The people's CIO
Friday, 22 October, 2010
Department of Immigration
When detainees at Villawood Detention Centre clambered up on the roof to protest recently, it was Bob Correll on the front line – a relatively unusual position for a Chief Information Officer (CIO).
But Correll isn’t just CIO for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), he’s also the Deputy Secretary with responsibility for detention centres.
This dual role provides him with a unique vantage point. He understands the challenges DIAC staff face in terms of administering the visa and border control system and the frustrations for DIAC’s ultimate clients. Armed with that insight, he has spent the last five years driving a massive IT-led transformation of DIAC, the final phase of which commences in October 2010.
“I’m certainly not a technologist – my professional qualifications are in business management. What I’m trying to do is use technology to support and enable business improvement for the Department,” Correll explains.
The Department’s core business is the issue and management of visas. “From an IT point of view it’s critical to maintain highly operational and reliable systems 24/7. You have got to ensure stable operations to support border management.”The IT infrastructure also had to be designed for global deployment in order to support consistent international decision making.
“Every year there are 25 million people who cross the Australian border and about half are Australians. That means 12 to 13 million are not Australian citizens.
“The critical thing for border management systems is to make it as easy as possible for the right people and stop the wrong people. It’s a bit of a needle in a haystack, because most of the people are the right people. It’s an issue of risk management.”
Besides delivering a platform for today, Correll is mindful of the need for a system that will “drive agility” in the Department and allow it to deal with continually changing policy, processes and practices.
Today only around 25 per cent of visa applications are lodged electronically. Correll holds ambitions for that to rise to over 90 per cent. To achieve that required a completely different approach to information systems.
It’s a technology journey that began in 2006, a year after Correll joined DIAC (having previously been a Deputy Secretary at the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations). After the public relations disasters of the wrongful detention of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez, the Palmer Review uncovered processes and information systems that were overly opaque.
Transparency and clarity were missing. Apparent from the Palmer Report’s many recommendations was the need for both process and systems reform.
As a result, DIAC has spent much of the last four years rolling out its Systems for People platform.
Originally a four-year, $540 million program, its scope and budget were expanded over the years to include a border security initiative and
In February this year, the Government announced a $69 million four-year program to introduce biometric checks for visa applications processed in 10 countries.
Correll says with all the additions Systems for People’s final budget reached $659 million. In the 2010-11 Budget the Government committed an additional $169.6 million for the next four years to maintain the infrastructure.
The last piece of Systems for People should fall into place shortly with the generic visa portal scheduled to go live on October 30, with ‘457’ and general skilled migration visas the first to be made available through the portal. Other visas will be progressively added.
Developed in association with IBM, the portal will finally allow the Department to retire its legacy visa systems IRIS (offshore) and ISCE (although ISCE’s settlement and citizenship functions will be retained).
According to Correll, Systems for People is “fixing problems identified in the Palmer report and is a key enabler of change in the Department. It is eliminating inconsistency and using more risk-based analysis.”
Algorithmic risk assessments
The heart of the system is an Oracle-based policy rules engine, which is populated by Department-developed algorithms intended to tackle risk.
Developed in-house by DIAC’s Risk, Fraud and Integrity Division the central purpose of the algorithms is to look for links between data. “For example, if someone has a travel itinerary coming in from Bangkok, then they have a different risk profile to someone coming in via Bangkok from Qatar,” says Correll.
The end-user experience when accessing the portal will be driven by the risk algorithms, which will request less or more information from a visa applicant depending on the calculated risk profile.
The rollout of the general visa portal is fundamental to the next wave of transformational change planned for DIAC; “Twenty-five per cent of people currently apply for visas over the Web. We want that to be 90, 95, even 100 per cent if we can.”
Because access to this system is intended to be global – rather than just the 27 countries where online visa application was previously available, often through travel agents – it is also a natural fit for cloud computing.
DIAC has recently concluded a cloud computing proof of concept, working with Google and CSC. Using Google Apps’ translator tool, the proof of concept demonstrated how visa applicants could apply for visas in their native language.
Cloud computing proved “quite feasible,” says Correll, although he acknowledges there are issues that need careful management such as security, privacy and the risk of being locked into single cloud vendors.
DIAC has had discussions with the Defence Signals Directorate and the Privacy Commissioner about security and privacy – the Department does after all, store personal data on between 120 and 130 million people. Nevertheless, “So far, we have not found anything that is a show-stopper.”
It’s still early days as far as finding potential cloud computing partners is concerned, but the Department already knows what it is to manage multiple service providers. CSC, for example, takes charge of its mainframes and mid-range equipment, Unisys has the Internet and desktop role, IBM is the strategic partner on Systems for People, while DIAC also piggybacks on SITA for its airport-based systems and the DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) international computing network.
DIAC’s computing network ranks fourth in the Australian Public Service behind Defence, Tax and Centrelink. It also has operations in 70 countries around the world, and provides the information systems for a network of around 20 detention centre locations. Where those detention centres are managed by contractors, DIAC provides systems integration to their computer systems.
On the road to offshoring
Ultimately, DIAC will also have to supply the information systems necessary for offshore processing centres, although as Correll notes, there remains “much detail to be sorted out.”
Offshore centres and detention centres pose a particular information challenge. As Correll notes, “The management of people in the detention centres draws heavily on risk considerations. The information flows between contracted service providers and the Department are related to that, as they need to understand the risk circumstance of each individual, and our own case managers in the Department need to understand that to promote resolutions.”
Having this clearer flow of accessible information was precisely what the Palmer Review called for.
While underpinning the day-to-day operation of the Department, Correll also sees information systems as having a key role to play in policy development.
“Essentially, the way policy is developed is evidence-based and relies on research – invariably from an information source – and the ability to interrogate that and understand it.” Correll believes that the creation of a DIAC data warehouse and more use of business intelligence tools will help inform future policy directions for the Department.
While his first priority has been to develop a streamlined visa system that protects Australia’s borders, Correll also has had to remain mindful of the recommendations of Sir Peter Gershon’s 2008 Review of the Australian Government’s Use of Information and Communications Technology. Correll sees the Review’s aims initiatives as congruent with DIAC’s existing strategic plan, although he also feels “Gershon is also about a ‘whole of Government’ view rather than each agency doing its own thing. In cloud computing, we are probably the lead agency in the APS in that field.”
In terms of his legacy as CIO, Correll hopes to deliver a platform for agility and responsiveness to change – not that he’s planning any sudden moves, citing a long-term commitment to leading the next wave of business transformation in the Department .
“I want to see DIAC as the best performing immigration service in the world, and I hope that Systems for People enables it to take that mantle.”
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