When the CES was ditched in favour of the Job Network in 1998, the government employment service not only took on a new name, it also adopted a new service delivery model. With the whole country watching, failure was not an option.
The firestorm of controversy that greeted the 1998 ditching of the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) in favour of the Job Network has made it the single most watched aspect of government administration in Australia. Everyone scrutinises it, including the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). There have been three comprehensive evaluations. There have been countless reports by the Auditor-General, not to mention a productivity review.
"You can't move without the world knowing about it, so it has got to work," says Wayne Gibbons, deputy secretary of employment with the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR) during the changeover (he has since been appointed CEO of ATSIC).
Political wrangling over the changes meant there was no room for failure of the new service delivery model. With the DEWR's ability to deliver severely constrained by a recently modernised legacy system and applications that intertwined screen presentation with business logic, the DEWR joined forces with Avanade to develop an integrated solution that is meeting its goals while vastly enhancing the DEWR's ability to rapidly respond to changing circumstances.
Now Microsoft .Net and a "black box" are helping the DEWR deliver on one of the most controversial initiatives of the Howard Government. The black box - a piece of Object Request Broker (ORB) middleware - enhances the DEWR's ability to implement policy changes and user environments. And in Gibbons' words it also provides the glue that lets the department "slide the mainframe into the Web world", by allowing it to consolidate the data from several old mainframe servers into a single, more intuitive Web page. The developments let the DEWR leverage its legacy system while maintaining its status of having the most sophisticated desktop environment of any agency in Australia, at the lowest cost.
"This year we will get about 60 per cent of the system off the mainframe, into this .Net world. The following year we will get the balance," Gibbons says.
The DEWR is also taking advantage of the ability to build smart-client applications using Microsoft's .Net framework. Smart-client applications involve a "no touch" deployment approach to applications, removing the need to maintain multiple versions for different desktops.
Software development for legacy environments typically involves "waterfall" software methodologies, resulting in long lead times and a lot of hard code. As a result, making any change to a legacy system involves plenty of work.
"In government, because rules are always changing, the policies are always changing, what might seem a simple policy change can have huge ramifications in IT," Gibbons says. "We're determined this year to introduce the flexibility that we need to make [system] changes on the fly basically - to assemble data from many sources and on the fly present it one way to one group and another way to another, with all the flexibility that gives you."
The DEWR knows a lot about the impact of policy changes on a large public sector organisation. The OECD has called the Job Network the most radical public policy change it has ever seen. The first round contract represented the largest human services tender in the world. Under the changes the DEWR has transformed itself into a virtual employment service operating day in, day out, delivering information and services to job seekers, service providers and employers around the nation.
When the federal government initially closed the CES and established the Job Network in 1998, it contracted the work to 200 service providers nationally across more than 2000 locations. Now, midway through the second three-year contract, there are more than 400 providers operating out of 2700 locations delivering a diverse range of service. And instead of paying for process, the Employment Department now pays Job Network providers for outcomes.
Having contracted service providers being paid according to outcomes - in other words on the number of people they manage to place in jobs - creates a dynamic model that can only work if supported by integrated systems and the rapid movement of information. In addition, the initiative shifted the DEWR's role from that of policy designer, implementer, manager, owner of property and end-to-end owner of networks, to that of policy adviser, purchaser and contract manager. It is the IT system that assures uniformity of service delivery in dealing with providers and the job-ready.
"We now wash through the system four, five, six million dollars a day in payments for outcomes, and they're occurring all over the place," Gibbons says. "The model doesn't work without systems support. You couldn't close down the CES and distribute this to a diverse range of providers without the systems glue to hold it all together.
"When we introduced the Job Network we committed to a new model of service which was basically to exploit the Web: to become a broadcaster, if you like, rather than an owner of networks. But that also involved making linkages with a lot of disparate players, drawing data from various quarters. The mainframe is not very friendly when it comes to that sort of servicing."
By any standards the DEWR has a large IT operation, mainframe-based because until recently mainframes offered the only option for organisations needing to handle large transaction loads and massive databases. "We have a big legacy system," Gibbons says. "Only one, because in the first half of the 90s we spent a lot of time getting rid of all the old legacy junk and building one super legacy system."
That single system, the Integrated Employment System (IES), was built on the DEWR's legacy DB2 database and supports automated assessment and client referral via a Web-based interface linking it with Job Network members. At the same time, its national employment Web site, Australian Job Search, services job seekers, service providers and employers by extracting job vacancies from the IES mainframe and displaying them on touch screen units.
Now the DEWR is pushing ahead with development of an Internet replacement for the mainframe system. Several sub-systems in IES have already been converted to Internet applications, while other conversion work is well under way. The DEWR is taking the opportunity provided by a major change in the service requirement component of Employment Services Contract Three, due to kick off in July 2003, to rebuild the system.
