Denham Sadler
February 14, 2017

An own goal on digital progress

Digital Government

An own goal on digital progress

Oh what fun: Parliament didn't take long to start dancing around government technology problems

The government has formally tried to congratulate itself in the Parliament on its digital transformation of services in a sign of either “irony or grand self-delusion,” according to the shadow minister for the digital economy Ed Husic.

But the motion in the Federation Chamber only served to give a long line of Labor MPs the opportunity to lash the Commonwealth's digital woes. From the CensusFail, to the ATO outages and the current Centrelink debacle, Labor MPs lined up to sink the boot in.

Two Coaltion backbenchers, the Member for Fairfax Ted O’Brien and Member for Fisher Andrew Wallace moved to “congratulate the government for pursuing an extensive technology reform agenda that will change the way Australians interact with government services for the better”.

The motion pointed to the government’s Centrelink technology, its health and aged care payment system and the MyGov online system.

“The world has changed and the Coalition is ensuring that government services change with it,” Mr Wallace said.

“The DTA will provide strategic and policy leadership in this area in the years to come.”

But Mr Husic wasn’t having any of it.

“After census fail, after the ATO website was down for days, after the Centrelink robo-debt fiasco and after concerns emerging about the CSA’s IT system, the Member for Fairfax moved to congratulate the government for pursuing an extensive tech agenda reform that would change the way Australians interact with government services for the better - seriously?”

“Is there a provision in the standing orders for either irony or grand self-delusion? That’s the only way this resolution can be debated. You just cannot be serious.”

Centrelink’s automatic data-matching and notice issuing technology has been widely panned for miscalculating debts and issuing notices to thousands of Australians that don’t owe any money. The Opposition, Greens and unions have called for the automated system to be suspended.

The Australian Taxation Office has been hit again by tech problems that have plagued the office for months, with the ATO’s online systems going down for four days in January.

The Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation Angus Taylor said Labor’s complaints missed the point about the government transformation programs.

“The Opposition keeps on with its fake news,” Mr Taylor said in a statement on Monday night.

“It is unfortunate the Member for Chifley [Ed Husic] has descended to cheap politics. He should spend more time listening to what we’re doing.

“The critical thing he has missed is that there was a new Federal digital agency established late last year with an expanded remit.

“Structural changes to the agency were needed and their implementation began this year. The new remit will include a strong focus on delivery of shared platforms and other areas.

“The DTA has been working to reform the whole of Government ICT agenda. In one month alone we streamlined the log in for myGov that saw a doubling of users and saved the Australian public over 6000 hours of time waiting on the phone.

“There will be further detail coming about the expanded role of the new DTA across all of government, including the assurance of ICT projects,” Mr Taylor said.

The Opposition was having fun with the congratulation motion regardless. Mr Husic pointed to HBO’s satirical show Silicon Valley to make his feelings regarding the government’s digital transformation progress clear.

“[The government] has heeded the wise words of Silicon Valley’s Erlich Bachman: ‘Don’t touch anything, failure is contagious’,” he said.

A series of Labor MPs lined up to take pot shots at the government’s digital efforts during the motion’s debate, while the Liberals who put it forward quickly disappeared from the room.

Member for Newcastle Sharon Claydon said the government has been “phenomenally bad” in the digital transformation space.

“If there is one area that highlights the complete inability of this government to deliver effective services, it is the roll-out call of failures we have had from the Turnbull government,” Ms Claydon said.

“The Member for Fisher is a brave man for opening up this topic for discussion and I’m astounded that he got permission from the powers to be to do so.”

The recent Centrelink robo-debt disaster is “one of the worst IT failures in our history,” Ms Claydon said.

“The IT messes the government has created have fundamentally betrayed the trust of the Australian people, tainting future digital projects for years to come,” she said.

Member for Burt Matt Keogh also had his turn, saying that the Turnbull government has “truly proven that it’s all talk when it comes to tech”.

Even Liberal MP Jason Falinksi seemed a bit bemused by the government’s motion.

“When I first saw this motion I wondered what the Member for Fisher was up to,” Mr Falinksi said.

The strange motion from the government comes as its much-maligned Centrelink robo-debt recovery system is facing a Senate inquiry.

The motion for an inquiry, introduced by Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, easily passed during the first sitting week of the year with support from Labor and the Nick Xenophon team.

The wide-ranging inquiry will look at the impact of the robo-debt system on Australians, the administration and management of customers’ records by Centrelink, the capacity of the department to deal with the level of complaints and demands, the review process and the data-matching system itself.

Ms Siewert said the entire process has been a “monumental mess”.

“The automated debt-recovery system, which started trying to collect debts without human oversight, has caused anguish for thousands of Australians, many of which do not even have a debt at all,” she said.

“These people are now having to rake through records from years ago to prove they don’t have debts - they need and deserve answers. It is clear that the automated debt-recovery system must be investigated by a Senate inquiry so we can drill down and being providing answers to the community that the government won’t.”

Submissions to the inquiry will be open until 22 March, with the commission reporting back on 10 May.

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