Centrelink customer liaison officers greet people as they enter the office and attend to them immediately using UMPCs

Centrelink employs over 27,000 staff, boasts more than 6.8 million customers and operates more than 1000 “service delivery points, most of which are full-fledged retail facilities which its clients visit to use its services. The agency also operates mobile offices.

Self-service kiosks are a feature of many of those offices, but the agency wants to improve its ability to offer such facilities and its overall ability to engage with clients by putting in place a wireless network.

A tender issued in early April outlined the plan, stating that “Centrelink is seeking to introduce an 802.11 wireless local area network (LAN) to provide mobility to Centrelink Customer Service Officers in servicing the public within the immediate vicinity of a Centrelink Office. The introduction of this Wireless LAN (WLAN) will also be available to the public so that public laptops and wireless devices, either provided by Centrelink or owned by the public, can be used in a self service capacity allowing the public to directly engage with publicly accessible Centrelink and other Government Web sites and systems from within a Centrelink office. Centrelink personnel will be available to assist the public in performing self service activities.”

Rebuilding the Nation has contacted Centrelink to seek a clarification of its plans, and the agency has responded through a spokesperson who stated:

“There are two levels of security access to this wireless system covered by the tender: one for Centrelink and other Government agency staff, and the other for public customers.”

“The primary purpose of the wireless internet tender is to enable Centrelink’s Customer Liaison Officers to be mobile, reducing queue waiting times by visiting people in the line and helping them complete their business there on the spot through the use of a notebook computer or other mobile device.”

Intriguingly, the network also seems set to enable greater collaboration between government agencies, as the spokesperson said “Staff from other Government agencies will also be able to use the wireless service to connect to their own systems from within the Centrelink office and work more flexibly with Centrelink staff to help shared customers.” This arrangement seems to indicate that staff from agencies other than Centerlink will be able to use the new WLAN to access their own agency’s online resources. A common criticism of government services is that they operate in silos and inadvertently introduce bureaucratic traps that make accessing services hard for citizens who need services from several agencies. Opening a WLAN to use by other agencies therefore represents an attempt to break down those bureaucratic barriers to allow better overall customer service.

The Centrelink spokesperson added that early media reports the network would be offered to its clients as a free resource are not correct, as “There is no intention at this stage to allow customer to access the internet via their own mobile devices using this Centrelink wireless system.”

But the network will offer “public access to Government online self-service and other limited internet functions (ie, personal banking and other Government sites),” while it is also expected to allow Centrelink to make better use of self-service kiosks “… as the existing public self-service PCs will be able to be easily relocated within an office to make the best use of space.”

The agency clearly expects strong takeup of the wireless network, as it asks tenderers to explain how they can introduce a new, faster, version of 802.11 standard called “802.11n.”

When complete, the combination of Centrelink’s massive employee numbers, client base and footprint of offices will make the network one of Australia’s largest, with only Department of Education wireless LANs deployed to schools and TAFEs likely to rival it for size.

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