Big, Bad Bureaucracy Centrelink was launched in 1997 as a unique experiment by Australia's newly elected conservative political party. Its aim? To provide a one-stop shop for the 6.5 million Australian citizensalmost one-third of the country's 20 million peoplewho receive some kind of social welfare benefit.
Before Centrelink, a number of government organizations in Australia were responsible for distributing benefits, but two dominated the social welfare landscape: the Department of Social Services (DSS) and the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DEETYA).
DSS employed more than 20,000 people, most of them in some 300 regional offices scattered across the country. DEETYA employed about 12,000 people and had a network of over 290 field offices; its chief task was to help the unemployed find work.
Typically, about 65 employees worked in a regional office, where, on any given day, they would handle a variety of benefits claims and requests from hundreds of people. The multilayered benefits-application process itself made the Department of Motor Vehicles look like a model of efficiency. Customers would fill out a form and then sit down with a DSS employee, who would check it for completeness and accuracy. But it was more of an interrogation than a meeting. The final decision on whether an applicant was eligible for a benefit and if so, for how muchwas not made at the time of application. First, an "assessing officer" would review the application to determine eligibility; next, a "determining officer" would review and approve, or disapprove, the assessing officer's decision. New applicants usually had to come in more than once, because they rarely had all the information they needed on their first visit. In complex cases the process could take months.
It was a mess, and widely recognized as such, but any attempt to rationalize the process was generally thwarted by the long tradition of rivalry between DSS and DEETYA.
Yet in the early days of Australian Prime Minister John Howard's new administration, in 1996, it took three highly motivated senior executives just 15 minutes to reach an agreement to combine the agencies and move toward an e-business overhaul of the entire benefits process.
This new breed of public entity was to be called Centrelink. Initially, it was to be responsible for delivering only DSS and DEETYA benefits; in time, however, it would come to process payments for 20 federal and state government departments.
It sounded simple, but in practice, it was dauntingly complex: Thousands of employees from the two departments had to merge abruptly; offices known for long queues, unfriendly atmospheres, limited hours and labor militancy were suddenly expected to become "customer-friendly." And all this within a deadline of just five years.