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At a time when the public service is seriously feeling the pinch, the Department of Immigration is driving efficiencies with an ambitious plan to transition its key human resources networks onto the cloud.

With more than 10,000 employees in Australia and abroad, and claiming the second-most-viewed website in the country behind the Bureau of Meteorology, the three-year project is no small feat. It will involve transposing a multitude of systems including recruitment, training, performance management and its enterprise social network, SAP Jam.

The department’s chief HR officer, Craig Farrell, said the change was “a huge undertaking” with "around 31 discreet packages of work we've got to sort through".

“It’s an unwieldy size and scope, and the potential for perceived risk is very serious around data handling ... we have to be more careful than the average organisation," he said.

On July 1, 2015 the Department of Immigration will also be merged with the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, adding approximately 5000 new staff and bringing the merged department to around 14,000 employees by this time next year, “give or take”.

“Rightly taxpayers and the government are looking for overall efficiencies and we need to have a joined up and sensible system in place for when we’re consolidated with Customs," Mr Farrell said.

Transitioning to the cloud using SAP’s specialist HR suite SuccessFactors will be a three-phase, three-year process, with the first phase to be completed at the end of the financial year and the biggest efficiencies not expected to be reaped until phases two and three.

While state and local governments are already saving millions of dollars by adopting ‘cloud first’ policies, federal government departments have been much slower to the party.

A fortnight prior to the 2014 federal budget announcement in May, the Commission of Audit recommended that the Abbott government implement a ‘cloud first’ policy across the board to achieve significant cost savings. However this has not yet been enacted, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for maintaining expensive legacy systems.

Mr Farrell said his decision to adopt a cloud first approach without a mandate to do so went against the stereotypical view that the public service was resistant to change.

“We’re ahead of the curve in government agencies, most certainly, whereas in the private sector many have already implemented the cloud," he said.

Ironically, the reluctance of many large government organisations to take more initiative in this area is largely due to the unwieldy nature of the organisations and the myriad legacy systems in place.

“None of the systems we had going back 12 months ago were integrated,” Mr Farrell said.

“We had a separate performance system, learning and development, recruitment, payroll -- it’s rather an inconvenience. The minute I recruit you I forget who you are because our systems don’t talk to each other, whereas this is streamlined and efficient.”

Despite the size of the project, Mr Farrell said when assessing whether to keep designing expensive on-premise systems or to look externally, the choice was clear.

“The organisation’s 65 years old and we are so much more complex and larger than we were back then,” he said.

“We need to grow with the way we manage our business, both in terms of the customer-facing aspects as well as internally.”

However, Mr Farrell stressed the move was less about savings as it was about “moving with the times” and becoming more efficient at providing better services for both staff and customers.

Originally published on The Australian

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