Centrelink kickstarts document management revolution

Three Australian federal government agencies that between them send out almost 150 million physical pieces of mail a year are looking to initiate a digital revolution, with Centrelink calling a tender for a new document output management system.

The Centrelink solution is designed to also support Medicare Australia and the Child Support Program (CSP), which manages the collection of child support payments from separated parents.

The new platform will aim to provide departmental officers with a greater control of document creation and modification, which is currently hampered by 20-year old mainframe technology that requires the intervention of programmers at crucial stages. It is expected to take four years to be fully implemented.

The migration to electronic delivery methods such as secure email and SMS has begun, but this still only represents a fraction of the volume of communications delivered through service providers via Australia Post.

In 2008-09 Centrelink produced over 109 million letters, Medicare over 11 million and CSP over 13 million.

However in the same year Centrelink delivered more than 1.65 million PDF letters electronically using the Secure Online Mail (SOM) facility via its eServices portal, up from around 900,000 in 2007–08.

Centrelink also sent 1.8 million SMS messages compared to 1.2 million in 2007–08. Centrelink SMS messages are sent via the Telstra network using Soprano software while email
that is generated by ISIS applications is sent to customers via SMTP calls.

A move to electronic documents and records management is also flagged in the tender documents. Centrelink has already announced the first phase of a push to digitise paper-based forms across its Australian network of 316 city and regional offices. The installation of Fuji-Xerox ApeosPort multi-function devices (MFDs) in each office over the past two years has allowed for the first wave of digitisation of paper-based forms.

The digital files are stored in DB2 and presented to the user through various Centrelink in-house systems and a number of process service business flows.

“This is an interim solution and consideration is being given to using a records management system in the future,” according to the tender documents, which explain the present tender does not extend to handling inbound communications but this will occur “in the longer term.”

All three agencies provide forms on their respective Web sites, and Medicare Australia utilises the Kodak i1700 series for scanning with OCR recognition.

eServices restrictions

Centrelink wants to address restrictions to its Secured Online Mail‖ (SOM) system, which cannot be used if it includes a form that needs to be returned, as well as limitations to its archiving of correspondence.

When a letter is generated, the archive retains only the original data and the metadata, not the templates and styles.

According to the tender documents, the archiving system only “provides a text-only viewing and retrieval capability. Customer communications can, in theory, be reproduced to look like the original, but it is a manual task and sometimes recreating the letter to look like the original is problematic.”

Medicare Australia does not retain a copy of individual communications sent to a customer.

The Medicare Australia desktop environment current consists of approximately 4800 standard desktops, 900 Power desktops, 30 Standalone desktops, and 530 Notebooks.

Centrelink uses TRIM for paper-based records management, while Medicare has a range of strategies that include DB2 for business and client data, SQL Server for smaller databases, TRIM for general office and program administration data in the National Office and Tasmania only, with Lotus Notes for email and Documentum for Web Content management.

According to the tender documents, the design work for the mainframe ISIS platform used by Centrelink, “dates to the late 1980s, though there has been nearly continual evolution and extension of the letters functions since then, including production of other forms of communication, including SMS and email; and electronic substitutes for printed correspondence, notably PDF documents accessible via the Web.

“Centrelink’s use of older generation publishing technology requires IT experts to craft and change letters in a manner similar to other mainframe applications systems changes. Centrelink needs an agile authoring system and output management system that is less dependent on Centrelink‘s formal release processes for applications changes and that is less dependent on IT experts familiar with old-generation technology. The other Human Services Agencies have a similar requirement for an agile document management system.

Centrelink is leading the tender for a new DOM system that will “provide Centrelink business teams with the tools to manage rules and content, to preview the communication in the final format and to implement changes in a timely manner.

It is keen to align with industry standards and provide a centralised file for clients of all three agencies.

The tool that Centrelink uses for document composition is presently the in-house developed Integrated Text Management System (ITMS).

