Audit slaps AEC for 2016 ballot

James Riley
Editorial Director

The Auditor-General has slapped the Australian Electoral Commission over its handling of aspects of the 2016 federal election, pointing to IT contracts that did not provide value for money and for its less-than-optimal security.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) also criticised the AEC over its sourcing and management of contracts for the transportation of ballot papers.

“Insufficient emphasis was given by the AEC to open and effective competition in its procurement processes as a means of demonstrably achieving value for money. Its contract and risk management was also not consistently to an appropriate standard,” wrote Auditor-General Grant Hehir in the audit into the AEC’s Procurement of Services for the Conduct of the 2016 Federal Election.

Vote counting: The Auditor-General is cranky about costs and security at 2016 poll

The AEC spent $27.2 million with Fuji Xerox to develop and deliver a semi-automated scanning system to process Senate ballot papers, a requirement that was enforced after the government found its previous manual process was no longer considered viable.

According to tender notices of the $27.2 million project, the work order for the system’s delivery phase was initially capped at $17.6 million but this was subsequently increased to $19.2 million.

The ANAO said this was primarily due to data-entry operators needing to work more evening and weekend shifts than originally planned.

Additional funds of more than $250,000 were also required during the system’s implementation phase.

“The AEC has not demonstrably achieved value for money in its procurement of Senate scanning services. It has not used competitive pressure to drive value nor given due consideration to cost in its procurement decision-making,” the ANAO report said.

Similarly, the ANAO said the AEC would have “benefited from additional logistics expertise and transport industry knowledge when establishing and managing transport arrangements” after it procured the services of 10 organisations under 17 contracts to transport ballot papers for a sum of $8.7 million.

For a more specific cost breakdown, the transportation of six shipments of ballot papers from an airport to a location 20 minutes away cost $15,278. Meanwhile, the roundtrip transport of ballot papers from a capital city to 10 locations within one state was $358,949.

The ANAO also examined the effectiveness of the AEC’s ability to address the security risks and integrity of ballot paper data through the design and testing of the Senate scanning system. It found the AEC paid “insufficient attention” to ensuring it could identify whether the systems had been compromised.

“The AEC’s IT security monitoring during system operation was sufficient to support its conclusion that there was no large-scale intentional tampering of the 2016 Senate election data. It did not have a systemic data and analysis plan or adequate visibility of IT security measures,” the ANAO said.

The auditor-general also pointed out how that even though Fuji Xerox was able to securely migrate all ballot paper information to the AEC’s repository environment after the election, the AEC still took 10 months to instruct the IT firm to delete electoral data from its systems.

The ANAO has recommended for the AEC to take steps to comply with the Australian government’s security framework when it employs information technology systems for future electoral events.

“When the Australian Electoral Commission uses computer assisted scrutiny in future federal electoral events, the integrity of the data is verified and the findings of the verification activities are reported,” it said.

The ANAO’s audit report also detailed how while the AEC implemented a print-to-paper records management system, very few records were maintained on a paper-based registry file and the electronic records were not saved in a single location.

“They were distributed throughout shared drives, a GovDex site, the Procurement and Contract Management Register, a mail register and in personal emails. Such systems do not contain appropriate records management functionality,” the ANAO said.

“It took considerable resources to locate the relevant records for this audit. To fulfil an ANAO request for some of the core procurement documents, the AEC asked its contracted ICT supplier for them.”

The ANAO believes in order for the AEC to take full advantage of its electronic document and records management system that was procured during 2017 and transition completely from its paper-based system, a cultural change needed to happen within the electoral office.

“It will not solve the AEC’s record-keeping shortcomings unless it is accompanied by a change in culture,” the ANAO said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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