Govt tech fails dragged into visa platform procurements inquiry

A parliamentary inquiry into the federal government’s failed upgrade of visa technology has been expanded to include other trouble-plagued IT projects from the last six years, dragging more public servants and suppliers into the firing line.

The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit in November announced the inquiry into the two most recent attempts to replace the IT system for processing visa applications, the latest of which was abandoned at a cost of $16.5 million in 2022.

But on Thursday, having received just six submissions in two months, the committee quietly revealed it would expand the scope of the inquiry to other “large-scale” IT projects across the public sector since 2019, as well as key mechanisms used to keep projects in check.

Parliament House

The changes make it the first broad-based inquiry into the procurement practices behind technology projects since a 2017 inquiry into digital transformation, that was largely rejected by the then-Coalition government.

The inquiry’s expanded terms of reference includes a continued probe into the Permissions Capability platform and its predecessor, the controversial Global Digital Platform, although there is now greater emphasis on the latter.

The Global Digital Platform, which cost the government $92 million, was criticised as an attempted privatisation of a core government function that would benefit multinationals and Liberal power broker Scott Briggs, who was part of a shortlisted bidding consortium.

The Department of Home Affairs dumped the procurement in 2020 and, less than a week later, had already approached the market for a Permission Capability to initially replace the paper-based incoming passenger card and handle simple visa processing.

In addition to the Permissions Capability and the Global Digital Platform, the committee chaired by Labor MP Julian Hill now has scope to investigate other IT projects flagged in recent reports by the Australian National Audit Office, including the Parliamentary Expenses Management System (PEMS).

PEMS, an SAP software-based IT system that has taken more than six years and $74.4 million to build, was heavily criticised in January for being significantly delayed and over budget, which the auditor put down to a lack of user planning by the Department of Finance.

Another recent audit into Workforce Australia Service Panel – which brought about a new digital platform for employment services, dubbed PaLMS – has also been pulled into the inquiry, as has a forthcoming audit into the Australian Apprenticeships Incentive System.

A desk review of audits between 2019 and 2021 will also be undertaken, with Defence’s Enterprise Resource Planning program and Service Australia’s Welfare Payments Infrastructure Transformation program among the projects in the crosshairs.

In ljne with other inquiries into the use of consultants, the committee will consider a project’s value for money, including the “ethical use of resources and ethical behavior” by public servants and suppliers.

The mechanisms used by the Digital Transformation Agency to sign off on and keep projects on track known as the Digital and ICT Investment Oversight Framework and the Assurance Framework for Digital and ICT Investments are another new focus for the inquiry.

The Digital and ICT Investment Oversight Framework was introduced in 2021 to increase strategic planning, prioritisation, contestability and delivery assurance, but has recently been the subject of criticism by local suppliers.

The Assurance Framework for Digital and ICT Investments, meanwhile, requires agencies to complete a Delivery Confidence Assessment (DCA) – a point-in-time snapshot of the project’s status – at regular intervals.

But, as the DTA has already professed during the course of the inquiry, the function was only introduced after the Permissions Capability program commenced, meaning it was “not under the DTA’s system of assurance”.

In a bid to be more transparent about government digital projects, the DTA last month revealed the health status of 90 projects, gleaned as part of the Assurance Framework for Digital and ICT Investments.

The Department of Finance’s Gateway Review process, which uses a traffic light system to rate the health of projects – much like the DTA’s assurance framework – at regular intervals, will also be considered.

The inquiry will also look at the Digital Profession program, which aims to improve the digital capability of the Australian Public Service and attract new tech savvy professionals to the service as well as the “lessons learned” from other agencies managing large IT systems.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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