Coalition vows queues will disappear, services online in seven years
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Coalition vows queues will disappear, services online in seven years

The Coalition government has vowed to pull all its public services online in seven years and make queues history in a plan mapping an ambitious path to IT reform that follows years of bungled projects.

Tech upgrades would accelerate and tasks such as registering births and deaths, or applying for welfare, would become simpler in a bid to make Australia a world leader in online government services promised by the minister overseeing IT, Michael Keenan.

A cornerstone of these changes, digital ID, will be rolled out after trials and Mr Keenan has vowed it won't become another version of the "Australia Card" creating an identity document for Australians or pooling their personal information. He promised the government's roadmap for reform would protect privacy.

Mr Keenan's announcement at the National Press Club on Wednesday follows a series of failed technology projects across government departments that have frayed public trust in the bureaucracy's handling of IT reform.

It also resembles a Coalition promise shortly before it won government in 2013 that it would put all major services online by 2017.

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Labor pointed to the Coalition's record of troubled tech projects and said after five years in government it was still failing in rolling out new technology in its agencies. Among the most high-profile is its 2016 census shutdown and the "robo-debt" program that drew scorn from Centrelink users, social services advocates, Labor and the Greens.

Under the federal government's plan, people using its services would have to register births, deaths and other information only once on a website and avoid dealing with multiple departments. Mr Keenan promised "truly personalised" online government services "tailored" to people's needs. He vowed the Coaliton would deliver one of the world's largest ever transformations in social welfare IT.

The promise to remove phone waits, and queues for government services, would require the Coalition to cut 48 million busy signals entirely for people calling Centrelink.

Mr Keenan, speaking at the Press Club, promoted the latest UN survey of government technology use that placed Australia second in the world, for the third consecutive time. He set out a vision to remove the need for phone waits, as virtual assistants - or technology that interacts with web users and answers their questions - grew their presence on government websites.

“Imagine never having to wait on the phone to have your questions answered because a digital assistant will be available 24 hours a day to help you with anything you need to know," he said earlier in a written statement.

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"This is the way Australians will be able to interact with government in the very near future – a future where their needs come first and where privacy and security are always paramount."

Mr Keenan vowed to simplify government services for clients in trialling a program letting them update their information, or register births and deaths, only once with state and federal agencies.

"We will then take care of the rest. In the case of a death, this would save a grieving person from having to repeat the same painful information over and over as they deal with multiple agencies."

Labor's human services spokesman Ed Husic said a government map for IT reform should have come sooner after the Coalition established its Digital Transformation Office dedicated to federal tech upgrades three years ago.

"A lot of Australians stuck on phone calls waiting for services would be wondering what the government's doing right now to make their lives easier," he said.

"Talking about what might happen in 2025 doesn't account for what people are experiencing in 2018, which is frustration in waiting for government services."

The main public sector union said the Coalition had made the same promise as Mr Keenan's in 2013, but failed to deliver after slashing staff and budgets.

Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Nadine Flood said Mr Keenan was unclear in his vow to put all government services online, asking whether this would lead to job losses for staff dealing face-to-face with clients.

"Giving Australians access to a dodgy algorithm rather than help from a real person would be a terrible outcome for people and families who are trying to navigate complex Commonwealth services," she said.

"They need help from a real person with knowledge and experience. The robo-debt debacle shows this government’s willing to put computers in charge of critical Commonwealth work, no matter how terrible the outcomes are for ordinary Australians.

"There is of course a place for online tools to help people access Commonwealth services, and people make good use of these when the circumstances are suited to such technology, but Australians rightly expect that they will always have the option of speaking to another human who knows what they’re talking about."

Doug Dingwall is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service and politics.

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