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Senate Committee gives DHS service integration the green light

by Kristen Hammond •
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Despite concerns from privacy groups, the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee has recommended the Bill underpinning the service delivery reform within the Department of Human Services (DHS) be passed.

The Committee Report, published 22 March 2011, endorsed the Human Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2010 after canvassing the privacy concerns of several organisations and individuals invited to make submissions on the proposed Act. 

The Human Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2010 (‘the Bill’) will integrate agencies within the Department portfolio, including Medicare, Centrelink, the Child Support Program and the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service (CRS) Australia, into a single department. The consolidation will primarily affect Medicare and Centrelink which, under Schedules 1 and 2 of the Bill, will be abolished as statutory agencies and reinstated as statutory offices within the Department. 

The consolidation of Medicare and Centrelink, which are privy to an array of sensitive customer information, led to concerns regarding the privacy implications of the Bill, and its referral to the Community Affairs Legislation Committee on 10 February 2011. 

The Committee Report indicates the importance of data and information sharing in the consolidation project, stating: “an integral aspect of the Bill is the flow of personal information between agencies within the Human Services portfolio”.

Following on from this importance, the Committee identified that program secrecy and search and seizure provisions were chief among the concerns of interested parties.

While the Committee was not convinced that the privacy concerns raised were significant, privacy and civil liberty groups have criticised the data-sharing capabilities under a consolidated DHS in an article in The Australian.

In a submission to the Committee’s inquiry, DHS emphasised the role of a consent model within the service delivery reform program, which enables sharing of customer information across programs and emphasises adequate levels of notice, control and choice for individuals.

Customer consent provisions and the exemption of clinical health information from data sharing have resulted in Preliminary Privacy Impact Assessments indicating a low risk within the DHS consolidation project, the Department said.

“Embedding and promoting information protections will give customers confidence, as they take up new modes of service delivery that the portfolio will meet their expectations of affording appropriate choice, control and good personal information handling,” the submission states.

The Human Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2010 was introduced as a result of the Gillard government’s service delivery reform agenda, announced in December 2009. As Intermedium previous reported, unification of disparate ICT structures into a single platform is a key element of the project and will facilitate the data and information sharing necessary for a consolidated DHS portfolio.

Information technology components of the reform will include:

  • ICT hosting services for external agencies;
  • Data centre rationalisation;
  • Introduction of a portfolio-wide common desktop environment  and a seamless email system;
  • Receptiveness to the use of open source and open standard software; and
  • Consolidation of three agency mainframe and midrange agency-specific environments into one DHA portfolio and storage cloud.

The Bill is currently at third reading stage in the House of Representatives and is expected to be passed mid-2011.


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