Our Say: What does Service NSW cost the taxpayers?

LIKE many large-scale changes to government services, the Coalition state government’s network of Service NSW customer centres resulted in a degree of controversy when their roll-out began in 2012.

Put simply, the Service NSW concept involved closing some 45 motor registries and 15 Fair Trading offices and replacing them with multi-agency “one-stop shops” where customers of government services could gain access to everything they needed – from motor registrations and driver’s licences through to birth certificates and senior’s cards – under the one roof.

Pop-up kiosks have also been installed in libraries, council buildings and shopping centres.

But change – even change for the good – is rarely easy, and the Service NSW roll-out was derided by the Labor opposition as disguising a reduction in services. While it is easy to be suspicious of government motives in these straitened times, there was little doubt – as one government MP put it – that the Coalition had inherited a “fragmented and frustrating system” of agency shop-fronts when it took office in 2011.

The Service NSW customer centres proved popular from the start, and the government announced a $20.1 million expansion of the program in this year’s budget, with the aim of providing another 24 centres in rural and regional NSW.

But now – and not for the first time – the cost of the program has come in for criticism, with Fairfax Media obtaining an independent review by the audit, tax and advisory group KPMG. This review has questioned some of the key financial assumptions underlying the outlay of almost $1 billion in capital and recurrent funding over the 10 years of the program.

The KPMG review followed a report last year by the Audit Office of NSW, which said a lack of “baseline measurements” meant it was not possible to track the program’s proposed benefits and savings.

Such criticisms go to the heart of the Coalition’s self-proclaimed capability as economic managers, and the opposition is arguing that a budget “blow-out” on this program must logically affect spending on “schools and hospitals”.

On the other hand, both reports acknowledge the one-stop shop concept has proven popular with the public, and it may be that the eventual cost of the program can be amply justified. But without the called-for financial clarity, we will never know.