consultant mate David Milo.

Milo is the chief executive of Synergy360 and an adviser to Infosys, sparking conflict-of-interest concerns and questions over whether Robert helped his mate to help Infosys get the contract.

Robert has denied any wrongdoing or any ministerial involvement in the procurement processes at Services Australia.

But the current Labor government has not ruled out referring the matter to the new National Anti-Corruption Commission once it is fully established.

Labor has already instigated a review of the Infosys deal and results are due in March this year.

Meanwhile, Centrelink customers continue to get short shrift from an agency that still can’t seem to understand its own calculations.

Time for the dinosaurs – people and technology systems – to be replaced.

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The article is factual from the point of the ECE project and its difficulties in delivering the outcome… infact all three short listed contenders knew it would have been hard to deliver. But why it that so… take a look at the social security legislation, it is massive and massively complex. Now that complexity needs to be written into an IT system. Part of the reason for its failure where due to the number of people involved not actually understanding the system that was required to be delivered.
I question other parts of the article. Walkley Journalism should be more factual.
To describe the existing ISIS as “ISIS is one big tangled spaghetti web of ancient codes” is rubbish. Do a bit more digging rather than just listening to the spin. ISIS follows a component based architecture and has very well defined boundaries that has stood the test of time and continual changes (legislation).
The payment accuracy of ISIS (from ANAO) was something like 98.7 percent accurate so if how can the article say “Centrelink customers continue to get short shrift from an agency that still can’t seem to understand its own calculations”.
The article finishes with… “Time for the dinosaurs – people and technology systems – to be replaced.” Poor journalism maybe even sensationalism bordering on click bait. How about we look at it from a different perspective and report on it accurately. Typically people have come into the department thinking it’s a trivial task to move the Eligibilty and Entitlements to a new system… the complexity and interdependencies in the legislation will help you understand it won’t be a trivial exercise. The staff still in ISIS (and there are plenty of young ones) are smart and know the system back the front (they still implement the new legislation and maintain the payment accuracy to this day). So i question the articles assertion on how it has described the code base. The idea that a Big IT vendor can come in and do it over three year period is/was/and will continue to be flawed. The only way to achieve it is with the existing staff. It usually take a staffers about 5years to get their head around the legislative complexity. Maybe stop bashing Government IT staffers that do a great job. The article should look for ways to support continual transition of people (how does the government bolster Goverment IT staff) and technologies. Both Govts continue to think that only Big IT have the know how to transition Government IT systems, sure they may have a roll but the ECE should be a “how not to do it”. This article does nothing but support the government view on handing IT over to Big IT. ISIS was built inhouse in the early to mid 1980 with very sound IT architectural principles that are still relevant in todays IT world. Should this article support a ” why can’t it happen again”… it would be better than handing over $190million and only get a small percentage of what they were contracted to deliver.

A previous CIO commanded Services Australia to replace the Model 204 based, home grown ISIS system with an SAP one. That failed. The ECE was an attempt to use another technology (Pega) to do what SAP couldn’t. It failed even faster and apparently never got anything to run successfully in Production. Together, the total cost to the taxpayer has probably been around $2 billion.

The amazing success that Services Australia had over the pandemic, with unprecedented workloads, was accomplished by the ISIS dinosaur. SAP mostly acts as a front end, performing some sanitizing of the data before passing it to ISIS which does the real work.

This ISIS system is still more flexible, more reliable, faster and cheaper to run than its failed SAP replacement. Each time Services Australia obtains new, more powerful mainframes, they are used for SAP to do its smaller amount of work, while the heavy lifting is done by Model 204 on the older, less powerful machines.

For many years, the scale of the disaster at Services Australia has been hidden, with the department claiming regular successes by the new technologies. Our politicians are ignorant about IT and our media reporters uninterested or exceedingly gullible. The ISIS system has been severely damaged by an attitude that it is about to disappear, and thus effective maintenance is not cost effective. This debacle has been overseen by both Liberal and Labor governments.

Electronic WOFT9:55 am 22 Feb 23

multinationals, money, machismo, mediocrity, mismanagement, middle-age, and malaise … that’s ICT in government.

Mostly middle-aged white male mentality waiting for retirement cow-towing to evry idiot whim of ‘business’ and their multinational overloards for a consulting gig in the future …

Treating ICT as a way of merely digitising archaic and broken thinking and procedures from yesteryear to keep even more people with an average age of 51 from the scrap heap of life …

Nothing but RADICAL reform of the APS will change this.

My observation of IT when I was involved, the last line of the article is concise and accurate. Dinosaurs are running Commonwealth IT.

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