In fact the department has had a strategy to get off the mainframe since 1998, in the quest for an environment that would let it move new application development from concept to delivery with minimal effort and in much shorter time frames. Gibbons says in 1998 when he decided on the new direction, there were no technologies available to support the DEWR's vision for a business of its scale and providing the freedom to be creative that it required.
"That started to change when Microsoft brought out Windows 2000 back-office products and we started to see a commitment from Microsoft to service the big enterprise," Gibbons says. "We still weren't confident. We did our research, looked at some of the enterprises that were dealing with this challenge, then during all this period Microsoft announced its commitment to the .Net direction."
Gibbons was impressed by Microsoft's commitment to .Net, even at that early stage, and decided it was worth the DEWR's while to begin experimenting. It engaged Avanade (born from a relationship between Microsoft and Accenture) to build some early pilots and the black box. In the meantime, as one of the few big enterprises contemplating an end-to-end conversion to .Net, the DEWR's application developers and infrastructure managers were given access to Microsoft's .Net chief architects who were able to brief them in confidence on future developments. Avanade's solution, built using Microsoft Visual Studio .Net, SQL Server 2000, Active Directory and Avanade assets, made extensive use of existing .Net class functions.
In June the DEWR began production of .Net components delivering some welfare changes foreshadowed in the 2001 Budget. It now has an application environment running in production, using .Net and achieving "respectable" transaction loads.
One early component provides a Web service where employers can lodge vacancies on the national vacancy database. Another uses smart tags to allow users access to a service which lets them key in a postcode then fills out a spreadsheet with full details of their local Job Network member. Other services target contracted Job Network providers, essentially allowing them to do similar things, but giving them privileged access to parts of the national vacancy database which will let them discover accredited training course providers and courses for them to enrol qualified job seekers on.
But Gibbons says the DEWR has also gone well beyond "traditional" use of .Net and services; that is, the publishing of pieces of functionality for others to glue together, to provide much more sophisticated IT support to Job Network providers.
"What we've done for our Job Network providers, recognising that their strength is really in human relations as opposed to IT, is that we are pursuing the smart-client facet of .Net. So they can have a very simple desktop with hopefully a very thin little applet sitting there, with distribution and version control all managed by .Net," Gibbons says. "It means we can give them access to the same sort of functionality they had in the client/server world, so we're moving beyond the constraints of a standard browser, without incurring any of the penalties of maintaining versions of the software to run on all the different desktops."
The DEWR has consistently pursued integration as a strategic and enabling objective, and this goal remains a key pillar in the department's "Net" strategy for the future. Under the strategy the DEWR intends to serve the needs of its portal communities through an integrated architecture of customer call centres, touch screen kiosks and online service through the portal. Designed to enable significantly higher levels of operational and development agility, this new architecture will ensure that the department can keep evolving to meet new challenges.
And the initiatives are also helping Job Network providers reduce their costs.
Running their own third-party system can cost providers several million dollars a year, Gibbons says. And relying on third-party suppliers presents major problems because every time the government changes the rules, it means they have to pay to get their systems up to date. "With this model, they can have a competent desktop, thin client, and all the tools come to them and they can use them in an environment which they're familiar with," Gibbons says.
There is another driver behind the DEWR's adoption of .Net's smart-client technology. Under the normal B2B aspects of XML, when the DEWR passes data to partners across the Web it loses control and visibility of that data. That presents major problems because the data published to Job Network providers includes some details about individual citizens.
"While [the data] is out there we have contracts to [ensure providers will] do the right thing and safeguard the data but that is not enough," general manager, Employment Systems, Anthony Parsons says. "So we went to Microsoft to see how far away they were from being able to enhance the standard XML schemas to be able to tag the data as 'just for display': that it can't be copied, it can't be printed."
The answer would appear to lie in digital rights management, which Parsons expects will be dramatically bolstered by industry over the next 12 months. In the meantime, by putting that thin client on the desktop, the DEWR can control, by tagging the data, what can be displayed and printed. For similar reasons the DEWR is excluding third-party software providers from replicating its policy core functions for the next round of the Job Network, on the grounds that they cost too much, cause too many delays and pose too many security and privacy risks.
"We're saying this is our space," Gibbons says. "We're providing these systems to deal with the client data and you're not allowed into that space. If you want to add value with systems to help manage your company, your accounting systems, your management information systems and so on, we'll give you data streams, depersonalised, that you can take and put into third-party products. But we're not allowing third-party providers to duplicate what we are providing, which adds to the cost of the operation which adds to the cost of the service provided."
That can only be good news for providers, who have welcomed the initiative. And the DEWR's lead is also good news for other agencies. Parsons says there are now opportunities for an agency like the National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) to use the DEWR's black box to facilitate its moves towards citizen-connected government.
"That Object Request Broker is built in such a way that you can take data from existing legacy systems (and they can be from disparate platforms), and bring it together just for presentation, so it only exists as an integral record at the point of presentation," he says. "I think there is a real opportunity for someone like NOIE to latch onto that and facilitate that connected-up government view to its citizens."
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