How stupid are we? Ask the government


Ed Husic
Contributor

Ok, I don’t want to shock you but I think it’s safe to say the government thinks we’re all pretty stupid. The COVIDSafe app demonstrates that – or more to the point: the way it was developed and rolled out.

When considering that, we can pretty much conclude that mostly everything the Australian government mouths about the value of innovation and local tech to our economy is, well, just talk.

Now before I go on I will utter some boilerplate declarations.

Yes, the COVIDSafe app is important. Yes, it can play a part in responding to a pandemic. Yes, I have downloaded it and yes I use it. No, I’m not being treasonous by criticising aspects of the app. And I’m not nit-picking either.

Ed Husic
Ed Husic: The government is taking us for mugs on tech procurement

But when push comes to shove the actions of the government betray what it really thinks about the capability of its own people.

Blunter still: the Australian government didn’t trust in the smarts of its own people to develop and manage COVIDSafe. Not only does it not rate local smarts and capability, but it also thinks we will lap up any excuse offered up as to why that’s so.

When confronted with the question “why?” the Digital Transformation Agency responded to us slowly and patiently, in ways we would understand, that the limited tender was needed due to: “genuine urgency and continuation of an existing agreement”.

It was also worried about the risk that might emerge by spreading work across vendors.

Right then, where to start pulling that apart?

The “genuine urgency” was that the public service was forced to scramble, building an app for the government as a result of learning about the Singaporean version.

There’s burning platform number one: get it built and quick.

Now leap to burning platform number two: don’t stuff it up.

Best way to avoid the risk of things going off the rails? Embrace the old saying: “no-one ever got in trouble choosing IBM”. Or in this case, a firm with reported earnings last year of $429bn: Amazon.

But how do we ignore this reality: the federal government has already vetted local firms. It knows that half of those firms on its list of protected cloud services providers are local and have capability.

It knows about the capability because some of them already do sensitive work for some of the most important arms of government. So it’s hard to believe it couldn’t respond to urgency by using local firms (that also have existing agreements with government).

Once more with that pesky question: “Why?” Specifically, if the government knew of these local firms why couldn’t they use them? Allegedly these firms couldn’t do two things at once – develop an app and store the data. News to those firms, I suspect.

Or let’s lean on the words of the DTA – they said splitting the work (or collaboration across local firms) would’ve “introduced additional risk and complexity to the COVIDSafe system”. Ouch.

It’s simply disheartening counting up the missed opportunities triggered by the government’s failure to trust in the talent of our own homegrown firms.

First, we handed nearly $1 million of taxpayer dollars to an overseas multinational that would have thought of that as loose change relative to the billions it earned last year.

Moreover, in a tough climate, with the economy and jobs under massive pressure, the benefit of having Australian governments investing in Australian business is blindingly obvious.

What’s more, at a basic level, imagine the confidence that could have been generated in the minds of the public as a result of declaring that the data generated onshore by Australians would stay in Australia, stored securely within Australian firms?

And it would have been worth contemplating how that might’ve translated to lifting confidence in the app – and increasing the number of downloads.

Again, and I know the government thinks we’re all stupid, but help me understand this: why was the Digital Transformation Agency prevented from selecting a cloud services provider to help the Department of Health develop an app?

Why did that responsibility rest with the Department of Home Affairs? Feel free to email me the answer.

All up, this episode reinforces in my mind that the government likes to ‘talk’ about supporting Australian business and their talent – but ‘deed’ always betrays them.

Worse still – and here’s the bit that really gets me uptight – how much money do we spend on how many government programs to tell young Australians that we’ll build the economy of the future using their smarts.

Embrace STEM! Build a startup! Grow the Australian economy!

But the minute we need someone to do something complex, solve a problem, help the nation, we turn to the smarts of the young within a company belonging to another country?

I’m just going to say it: lacking faith in your own people, shifting taxpayers’ dollars offshore instead of investing it in local firms, THAT’S a betrayal of our country.

Finally, onto a less dramatic example of “word trumps deed” in the area of government commitment to innovation…

This week Industry Minister Karen Andrews announced she is bringing together a new council of digital economy and technology ministers to help “drive national policy in the post-COVID environment”. That sounds grand.

But can you class as “ground-breaking” an announcement that essentially just tweaks and re-badges a body that already exists?

Case in point: how on earth is that plan different from former Minister Michael Keenan’s December 2018 announcement of the creation of the Australian Digital Council that “…brings together the Commonwealth and all states and territories ministers with responsibility for digital transformation”.

Remember: their words > their deeds.

Ed Husic is the Federal Member for Chifley in western Sydney and a long-time advocate for the Australian technology sector.

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10 Comments
  1. Trisha Lee 6 days ago
    Reply

    It’s been good to see some of the State Governments choosing local developers for their COVID app requirements, with great outcomes. Is it too late for Federal Govt to claw back COVIDsafe from AWS and get a local developer to revise and manage COVIDsafe mark 2?

  2. Stuart Musgrave 7 days ago
    Reply

    As a perfect example of this point, within 24 hours of the source code being released, local developers had found and fixed over 30 bugs, auditing each other’s work. All posted online.
    https://www.innovationaus.com/covidsafe-code-released-but-developers-unhappy/

  3. Joe Blow 7 days ago
    Reply

    How long until someone FOIs the design brief that was sent to Amazon?

  4. Jamie 7 days ago
    Reply

    Got to “walk the walk”. It’s not too late to get a better app done by an Australian company (Ver 2.0) and switch to an Australian owned secure protected cloud for the data. Seems like this would get more downloads due to confidence in the safety of your personal data and we would probably end up with a better / more functional app.

  5. Linda Simonsen 7 days ago
    Reply

    Ed excellent article and reflection. As a small business owner who has been on the federal government ‘supplier’ list for many years, it reflects my experience – word and deed are quite different.

  6. Nobody got fired for buying IBM, but some of them bloody well should have been.

  7. Laurie Patton 1 week ago
    Reply

    The fact that in 2020 we are only now creating a “council of digital economy and technology ministers” highlights a national failure. Should have happened years ago. What’s worse is it suggests the federal government still thinks there’s a separate “digital economy”. Everything and everyone is part of a new digitally-enabled world.

    • Laurie Patton 7 days ago
      Reply

      Remember the ‘Yes Minister’ episode about the hospital with no patients that set a new standard for operational efficiency? With barely six million downloads it matters little whether or not the COVIDSafe app is a technological marvel. For whatever reason, people just don’t seem to trust the government with anything to do with technology. That’s the real and very serious take-out from this exercise. If a country so wracked with fear and anxiety as now won’t follow its leaders requests what does that say about the state of our democracy?

  8. Andrew 1 week ago
    Reply

    Excellent article. What the Government fails to acknowledge is that we product 100% of the money they spend. Yes, us silly private sector people who can’t be trusted…

  9. James Egg 1 week ago
    Reply

    It will be interesting to see how many billions of dollars will be lost from the Australian economy because people did not download the app. I don’t think we will ever know why Morrison handed our data to Trump.

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