Open tender to digitalise Australia’s visa application system

22 May 2018 5 min. read

The Australian Government is planning to outsource the visa application system and replace it with a Global Digital Platform. The call for partners opened in September last year and as of yet, there has been no announcement as to who has applied for the contract. However a recent press release has outlined the Department of Home Affairs’ intention to push ahead with the process after a wave of public criticism surrounding the plan.

Under the Federal Government’s plan, Australia’s outdated and manual visa system would receive an overhaul, seeing automation across a number of functions. The Global Digital Platform would streamline the visa application process which currently sees a quarter of visa applications submitted on paper.

Currently the Department of Home Affairs receives roughly 9 million visa applications per year and by 2030 that number is expected to rise to above 13 million. The outsourcing of the services will help the government in their ability to cope with the rising number of visa applications and will help them make informed visa decisions.

The tender document states that: “The Department expects the GDP to be capable of delivering all visa classes … Bundle 1 includes a digital business solution that is enabled by the GDP and supporting systems that drive the end-to-end processing and workflow of the visa and citizenship business, including lodgement, assessment and rule-based decision making on visa applications.”

Digital passport scanning at Australian Border or Australian Border Force at airport

The government also hopes that the new system will simplify Australia’s visa framework and also improve the experience of the applicant as well as improve assessment quality and consistency. The system overhaul is one part of the a greater plan by the Australian Government to shake up in what it calls the ‘Seamless Traveller Program’. The program will ideally see up to 90% of international travellers processed through automated solutions by 2020.

The projects $93.7 million budget has attracted some big names in the IT sphere with Vision-Box, Datacom, IBM, Telstra, Hewlett-Packard Australia (HPE) and Fujitsu all attended the briefing about the tender in July last year.

In the tender document it stated that “the Department is seeking innovative solutions to help design, implement and operate a new visa business based upon a sustainable and innovative service delivery model that transforms the way in which Australia interacts with visa applicants and visa holders.”

The Seamless Traveller Program also seeks to replace arrival smart-gates, the incoming passenger card and exit marshalling with AI processing systems which include biometric scanning technologies. The trio of new tech solutions will be integrated into the existing Pega framework deployed in August last year.

Sensitive visa applications such as humanitarian visas and diplomatic visas would continue to be processed by government staff. However the plans to digitalise the system have come under mounting pressure by a consortium of opposition citing concerns about privatisation, staff cuts and privacy.

Opposition to the Global Digital Platform

Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton last week spoke at the National Press Club about the proposal, saying that the changes are driven by a need for modernisation, not a desire to privatise the process.

“The issue we have in this modern age is the volume … I don’t have the staff, and never will, to provide the scrutiny that’s required that we can now deliver through technology.”

This rhetoric has countered previous comments about the financial benefits of the the new visa business from the First Assistant Secretary of the Immigration Department, Andrew Kefford.

“We are genuinely seeking a partnership to design, implement and run Australia’s visa business,” First Assistant Secretary of the Immigration Department, Andrew Kefford said in the briefing. “We are keen to explore commercial value-added services that will assist in attracting people to Australia.”

The mixed signals have confused the general public and led to a number of attacks on the plan, notably from both Labor, the Community and Public Sector Union and the Greens.

Labor’s Shayne Neumann said “the expertise and experience of our frontline workers” would be wasted with an automated system and that because of its “conservative, cost-cutting ideology that the Turnbull government is incapable of treating Australia’s public servants with the respect they deserve.”

“Our estimates that up to 3,000 jobs are potentially under threat,” said Nadine Flood from the Community and Public Sector Union. “But the department has been unwilling to answer the question about what they consider the threat to jobs. We base that estimate on the very large scope of potential privatisation identified by the government.”

Whilst the Department of Home Affairs believes the overhaul is in the interest of our national security, saying that the reforms will free up time for more important processes, the Greens believe that the move is in contradiction to national security.

"This is privatising access to Australia, and we know from similar moves in the United Kingdom that it leads to increased costs and a decrease in transparency and accountability," said Greens Senator Nick McKim. "It will be computers and algorithms that decide the outcome of visas, rather than humans, and this is a very human area.”