A rethink of the federal government’s digital marketplace will be a first order priority for an incoming Labor administration in order to bolster success rates for local tech SME’s in the Commonwealth’s procurement mix.
Opposition digital economy spokesman Ed Husic said Labor was a supporter of the marketplace as “a good concept worth pursuing”, but that had not met with initial expectation for opening Commonwealth procurement to a broader range of Australian tech suppliers.
Labor plans to establish a Treasurer’s Entrepreneurs Council under Chris Bowen if it wins the May election, with its first marching orders likely to be providing advice on how to improve the Digital Transformation Agency’s digital marketplace.
“Conceptually – engaging smaller tech players in the big business or government ICT – is something we can all agree is worth pursuing,” Mr Husic told an AIIA luncheon on Friday.
“At this point we are not interested in scrapping the marketplace, but clearly something needs to be done about it,” he said.
“While Labor has avoided announcing a plethora of new boards and panels, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen has a long standing commitment to introducing a Treasurer’s Entrepreneurs Council.
The council would meet quarterly, be chaired by the Treasurer and include engagement with the Finance minister as the head of government’s overarching procurement function.
“For us, the Treasurer’s Entrepreneurs Council will be the most direct connection between your sector – and particularly SMEs – and the senior economic team within government,” Mr Husic said.
‘What we intend to do as one of the first orders of business for that council is to basically get the input of SMEs and startups on what they believe needs to be done to reform the digital marketplace and to make it work better,” he said.
“We are believers in [the marketplace] and recognise its value in opening up contracts, particularly for SMEs, but we have got to be able to ramp it up.”
Ironically, the marketplace has been very successful in delivering contractors into the Commonwealth. The other big theme of Mr Husic AIIA speech had been the over reliance by the federal government on contractors.
Mr Husic also used the address to provide the Digital Transformation Agency with political cover.
While the DTA had been a lightning rod for criticism of digital service delivery and for the series of large-scale ICT failure across government, he said the problems were more a failure of senior leaders to take responsibility and to be accountable.
He said Labor’s focus in recent estimates hearings on the DTA was to highlight a structural issue, whereby the agency provides investment advice and portfolio oversight, but does not have the mandate to intervene where a government program is failing.
This has meant that the DTA has copped withering criticisms for everything from the robodebt-style policy-driven problems to hardware failure at the ATO and more recently a biometric project failure at the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.
“[The point] we are trying to raise is the fact that there is a whole of government failure to accept responsibility and accountability in these projects. [People] assume the DTA can do it all … It can’t,” Mr Husic said.
“It has to be done at the highest level – the ministerial level – and up through to the senior levels of government. You have got to have accountability,” he said.
“Accepting responsibility for the conception, financing and management of major projects has to be owned across the board at the highest levels, not just at the time of [the projects] public announcement.
“The case of the biometric project by the ACIC showed that while they might have met the actual proper processes in the tendering of the project, the management of the process itself within the agency and the engagement with either the vendor or with other arms of government like the DTA was simply atrocious.
“Regardless of political hue, I actually think this is the biggest challenge for digital transformation within government, to ensure that it is not seen as niche, but central to departmental performance,” Mr Husic said.