Murphy’s laws for transforming Australia’s Centrelink

‘Deputy Secretary in charge of Welfare Payments Infrastructure Transformation’ – now there’s a job title that bespeaks the scale of an upcoming project. But any apprehension about what may lie in store was not enough to dissuade John Murphy from moving into the hot seat – his first in Australia’s government.

“I’d had a 35-year career in banking and finance, most recently at the National Australia Bank, and had been particularly involved in payments – changing the way business and consumers pay for things – as well as being involved in some large-scale business transformation,” he explains. “But at this stage of my career – let’s call it the back end or early autumn – I felt that the opportunity to lead this programme, and the chance to really make a difference, was pretty appealing. And I also thought to myself that if I don’t do it, I’d probably look back in a few years and regret it.”

A seven-year journey

Murphy – who started work just four months ago – reports into the Department of Human Services. His task is to lead the design and replacement of the mainframe-based system currently used to calculate and pay welfare entitlements via the department’s Centrelink welfare arm – totalling more than A$100 billion every year. The current system relies on more than 30 million lines of code and has, for some time now, been touted for a substantial overhaul.

“I was approached about a year ago and my first instinct was that they should be looking for a technologist,” recalls Murphy. “But they stressed they needed someone with business experience. My second thought was that moving from the private to the public sector wasn’t very appealing, but only because I knew very little about the government. And over the course of several months, I began to realise that my experience around payments and large-scale transformation programmes could be useful.”

There’s no doubt that such experiences will be crucial over the course of what promises to be a seven-year project. Challenges abound – not least the potential for millions of citizens to be impacted if payments go wrong – as well as the sheer difficulty of bringing together a complex system of individual payments and cross-checks. No wonder it has been described as “the most fundamental structural reform of the income support system since its inception”.

Murphy – so far, at least – appears unfazed about what he has taken on. “My immediate reaction is that government is not as different as I expected it to be,” he says. “Maybe it’s the nature of the programme, which is one that could easily be found in the private sector, and also I’ve not yet been fully exposed to the whole of the public service. I’m looking forward to connecting with more colleagues and gaining a better understanding of how this project will solve a lot of problems they’ve had some experience of in the past.”

Murphy – who is spending three days a week in Canberra and two in Melbourne with his wife and family – pinpoints the blend of skills that the project will require to successfully move ahead. “Having public servants involved is particularly important for connecting into the policy agencies,” he points out. “Plus, it’s a bit of a myth that the public service doesn’t do big projects, just as it’s a myth that the private sector always does them really well. And there will be private sector people, too – whether from the business or technology side, and also there will be the commercial partners like software vendors and system integrators. With support from The Boston Consulting Group and others, this seems to me like a very sensible model.”

Prioritising plans for Centrelink

Clearly drawing on his past experiences, Murphy has already identified some key areas that he and his team from across government will be focusing on – such as clarity about what they are working towards. “You have to be very clear about what the requirements are and have a clear sense of what it feels like when you get to the end of it,” he says. “I don’t think anyone can really articulate exactly what it is going to look like in seven years, but individual projects must together deliver what we want to deliver at the end of the period.”

He is also keen to stress that a key ingredient will be inclusivity – the involvement of staff from across the organisation, the frontline in particular, will be crucial. “We have to ensure that as we work through this project, it actually does reflect the reality of the frontline,” he says. “This means involving them to ensure that what we are looking to deliver can actually be implemented. It needs a constant reality check, because people at the centre can start with a blank piece of paper and come up with ideas that teams at the frontline might know are unworkable. And this also helps bring the organisation along and helps persuade them to embrace the upcoming changes.”

Murphy agrees with the suggestion that such cross-agency involvement chimes well with an approach that seeks to go one step at a time, bringing the workforce along with it. “One thing that most people would agree on is that the days of trying to do multiyear programmes and deliver something right at the end of it are just too challenging,” he says. “The world moves too quickly so it is better to break it down into systematic components that fit together rather than trying to do it in one big go.”

And he is also keen that the initial goodwill that he and his team now enjoy does not evaporate any time soon – better to go slow and get it right than rush the project and get it wrong. “People will lose interest in the programme if they don’t feel that it is progressing or if it becomes a poisoned chalice,” he points out. “So, assuming the funding stays in place, what is crucial is getting the pace and governance right – which we think we have.”

But there is no sense of complacency creeping in. For example, Murphy has visited countries including the UK and Germany, as well as speaking to colleagues in Saudi Arabia, to learn about how their governments have embarked on substantial reform programmes in the welfare sector – and this process is ongoing. “We are continuing to scan the external market about how both the public and private sectors are tackling these big transformation and change management challenges,” he says.

“But if we can deliver a solution that makes the job of policy agencies easier and helps improve the services that millions of Australians rely on, then that will be an impact worth all the effort. It’s time to get down to work.”

 

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  • Some relationship advice… A successful transformation project depends on many factors, saysLouis Watt. But prime among them is the relationship between the government ministry and its agencies on the frontline
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