Centrelink plans to reduce wait times

Services Australia is trying anything it can to reduce pension processing times.

“Services Australia is an essential service delivering key coronavirus support measures to communities across the nation,” Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen told YourLifeChoices back in July.

“We continue to take every possible step to support Australians as quickly as possible during this time.”

The next step for the government agency responsible for Centrelink, Medicare and other government payments and services is trialling new optical character recognition (OCR) technology that, if successful, will greatly reduce application, assessment and payment wait times.

The median wait time for an Age Pension from application to payment is 49 days, according to Services Australia research.

While some payments can be processed in a matter of a couple of weeks, others can take a lot longer, a Services Australia spokesperson told YourLifeChoices.

“The Department of Human Services processes millions of claims every year and we work hard to do these as quickly as we can,” said the spokesperson.

“The nature of Age Pension claims has changed over time and are increasingly more complex. Nearly 60 per cent of rejected claims are because an applicant failed to respond to requests for additional information or documentation.”

The new OCR tech, developed by digital solutions company Capgemini, may help to overcome this by automatically analysing handwritten forms lodged by welfare applicants and recipients to ensure they are accurate and complete.

It is hoped OCR will greatly reduce the manual labour required to process some 25,000 documents that pass through the agency each day.

The project began in answer to the rapid increase in claims during the pandemic.

“We started working on this in August 2019, so before COVID, and we built a trial – that’s still undergoing testing – and it’s contained to a particular area of [Centrelink] documents,” Capgemini chief Olaf Pietschner told iTnews.

“We had this set up, deployed and tested when the number of digital transactions that citizens were looking to interact with Services Australia [increased].

“And it’s then been a solution that helped deal with increased workloads and increased digital interactions with citizens.”

Automating document checking has already been able to speed up processing times.

“We are able to rapidly improve the time it takes from when a citizen lodges a document to when it’s placed in the hands of a caseworker,” said Capgemini public services vice-president Lysandra Schmutter.

As far as how much time the new tech will shave off wait times, Ms Schmutter said: “We’re working with Services Australia through what that really means in terms of quantifying those outcomes.”

The project is part of Services Australia’s seven-year infrastructure transformation program.

Unlike previous government AI initiatives, the OCR project is operating with a high-level of accuracy, said Mr Pietschner, although its accuracy rating of “more than 95 per cent” may still need some work.

“It’s really using an advanced neural language processing model and understanding the importance and the differences of words between documents to define the different types,” he said.

“And then that information is used to do this auto classification and validate that the citizens have uploaded the correct set of documents.”

Testing and proving the project’s accuracy will continue before rolling out across Services Australia.

“Certainly, the solution we developed for this lends itself to a much broader application, really leveraging machine learning, natural language processing and neural networks across a much broader range of applications,” said Mr Pietschner.

“We’re really excited for what this solution can actually prove to government and assist with government, and we think that there’s multiple uses for this type of solution.

“If you think quite broadly across all government agencies, where documents of scale are lodged for any claims or any type of request, we feel that this absolutely something that could be used and harnessed.”

How ‘accurate’ would you say new AI programs need to be before earning your trust – in the wake of the robo-debt scandal?

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