A Digital Transformation Agency access and marketing agreement signed with a Big Tech industry group was “ridiculous” and the “easiest thing to tear up” for an incoming government, according to Labor digital economy spokesman Ed Husic.
The DTA last week formally entered a memorandum of understanding with the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) – an industry lobby best known as the power base for multinational technology players and their local channel partners – that includes special access meetings, joint-promotion and marketing, input into procurement rules, and provisions for contract dispute discussions.
Mr Husic, who has been a long-time critic of government providing direct support to lobby groups, said he was concerned that the commercial flow-on effect of the special access and joint marketing arrangements in the MoU meant the AIIA would be silenced as a critic where it had legitimate concerns about tech policy.
He said that prioritising procurement discussions with the Big Tech players as a central component of an industry outreach program was “ridiculous”, suggesting if the Commonwealth’s $10 billion-a-year annual spend on ICT was not enough to motivate these companies to communicate and ‘collaborate’, then an MoU would make no difference.
“The easiest thing in the world for a new government on day one is to tear up a document like this one, because it is pointless,” Mr Husic said.
“The Australian Government’s annual spend on information technology is approaching $10 billion. That’s as much as the government spends on NewStart. $10 billion is an extraordinary amount of money,” he said.
“I don’t think you’re going to need an MoU to improve communications with tech companies – I would hope they are already highly motivated.”
“You have to ask the question: Is the MoU really just a G-A-G [gag order], and is it going to prevent the AIIA from speaking up – rightly – on issues it is not happy with.”
Mr Husic said the DTA’s ongoing poor communications was a problem, particularly for smaller innovators, who continued to struggle to engage with government.
The under performance of the DTA’s Digital Marketplace, which was supposed to have opened the gates for smaller companies, demonstrated that the agency’s communications problems was not with large tech companies but with small ones.
“When you look at the performance of the digital marketplace, its not the big tech players – who would normally be the members of the AIIA – that have the [difficulties],” Mr Husic said.
“The procurement issues are with the smaller players, with the SMEs. They are the ones that have the biggest problems [in accessing procurement decisions] and they are the ones that the DTA should be focused on.”
“And so it’s ridiculous that in an MoU they have prioritised talking to the big tech players above the smaller ones – who they are clearly not doing a good job [in engaging with].
DTA Chief Executive Officer Gavin Slater said involving industry in government transformation was crucial to achieving success.
“The information and technology industry has much to offer government and by engaging early in the design and development of programs, we have an opportunity to build in industry best practice, encourage innovation and make it easier to do business with government,” Mr Slater.
The MoU took six months to negotiate.
The Digital Marketplace had been held up as an exemplar of the Digital Transformation Agency at estimates hearings, press releases, progress reports and in its recent submission to the Senate Inquiry into Digital Delivery of Government Services.
But that all came to a halt last month when Mr Slater suddenly declared at an estimates hearing that he was “not satisfied” with the performance of the marketplace and that SME’s were reporting they were not getting any business out of it.
Little development or progress has been made on the Digital Marketplace since the middle of last year and newly-appointed DTA Chief Procurement Officer Anthony Vlasic – an ex-banker from Westpac – will spend the next three months assessing the platform.
An InnovationAus.com survey of SME sellers on the marketplace conducted last November found that three-quarters of companies had one no business through the marketplace, despite 60 per cent of these companies saying they were an existing supplier to the federal government.
The survey highlighted the difficulties that small companies have in dealing with the Commonwealth. When as asked to compare dealing with other customers, more than 64 per cent rated the Australian Government is Difficult or Very Difficult and 31 per cent were Neutral.
Less than 5 per cent said it was Easy. Literally no-one said the government is Very Easy. This is precisely the issue the Marketplace was meant to address.
The most common complaint by sellers was the poor communications and engagement by DTA, and one-way flow of information with the DTA showing little interest in listening.