The whole-of-government permissions capability platform devised by consultants and built by external contractors has been scrapped after the government sunk at least two years and $16.5 million into the project, which failed to deliver a working use case.
The abandonment marks the third failed attempt by the former government to upgrade visa processing technology, with more than $100 million spent.
Touted as a simple way for users to engage with various permissions like visas, licences and accreditations, the permissions capability was to be reused across various government agencies. It was hailed “the future for tech development across government” by the Coalition, which budgeted the project an initial $75 million and then further secret funding.
But the permissions capability platform failed at its first and relatively simple deployment, the digitisation of incoming passenger cards.
After scathing reviews, the digital card was shelved by the Albanese government in July last year, casting doubt on the underlying platform.
Just weeks later in August 2022 the Department of Home Affairs ended its main contract for the program with delivery partner Accenture after being frustrated by the technology services firm’s inability to deliver the base capability on time, InnovationAus.com can reveal.
The Albanese government then abandoned the permissions capability platform altogether in December, with references to the program quietly removed from the Home Affairs website.
A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs confirmed the permissions capability program had “ceased” after $16.5 million had been “expensed on outsourced work/contracts”.
“The Permissions Capability Program is no longer a priority for government. The government requested the department to close the program in December 2022,” the spokesperson told InnovationAus.com.
“Where possible the department has identified work undertaken such as designs and lessons learned through the Permissions Capability Program that can be applied to future programs of work.”
The permissions capability platform was announced in 2020 by Coalition ministers Alan Tudge and Stuart Robert as a reusable, whole-of-government, permissions capability. It’s first use case was a new digital passenger declaration card that would help with the reopening of international borders.
Digitised visas were to follow in what was hoped would eventually become a whole-of-government platform able to be re-used by many agencies. It also marked what was the Coalition government’s third attempt at rebuilding the ageing visa processing system.
The initial announcement came a few months after global consultancy McKinsey provided “strategic advisory” services to the government on a permissions capability under a one-month, $726,000 contract.
Following the announcement, Home Affairs went to market for a provider to build the platform, with the 2020-21 budget allocating $74.9 million for the project.
It would take almost a year from the announcement, and an additional $13 million in contracts for legal and consultancy firms, before Accenture was selected as the main delivery partner for the ‘base capability’ and initial passenger card phase.
The former Coalition government had signed off on funding for Accenture, which was to be paid more than $60 million over three years across various permissions capability contracts.
By late 2021, the then-minister responsible for whole of government technology, Stuart Robert was touting the project as a great example of a public-private technology partnership with massive potential.
“This is a great example of how government and industry can move at speed to support Australians,” Mr Robert said in a speech to the Australian technology sector in late 2021.
“Equally important of course is this capability is being designed to be reusable by other agencies—reusable by design—to deliver similar services, like visas, or potentially import/export permits.”
Further funding was then allocated to the permissions capability in the 2021 MYEFO but was kept secret due to “commercial in confidence sensitivities”.
It was later revealed the Accenture contracts did not cover the planned expansion to visa processing, let alone any deployment of the platform beyond Home Affairs.
The first iteration of the digital passenger cards was released as a web application in February 2022 – several months later than Home Affairs wanted it. A mobile app followed in March and problems surfaced as borders began reopening and 70,000 people were trying to use the cards every day.
Users panned the digital cards, with travellers reporting issues in the app scanning passports and vaccination certificates, signing into the app and registering in the first place.
The Albanese government shelved the digital cards as part of easing COVID-19 border restrictions in July last year.
At the time, Home Affairs minister Claire O’Neil said the digital cards were the future but needed “a lot more work”, suggesting the underlying platform would continue to be developed.
But Home Affairs was already preparing to walk away from it altogether, frustrated by Accenture’s failure to deliver a working use case on time.
In August last year, the department effectively ceased its main contract with Accenture, an ending it said was via mutual agreement.
Ms O’Neil, whose office declined to comment for this story, hinted at the need for another significant investment in visa processing technology in September.
By Christmas, the Albanese government had decided to abandon the permissions capability platform entirely. It is not clear what is being considered to replace the permissions capability or upgrade visa processing.
The abandoning of another visa platform after a significant investment — the previous visa project, which was heavily criticised as a privatisation of visa processing, was also abandoned in 2020 after costing nearly $90 million — raises big questions for the Department of Home Affairs, said former deputy secretary of the then-Department of Immigration Dr Abul Rizvi.
“The department just seems to be making mistakes in terms of its IT development time and time again,” Dr Rizvi told InnovationAus.com
“This was only $16 million, but it was $90 million with the visa IT system privatisation which was really an appalling idea. But why does it keep happening again and again?”
The procurement of the permissions capability was selected for a performance audit by the Australian National Audit Office last year.
The audit examined procurement of the permissions capability platform to determine if the processes employed “open and effective competition and achieved value for money”. But the platform development and roll out is beyond its scope.
The procurement audit was due to be tabled in February but is yet to be more than a month later.
Community and Public Sector Union assistant national secretary Michael Tull has been a fierce critic of Home Affairs’ continued outsourcing of major ICT projects, telling an inquiry earlier this month that it is wasteful, and damages the department’s culture.
He said ending the outsourced permissions capability was the right decision and an opportunity for the department to retain the much needed unspent funding, but the project was ultimately another waste of money.
“This is the third time over more than a decade that the department has tried to outsource or privatise visa processing and associated functions. It has failed each time and wasted hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. In all that time, the systems that have worked are the ones designed and built in-house by the department’s own staff,” he told InnovationAus.com.
Mr Tull and the CPSU warned of the risks of outsourcing such a critical project in 2021 when Accenture’s bill climbed to nearly $60 million.
“There is still a need for a big ICT upgrade in Home Affairs and the department desperately needs a funding injection from government. But more funding alone won’t solve the problem,” he said.
“What is needed here is a mindset change to move away from the ‘project by project outsourcing‘ approach and turn towards building internal capability and capacity.
“The Commonwealth also needs to keep in mind that there is a very tight and hot market for talented ICT staff. Being successful in that market requires a competitive combination of salary, flexible employment conditions and the chance to do innovative work, and the APS has a fair way to each of those.”
Home Affairs salvaged some of the software licencing underpinning the permissions capability as part of its negotiations with Accenture last year.
“As part of the cessation of the Permissions Capability contract between the department and Accenture, the department negotiated re-use of the PegaSystems capability procured as a third party re-seller arrangement under the contract with Accenture,” a Home Affairs spokesperson said.
The department will use the Pegasystems software, now provided under a new $12 million contract that runs to 2025, to “deliver components of capability to support high priority initiatives within the Home Affairs portfolio”.
What comes next in terms of visa processing and other permissions is not clear, however, with the Home Affairs spokesperson telling InnovationAus.com, “Any future investment decisions will be subject to government consideration.”
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