Report: ‘Litany of failures’

James Riley
Editorial Director

There has been a “litany of failures largely unprecedented in scale” in the federal government’s digital transformation efforts, with a need for major structural changes and long-term whole-of-government approaches, a Senate report has found.

The Finance and Public Administration References Committee tabled its report on the digital delivery of government services late on Wednesday night.

The report is highly critical of the government’s tech efforts and the role of the Digital Transformation Agency, and calls on a cohesive, whole-of-government approach to digital transformation that is regularly reported on and updated.

Jenny McAllister: Chaired the Labor-led Senate inquiry into digital government services

The Labor-led committee delivered eight key recommendations to government, focusing on scrutinising the current digital transformation efforts, improving contracting processes, upskilling the public sector and reworking the role of the Digital Transformation Agency.

The report was released just weeks after the government signalled its intent to become “one of the top three digital governments in the world” by 2025. But the committee’s report threw cold water on this ambition.

“Throughout this inquiry it has become clear to the committee that digital transformation is a policy area beset by soaring rhetoric and vague aspirations by government, largely unconnected to the actual policy activities actually undertaken,” the report said.

“This is a shame. Digital transformation represents one of the best opportunities to deliver more to those who pay for government, those who work for government and those who government works for.”

The report recommended that the government undertake a review of the “digital, cyber and data policy functions performed across government”, with key performance goals then established and shared across departments.

The report found an absence of leadership from government ministers, with senior public servants “let down in their efforts by the lack of a champion within government as a whole”.

“Finding the balance between these competing demands in order to realize the promise of digital transformation requires concerted leadership at a ministerial and public service level. This leadership has been lacking,” it said.

To counter this, the committee called on the government to produce an annual ministerial statement on digital transformation to report on the steps taken to improve digital transformation and where further work is needed.

“A cohesive and shared view, driven by a properly resourced and empowered department or agency, would serve to guide policy development and decision-making by the bureaucracy and ministers alike,” it said.

“All departments and agencies would derive significant benefit from a whole-of-government strategic plan to achieve the digital transformation of government.

“Ultimate responsibility for this plan should rest with a central agency that is properly invested with powers and responsibilities.”

The committee pointed to a number of troubled IT projects, including the ACIC’s biometrics project which was canned this month, saying these point to “broader systemic problems”. It also examined the series of ATO outages and the controversial robo-debt project in-depth.

“The government to date has been unable to meet even the lower objective of being able to replace aging infrastructure without major mishap,” the report said.

The senate report also found “serious deficiencies” in the way government departments contract with private sector on IT projects, and that an increasing reliance on outsourcing has led to a lack of tech skills within the APS.

“Too often government agencies appear to have assumed a risk that is inconsistent with both the contract price and community expectations. Digital work should be considered part of the ‘core responsibility’ of the public service. It is no longer possible to think of ICT and digital as adjacent or subsidiary to the proper work of government,” the report said.

“The committee is concerned that the APS is unable to do much of this work. On its current trajectory, the APS risks becoming exclusively a cadre of generalist managers who no longer have the requisite policy and technical skills to conduct the business of government.”

In the short term, the report recommended that regular audits be conducted into ICT contracting and subcontracting, and that current project budgets be further scrutinised to “eliminate unnecessary spends”.

To build longer-term digital capabilities in the public sector, the committee called on a whole-of-government Australian Public Sector Information and Communications Technology career stream, with regular reports on efforts to increase the number of apprentices and trainees recruited into the APS.

The report was highly critical of the role of the DTA in overseeing these various digital transformation efforts, saying it had been “sidelined” and “less empowered to take action”.

“The committee considers that the government has not demonstrated that it has the political will to drive digital transformation. This much is evidenced by the role it has given the DTA. Its contribution is muted because its role is confined to the level of assistance with discrete projects at the operational level,” the report said.

“Cumulatively, the evidence heard by this committee revealed an organisation that was not at the centre of government thinking about digital transformation, or responsible for the creation and enactment of a broader vision of what that transformation would look like. Troublingly, no other organisation is.”

The Liberal and National senators on the committee produced a dissenting report, arguing against many of the claims made in the Labor-led report. The government senators claimed a lack of tech skills in the public sector is the result of a “wider marketplace shortage of professionals” rather than outsourcing, and that the tech fails identified in the report are not evidence of a “broader systemic issue”.

“The very few examples handpicked by the committee represent very much isolated unfortunate exceptions against a background of high performance in the delivery of digital solutions,” the dissenting report said.

The government senators also claimed that the DTA is “achieving exactly that which it was intended to achieve at every stage of its mandate”.

Greens senator Jordon Steele-John also produced an additional report, calling on digital government services to be made more inclusive to meet the needs of vulnerable consumer groups.

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