Immigration Department moves to outsource visa system to avoid cost blow-outs
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Immigration Department moves to outsource visa system to avoid cost blow-outs

Private operators would run large parts of Australia's visa system and charge migrants under an Immigration Department plan to avoid cost blow-outs and cope with booming visitor demand.

As the country prepares for a surge in tourists and migration, the government has floated changes to its immigration system letting companies administer tests, detect fraud and recommend decisions to grant or refuse visas.

The Immigration Department plans to hand over large parts of its visa application work to private players.

The Immigration Department plans to hand over large parts of its visa application work to private players.

Photo: Getty Images

Vast swathes of its visa system would gradually move to private companies in contracts valued together up to $9 billion over ten years, a cost burden that could be heaped partly on migrants and travellers through user charges.

Immigration has briefed industry players in San Francisco, Singapore and Bangalore, and has also invited artificial intelligence and robotics companies to help it design a new visa system in a bid to automate more assessments, potentially with AI.

The department hopes the overhaul will prepare it for an expected 50 per cent surge in visa and citizenship applications by 2026, when numbers are predicted to top 13 million a year.

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Businesses already shoulder 20 per cent of the work in Immigration's visa system, but the department told private operators in a consultation paper applications had reached unprecedented numbers and it wanted to avoid cost blow-outs by involving them more.

"This would enable the department's staff to focus on the more complex elements of the visa business," it said.

"Doing so is expected to drive substantial financial and non-financial benefits for the Australian public, applicants, the government and the market."

While Immigration would outsource much of its visa application work, it would still control security assessments, intelligence work, enforcement, decisions on ambiguous cases requiring human judgement, and decision reviews.

"The department would retain functions where direct control is necessary for ensuring government sovereignty over decision-making and the protection of the Australian community," it said.

At first, Immigration would choose companies to design and run a digital service for online applications that would decide automatically if applications and visa grants were valid in a project costing up to $2 billion over ten years.

The set-up would also generate and send letters advising applicants of decisions and the department's reasoning, requesting further information or inviting them to comment on adverse findings.

But the bid to outsource more work could also enlist private operators to detect fraud, assess applicants' character, and decide whether applications were genuine using technology, including possibly artificial intelligence.

Companies would also take over onshore health assessments under one or more contracts worth $1 billion, and offshore services in work valued at $1.5 billion.

The department has asked for industry players to advise whether they could take over parts of the visa system it would outsource to them under the floated changes.

Immigration is planning to outsource much of its visa work after a scathing national audit report of its IT security program found it was vulnerable to cyber attacks, putting personal data at risk.

It has not set a timeframe to adopt all four cyber security measures required to defend it from threats, after missing a 2016 deadline to make the changes.

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