Medicare Australia currently uses an in-house built system for standard letter templates that runs off Visual Basic in Microsoft Word and is then published on the in-house intranet. Medicare Australia is unable to monitor this correspondence.

Not all Centrelink letter text resides within ITMS – some standard text is built into the ISIS applications systems and into various tools and workflows, which are made available to the letter assembly process through a scripting process.

Child Support Program currently uses a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) application OPUS as letter authoring tool and to merge data with the designs to produce CSP letters. Opus is supplied through Elixir Technologies in the US.

Over 90% of the letters produced by Centrelink each year are generated by a high volume print production system and triggered by ISIS mainframe applications. Each Australian Government benefit programme (e.g., Newstart Allowance and Family Allowance) is handled by its own mainframe business applications system.

Business rules for the generation of the type of letter to be sent to customers reside within each relevant business applications system.

The main batch processing system operates through the use of letter templates and selection of independent letter paragraphs. Each template provides a definition or 'canvas' that can display specific types of information.

Less than 3% of Centrelink’s letters are “Online Advice (OLAs).” These are generated individually by Centrelink officers using approximately 700 different types of letter templates that can be customised and, in some situations include free text.

“Some of these customised letters cause confusion, and although OLA letter volume makes up less than 3% of the volume of BLA letters, most customer queries and complaints are associated with OLA letters.”

Centrelink also generates system generated forms that are pre-populated with a client‘s name and address and in some cases with data such as income and asset details, investment details, accommodation details etc. Most of these system generated forms are modelled on conventional offset-printed blank forms. PDF versions of the offset-printed forms are also available.

System generated letters represent the bulk of mail sent from Medicare Australia, various (approx 30-40) systems feed into the gateway that sends the letters and data to external printers.

Standard letter templates are the system Medicare Australia utilises to produce ad hoc letters. This is a Microsoft Word based system utilising Visual Basic. The letters are published on the internal intranet and Services Officers download the letters and use a pick list to identify the correct scenario.

Medicare makes limited use of SMS and email.

“In assessing benefits, Centrelink has a need to contact third parties. Letters sent to third parties regarding a customer are stored using the customer‘s Centrelink Reference Number (CRN). An example of a third party letter is the Newstart letter to an employer to confirm the customer‘s income. Third party letters are produced via the BLA letter system, and can be viewed via the Third Party Portal, which provides Centrelink online services to entities involved as third parties in transactions between Centrelink and its customers.”

All three agencies use a range of mainframe, midrange and application server platforms, with Windows XP the common glue on the desktop.

Centrelink uses EMC Document Sciences’ CompuSet typesetting language to produce the mark-up code for the style sets and also generate the forms.

“CompuSet skills are highly specialised – knowledge of the tool set takes twelve months or more to acquire a productive understanding. CompuSet knowledge and skills are scarce, which therefore leads to an IT development bottleneck. Also, being legacy technology, training IT staff to become proficient in CompuSet is not an attractive option for both Centrelink and the relevant staff members.”

Centrelink and Medicare Australia use WebSphere Portal as their portal platform. Many technologies and tools form part of the IBM Enterprise WebSphere Portal suite, including technologies like search, web content management, virtual portals, and collaboration, monitoring and development tools. These technologies form much of the fundamental capabilities associated with any portal platform.

Letters delivered as PDF documents via email using Centrelink’s Secure Online Mail (SOM) are created on the mainframe with information being sent from the ISIS application system to the SOM environment using MQ Messaging. The technologies used include IBM WebSphere running on a Solaris UNIX platform, which manages all information exchange including documents.

A Java application on the Unix platform is used to invoke the CompuSet PDF Emitter, which creates the PDF. WebSphere Message Broker then takes these documents and sends them to ACE and SOM DB2 databases within the eServices portal and archiving environments.

Centrelink uses FAX management software to create a facsimile cover sheet where a letter is faxed rather than mailed.