Senate investigates tech failures

James Riley
Editorial Director

The Senate on Thursday agreed to hold an inquiry into the government’s digital transformation program, with a focus on increased ICT spending and the embarrassing series of technology failures that has bedeviled service delivery over the past 18 months.

The Senate’s powerful Finance and Public Administration Committee is already accepting submissions to its “Digital delivery of government services” services inquiry, which is due to report on December 4.

Labor’s digital economy spokesman Ed Husic and the committee’s references chair Jenny McAllister outlined the Opposition push for an inquiry yesterday and by this morning had secured the support of the crossbench to get the Senate’s approval.

Ed Husic: Helped drive support for a Senate inquiry into Government IT

The Opposition called on the government to set up its own independent inquiry into its digital program and spiralling ICT spend earlier this year after another frustrating run of outages at the Australian Taxation Office but was ignored.

“As we have watched digital project after digital project stumble and stall, we have been calling on government to explain what’s going on, and what they’ve done to make sure that they’ve learned from those lessons so that we don’t have repeat performances,” Mr Husic told

“The government has preferred to stonewall, and to not be as upfront as it should be.”

“We’ve seen CensusFail, the problems with RoboDebt, and most recently we’ve seen the repeated problems with the ATO’s website, where no minister has explained what’s happened – or to give businesses a lot more confidence that the data they’ve sent to the Tax Office is being held securely, managed properly and that they can expect a response from the ATO in a workable time,” he said.

Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation Angus Taylor said the Senate inquiry into government IT projects would be a waste of money and a distraction.

Under Mr Taylor’s watch, the Digital Transformation Agency was currently finalising a review of more than 50 major Government IT projects and 250 critical systems. The review builds on the DTA’s Digital Investment Management Office’s remediation and review capability which is now applied to all new and existing projects.

“Review and remediation are critical to Government continuing to improve its delivery of simple and effective digital services,” Mr Taylor said.

“The Government has established unprecedented visibility and oversight of its $6.5 billion annual IT spend.”

Committee chair Jenny McAllister said she was concerned that government had not clearly defined what it expects of its digital transformation.

“There is no reason that the Australian public service should not offer excellent digital services,” Senator McAllister said. “There is no reason the public sector should not be as good as the private sector and that should be our aspiration.”

“I am not asserting that is an easy transformation to undertake, but all the evidence so far suggests that the government is mishandling it badly,” she said,

“In setting up this inquiry we are hoping to shine a light on what is going on.”

The inquiry’s terms of reference cover three key area of investigation:

First, whether planned and existing programs are able to digitally deliver services, with attention given to privacy and security, quality and reliability, and value for money

Secondly, it will investigate whole of government digital transformation strategies

And thirdly, it will specific part of digital project delivery, including project governance, the design and build of platforms, the adequacy of internal public service delivery capability, and a review of procurement

The inquiry’s hearings will likely include representatives from the major services delivery departments and agencies, as well as from the Digital Transformation Agency. Mr Husic said it was likely also to hear from private sector experts on transformation issues.

Senate Committees bring with them substantial powers to compel witnesses to attend hearings, and can also call for specific documents and other evidence to be produced.

“From our point of view, we would much rather a collaborative approach” to the inquiry, Mr Husic told

“We agree with the sentiments expressed by organisations like the CPSU that said this should not be turned into a scape-goating exercise. We agree.”

“[The Inquiry] should be one where we get to the heart of the problem and decide ‘where to next,” he said.

“And I certainly welcome [DTA chief executive] Gavin Slater’s public comments where he said that the DTA would be prepared to work with the inquiry. We think that’s a good attitude and a good mindset to approach the inquiry with.”

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