The ATO has moved to absolve itself of any deficiency in IT operations management skills after ruining Christmas for the nation’s tax accountants with an unprecedented three day outage.
Last week, the ATO’s critical customer facing ATO systems were down for three days in what Commissioner of Taxation Chris Jordan admitted in a statement was the ‘worst unplanned system outage in recent memory.’
While the ATO is not Robinson Crusoe in the line of major large enterprise/government system failures, this was a doozy. The critical Tax Agent Portal, BAS Portal and Business Portal all went offline, as well as the ato.gov.au website.
This meant filing Business Activity Statements was impossible for days as the December 21 monthly deadline for BAS payments loomed and tax practitioners were unable to use lodgement services as they tried to close out client tax matters before the long, Australian Christmas break.
The ATO has admitted the portals and its website were brought down by a failure of an Hewlett Packard Enterprise storage system installed just 12 months ago. Mr Jordan described the selection process for the HPE gear as ‘lengthy and thorough’.
After the HPE storage system went south, the ATO’s problems were made worse when the failover to backup got stuffed up in a double whammy.
“What compounded the problem beyond the initial failure was the subsequent failure of our back-up arrangements to work as planned. The failure of our back-up arrangements meant that restoration and resumption of data and services has been very complex and time consuming,” said Mr Jordan in his statement.
Surprisingly, before any independent review, Mr Jordan appeared to absolve the Tax Office of any systemic tech problems.
“The issues we have experienced this week do not relate to our overall IT capability or skills,” he said.
If a high profile, well budgeted government department cannot stay on top of a storage system failure and the subsequent failover without losing vital customer-facing services for three days in one of the busiest periods of the year, then how can that mess not relate to that department’s overall IT capability?
To be fair to the ATO, shit happens with IT systems large and small and the Tax Office has moved to mitigate some of the inconvenience by fast tracking refund processing since the outage.
“No taxpayers will be disadvantaged as a result of the outage,” said Mr Jordan. “This means if you needed to make a payment or lodge a form but couldn’t, you won’t be penalised.”
But what about the tax agents? Many posted their irritations on social media about being forced to remain on deck in the lead up to the Christmas weekend instead of enjoying a well-earned break. Some have talked about sending invoices to the ATO.
The ATO has promised a comprehensive and independent review of what went wrong that amongst other things will look at “whether there is anything unique or unusual in the physical and technical ATO technology infrastructure and/or architecture and/or environment that suggests there is a high risk of a repeat or like failure.”
It will also examine the adequacy and critical event response speed of HPE and other vendors.
While it does its review, the Tax Office would do well to take a squiz at the experiences of Paul Shetler, the former Chief Digital Officer at the Digital Transformation Agency, during his first 16 months in public service here.
In a well-publicised post on LinkedIn published in early December, Mr Shetler talks about the ‘blockers’ to worthwhile digital transformation.
“The blockers to positive transformation are structural, cultural and skills-based. During the last 16 months at DTO and now at the brand-new DTA, we’ve also seen just how painful it can be for government to get on with delivering good digital services,” he writes.
“For services to be truly transformed, we need to go beyond the front end, and transform the back office IT too. If we don’t rethink the underlying IT systems and business processes, we’re constrained to do little more than make cosmetic changes.”
“After all the service doesn’t stop at the user interface, it includes an ensemble of people, systems and processes that support it.”
Shetler writes that while government might think it’s a big transaction volume player in tech, those volumes are tiny compared to global platforms like Twitter.
Nevertheless with $6 billion in IT budget on tap, the prevailing culture encourages big ticket IT programmes and contracts.
“They drive a culture of blame aversion which creates the perverse outcomes and actually increases risk,” Mr Shetler writes in an observation vindicated by the both the ATO outage and the recent ABS Census failure.
“This is further complicated and exacerbated by the lack of technical and contract management expertise in government,” says Mr Shetler.
“Too frequently, we actually ask vendors to tell us what they think we should buy.”