The acting head of the Commonwealth’s Digital Transformation Agency has been forced to defend CEO Gavin Slater’s leave of absence before a Senate committee, claiming it has had no impact on the agency’s budget preparations.
Deputy Australian Statistician and former immigration department chief information officer Randall Brugeaud took on the acting CEO role six weeks ago when Mr Slater took leave to complete a business short-course at Harvard University.
The absence, first reported by InnovationAus.com, raised eyebrows across government as it came at the busiest and most critical time of year for any government agency, the lead up to the federal budget.
But appearing before a Senate inquiry into the digital delivery of government services in Canberra on Monday, Mr Brugeaud defended Mr Slater’s absence, and confirmed that he would be returning to the role in two weeks.
It is not clear why the DTA chose to bring in an outsider to run the agency in Mr Slater’s absence rather than one of his direct reports, but the move has signalled a perceived lack of depth in talent within its own ranks.
When questioned by Labor senators, he said that Mr Slater’s absence did not have an impact on the DTA’s budget preparations, or its discussions with other government departments.
“He was very detailed in his handover to me in the CEO role, and provided an outline of all of the different aspects of the work program that needed to be delivered while he was on his sabbatical,” Mr Brugeaud told the committee.
“The budget preparations were well underway when he went off on leave and we finalised those preparations in line with that,” he said.
Labor senators continued to press the acting CEO, asking: “Are you absolutely confident that the absence of the CEO has had no impact on DTA’s ability to assert itself at the table in the budget discussions.”
This drew a quick response from Mr Brugeaud: “Yes.”
Mr Brugeaud confirmed that Mr Slater’s leave had been planned for some time, and was privately funded.
Labor senators also queried the poor communications around Mr Slater’s absence, with Mr Brugeaud saying that an all-staff email was sent throughout the DTA before the CEO went on leave, and no follow up was necessary.
“It just wasn’t fuelled so no further follow-up was undertaken and it basically came to a conclusion without the need for us to intervene. It was always intended that Mr Slater would return to his role at the end of his studies,” he said.
The absence comes at a difficult time for the DTA, which has faced intense criticism during the Senate inquiry, and criticism over its slow progress in delivering on it digital transformation plans.
The DTA’s Digital Marketplace has also attracted on-going criticism, with Mr Slater admitting earlier this year that he was “not satisfied” with its performance.
The marketplace was launched with an aim to make it easier and cheaper for smaller businesses to bid for government work, but an InnovationAus.com survey late last year found that more than 70 per cent of registered small business sellers on the platform had not won any business, despite 60 per cent being existing suppliers to the government.