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An integrated response

An integrated response

Information technology is key to improving the client facing systems at the Ministry of Social Development and creating a unified body of government agencies.

Tim Occleshaw says his role as chief information officer for the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) has some features in common with his previous post as head of IT for the ANZ-National Bank. “It is a similarly complex transaction systems environment, with large client and payment systems,” says Occleshaw, who joined MSD three years ago. But the “stakeholder environment is more complex” at MSD with a greater variety of points of view to be taken into account, he says.

For example, within the department, the information provided and transactions processed are focused on service to the client, but from the point of view of Treasury, another significant stakeholder, the focus is on the financial balance sheet. For Cabinet, it is a matter of discharging policy objectives.

For Occleshaw, IT’s main reason for existing is delivering benefit to the business.

This may seem a truism, but some IT operations do not give it enough weight, he says, and become absorbed in building an elegant “enterprise architecture” without due regard for its business relevance.

Similarly, “We’re not there to implement bleeding-edge technology,” he says, no matter how fascinating and good for the CV it may be.

There is an enterprise architecture function within the ministry’s ICT, but it is firmly connected to a programme of work that has its foundation in the business, stresses Occleshaw.

A significant shift

MSD’s IT department has just delivered the main part of the client management system (CMS), which reflects a significant shift in the organisation’s operation, from the point of view of both the business and IT.

CMS furthers the primary objective of today’s social development system to

produce a “sustainable outcome” for its clients, centered on getting them into employment, rather than regarding payment of benefits as its main function.

“CMS is our first real ‘social development’ system,” says Occleshaw. “It will help staff assess a client’s eligibility [for various benefits] and produce client-service plans” with a large element of automated workflow. This will make sure processes are properly followed and nothing is missed. Staff can now spend more time in front-line interaction with the client.

CMS is based on a package suite of software from Irish company Cùram, being part of a general direction at MSD towards using ready-made software rather than developing internally from scratch.

The new system, however, has to be intermeshed with the long-established and internally written benefit payment system Swiftt (Social Welfare Information for Tomorrow Today) whose primary focus is benefit payment.

MSD has constructed a “unified customer view”, built from the data in Swiftt, and will deploy CMS through that lens. “Swiftt is pushed a little more towards the back end,” says Occleshaw, but is still a very important element of the system.

The $54 million CMS development came in on schedule and a little under budget. Occleshaw attributes the project’s success to the “very close collaboration with the people in the business”.

There was a good relationship between the ICT specialists and the “subject-matter experts” in the social development field, as well as “sponsorship” of the project from the top-level executives.

While recognising the value of ready-made software, there is no intention to launch a wholesale drift in the direction of Cùram and similar providers.

“There’s nothing wrong with Swiftt,” he says, but it is ageing (it was written in the mid-1990s) and expensive to run.

Over the coming 18 months, therefore, MSD will “replatform” the mainframe system, written in the Unisys Linc language. It will be automatically translated to Java, using a software “transformation engine” from Sydney-based company Quipoz.

Occleshaw describes the automated translation as a “surprisingly low-risk” approach, because there will be no change in functionality. The new system will be kept running in parallel with the old system for some time, in order to check that the same results are produced from both systems.

The hardware base for the new platform had not yet been decided at the time of the interview with CIO. “It will not necessarily be entirely new hardware,” says Occleshaw, but the choice is less important than it was in the days when the mainframe-based Swiftt was implemented, because of virtualisation technology. MSD makes extensive use of HP’s virtualised Superdome servers.

“I’m not a technologist,” says Occleshaw. “I have no preconceived notions what the technology should look like.” The key to development of appropriate technology, he says, is to “empower the workforce and trust them”.

All of the more than 400 ICT staff in the organisation “understand their role and where it fits into the ministry’s objectives”.

This reflects his style of leadership, he says. “I ensure the team has a clear and consistent understanding of the reason for and the objectives of a development and that my reports make it clear. Then when they’re empowered, I leave them to get on with it. Trust and empowerment rewards itself. And those, I believe, are keys to good leadership.”

Towards a single infrastructure

Occleshaw has implemented some restructuring to improve this awareness and the relations among the teams. “We had two separate infrastructure functions: The IT operations group, which manages the applications servers and databases and a separate group managing the core infrastructure and distributed services.

“Communication between them had been poor; two different cultures had developed and, as you might expect, there were gaps and overlaps between them. So I combined them and we now have a single infrastructure and communications team.” This makes it easier to market infrastructure services to the clients within the organisation.

On the applications side, MSD has built an internal team that will reduce the need to go to the vendors for help with solutions design and development capability. “It’s still not totally in-house, but we’ve got a group that understands solution design and we now have more control of the ministry’s intellectual property.”

In the present organisational structure, Occleshaw reports to the deputy chief executive, putting him on the same level as the finance and property managers. “I’m aware of what Gartner has said about the credibility gap that develops if ICT is too far down in the structure, and I think my position gives me enough influence [in the direction of business and the way ICT serves it].

“I regularly present to the chief executive and sit on an IT governance committee that the CE chairs.” It’s not the job of ICT to “steer the business”, he says, but through contacts with the senior executives he considers himself “well-connected with the business challenges and able to suggest where technology might help.

“I have to be able to provide information on technological opportunities, but only where they’re relevant to solving business problems.”

He is also at an appropriate level to “ensure that when the business brings us work, they have thoroughly thought it through,” he says. “That’s important.”

The ministry has just been given approval for a refresh of the ICT infrastructure linking its 300 offices nationwide. This will involve some rationalisation and centralisation of servers and a move towards a “more mainstream” environment, involving, for example, Microsoft Active Directory and Exchange. This, again, will increase the ministry’s ability to move in the direction of ready-to-use package applications. “Many [such] products come out of the box ready for [a] Microsoft [environment],” he says.

Nevertheless, the ministry will continue to use open-source software where appropriate. There are many Sun servers running open-source software and Mozilla browsers and email are widely used. The open source and Microsoft directions are “not always” compatible, he says, noting the battles Microsoft is having with the open-source community in trying to get its OpenXML recognised as a standard. “But against that, you have to consider a lot of our staff are used to Microsoft applications.”

Rationalising the infrastructure should put MSD in a more powerful position when it comes to negotiating for telecommunications services in the new environment of telecoms regulation, he says.

Infrastructure refresh is a major project, he acknowledges, “but it’s not rocket science. It’s about engagement; recognising where the pain points are and what people are trying to achieve.”

MSD has committed to participate in the Government Shared Network (GSN), a move Occleshaw sees as beneficial to MSD’s role in an increasingly joined-up model of government.

The ministry already works closely with other government agencies such as Inland Revenue Department in the Working for Families scheme and the Ministry of Educa-tion in student loans. This will be towards a shared network, shared architecture and interoperability standards that work towards a more extensive connection of government; where the citizen will have a unified body to deal with and will only have to go to one place and not three or four to get a complex transaction completed.

The Government’s development of an Identity Verification Service is another cross-agency initiative that is particularly relevant to MSD, whose clients will frequently need to verify their identity to obtain services confidentially online.

© Fairfax Business Media

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