Delays cloud transparency over govt tech spending

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

There is a significant lack of transparency around the unprecedented jump in government IT investment, with ongoing delays to an “urgent” internal audit and a year long freeze of any reporting by agencies on tech spending.

While additional government ICT investment more than doubled last year, the Department of Finance revealed this week that “there is no central data collection process related to ICT expenditure across government”.

A number of accountability mechanisms run by the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) have also been put on hold or delayed. An audit recommended “urgently” by the 2019 Thodey review of the APS was not kicked off until more than six months later. Agencies were only surveyed in March this year for a final report expected in May.

The DTA also stopped asking agencies to report on their ICT and digital spend for a year during the bushfires and pandemic.

With no centralised mechanism to collect information or agency reporting, there is now a lack of transparency around the significant increase in government investment in ICT.

In answers to questions on notice for a Senate committee examining the current capability of the Australian Public Sector (APS), the Department of Finance was able to share how much additional ICT investment had been allocated in each yearly budget and MYEFO updates. It showed additional ICT investment more than doubling in the last year after three years or relative stability.

Evidence submitted by the Department of Finance to the current capability of the Australian Public Service

The figures do not reflect actual ICT expenditure, however, which Finance stopped collecting in 2015-16 when responsibility was transferred to the Digital Transformation Agency.

The DTA instituted quarterly “wave” reporting that provides less extensive information about what agencies spend on ICT, but stopped even that level of reporting last year.

In earlier evidence to the inquiry, DTA chief executive Randall Brugeaud said the agency had stopped asking other agencies about their spend on ICT and digital last year to lighten agencies’ load during the pandemic.

A DTA spokesperson told InnovationAus the oversight was paused even earlier.

“From October 2019 to October 2020, the DTA’s data collection activities were paused due to the bushfires and coronavirus pandemic,” the spokesperson said.

“The quarterly data collection activities have now been reinstated.”

The DTA is now also working on a more comprehensive review in line with the recommendations of David Thodey’s landmark review of the APS.

In 2019, Mr Thodey highlighted the lack of oversight on ICT spend in his wide-ranging review of the Australian Public Sector. The final report recommended substantive changes to repair the APS after long-running under-investment in people, capital and digital capability.

The government accepted most of the review’s recommendations, including an “urgent” audit of APS ICT.

“The audit is urgent and can realistically be completed within six months of being commissioned to enable prompt development of an ICT blueprint to guide investment in digital transformation,” the Thodey report said.

However, it took more than six months for the DTA and other agencies to even begin “initial scoping activities”.

Surveys were issued to Commonwealth agencies in March – more than a year on from the Thodey report’s accepted recommendations – and a “review” based on agencies responses is expected to be finalised by May, Mr Brugeaud told estimates.

“The review we’re conducting is much more extensive. It covers not only spend on ICT and digital systems; it also captures information on workforce policy and processes,” he said.

“And so, whilst the digital review is the foundation for the audit [recommended in the Thodey Review], there may be follow-up reviews that we conduct as we discover more about the current investment in digital and ICT.”

But representatives from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet also left open the possibility the DTA’s current review may not fully constitute the final audit as more questions may be needed after establishing a “baseline”.

The DTA took on notice a request to see the survey instrument that was issued to agencies for the review but it is yet to be published.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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