Digital Transformation Agency chief executive Gavin Slater has marked his first day back on the job following a leave of absence with an appearance before a fiery Senate estimates hearing.
Mr Slater and his colleagues faced off against a number of frustrated Labor Senators late on Monday night over a series of digital-related government issues, including the agency’s role in the Education department’s doomed apprenticeship platform, as well as the DTA’s troubled Digital Marketplace.
To open proceedings, Mr Slater confirmed the study break was privately funded and part of his initial contract with the DTA, and that he had returned on Sunday.
“I went in with really high expectations of what I personally would get out of this, and it exceeded that. I came back from this program highly energised,” Mr Slater said.
“I think there are many learnings that can certainly be applied in my role as CEO of the DTA, and I’m looking forward to sharing those with my colleagues and more broadly across the public sector.”.
The Labor senators’ attention quickly turned to the Education department’s $20 million national apprenticeship management IT system, which was shuttered last week after a PwC report found evidence of “systemic project weaknesses”.
The platform had been intended to replace the 16-year-old Training and Youth Internet Management System. During the hearing, the DTA confirmed it had consulted on the project since April last year, after it began overseeing all government projects worth more than $10 million.
Senator Cameron labelled the project a “complete fiasco” and a “disaster in terms of public funding”, and questioned the DTA’s consultancy role on the digital aspects of it.
“There’s been $20 million invested over a number of years to this apprenticeship system and we’ve got nothing to show for it. Is that correct? It’s not sending a spacecraft to the moon, it’s simply digitising the apprenticeship system,” Senator Cameron said.
Mr Slater looked to place blame for the failed project squarely on the Education department.
“I really want to be clear around accountabilities here. Accountability for delivery of all these projects is for those agencies – they’re the ones that determine an initiative, secure the funding and set it up,” he said.
“With the oversight role that we’ve played, the one we picked up in early 2017, was to produce a perspective of projects over $10 million and how the overall portfolio is performing.”
But Senator Cameron railed against the DTA’s attempts to refer his questions to the Education department.
“I’m not here to take advice from you about what I should do. I’m asking you questions about your agency,” he said.
After some further grilling from the senator, DTA staff confirmed that it had not yet provided any advice or guidance to the Prime Minister’s office on the doomed project.
“I would not describe it as a disaster because the agency made the call and said they’re not going to continue to invest in something that wasn’t fit for purpose,” DTA chief investment and advisory officer Lesley Seebeck said.
“It was best to call it and learn from that outcome for the benefit of the whole Commonwealth. We are seeking to make sure that agencies learn from that and that this does not occur again,” she said.
Ms Seebeck said the DTA did not want to make a “snap judgement” on the project’s future.
“You wouldn’t need to have made a snap judgement,” Senator Cameron replied.
“You would only need some basic competency in IT to know this project was failed.”
The DTA was also asked to provide on notice all of the minutes of meetings regarding the project, correspondence with the education department and any file notes on the matter.
The senator seemed unimpressed with his first sitting on a committee where the DTA was sitting. “I’m going to leave it. This is just a joke,” he said before he left the room.
The DTA was also questioned over its trouble-plagued Digital Marketplace. An InnovationAus.com survey late last year found that more than 70 per cent of small business sellers on the platform had not won any business through, despite 60 per cent being existing suppliers to the federal government.
DTA chief procurement officer Anthony Vlasic said the marketplace was improving and growing in popularity.
“The volume on the platform is now about $112 million, so it’s gone up. The growth month-on-month is about 10 percent and the SME percentage sits at about 70 per cent at the moment,” Mr Vlasic said.
“That represents a pick-up. As more agencies are aware of it, as more sellers are aware of it, the volume is going up.
“We’re working hard to improve it, and we’re working out how to increase the volume materially.”