‘Tech wreck’ senate report this week

James Riley
Editorial Director

A senate report into the federal government’s delivery of IT services will be handed down on Tuesday in the wake of another troubled tech project being shut down last week.

The Labor-led Finance and Public Administration References Committee inquiry into the digital delivery of government services was launched in August after it won the backing of the Senate.

After two extensions, it’s due to hand down its long-awaited report to Parliament on Tuesday.

Jenny McAllister: Need for clarity when there’s so many federal digital glitches

It will come just days after the government moved to terminate a biometrics project it had already spent $90 million over due to “project delays”, with the Opposition labelling it the 13th recent “tech wreck”.

The inquiry looked in whether planned and existing digital government services can deliver up to standards on privacy, security, quality, reliability and value for money. It also investigated the strategy for whole-of-government digital transformation and digital project delivery such as project governance, the design and build of the platforms, availability of digital capability within the public sector and the procurement of digital services and equipment.

It also looked into the government’s series of “tech wrecks”, including Centrelink’s robo-debt scheme, continual ATO outages and the restructuring of the Digital Transformation Office.

“My concern here is to look at those two dynamics and to really assess what is the government’s position here, and how well are the personnel, and the structures, and the government’s arrangements set up to deliver on the vision,” committee chair and Labor senator Jenny McAllister said.

“Because there has been just so much change at a time when there has been so many problems. We need some clarity about where the government thinks it is going and whether it is set up to deliver on that.”

The committee received a number of submissions and held a series of public hearings, with the likes of former digital government tsar Paul Shetler, the Community and Public Sector Union, the Australian Signals Directorate and the Australian Privacy Commissioner offering their views.

It’s unlikely to make for pretty reading for the government and comes just days after the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s biometric project was scrapped.

The project, contracted to NEC Australia, had already cost more than $90 million before it was cancelled due to “project delays” late on Friday afternoon. Despite a report last year finding a “systemic pattern of delay” and an overblown budget of at least $40 million, the Biometric Identification Services project was not listed by the DTA as a project of concern.

This was criticised by the Opposition, who say it is the 13th “government tech wreck” in recent years.

“These incidents are just further examples of the failure of the government’s Digital Transformation Agency to avoid ongoing mismanagement of digital projects. Prior to this incident, we were able to point to the government’s dirty digital dozen of project failures. Now it’s the unlucky digital 13,” shadow justice minister Clare O’Neil and shadow digital economy minister Ed Husic said.

The senate report is likely to focus on these tech fails, along with the outsourcing of government IT projects to the private sector, the oversight of such projects and the role of the Digital Transformation Agency.

Former government digital tsar Paul Shetler opened proceedings on the first day of hearings, saying he had experienced first hand the “steady drip-drip-drip of poor government services” during his time leading the former Digital Transformation Office.

He said the public sector needed to be re-skilled in order to deliver these services, and the rush to outsource needs to be stemmed.

“In my time at DTO, I saw dedicated public servants doing their best to help Australians, but often failing because of a shortage of digital skills. Instead of providing digital training to public servants, too often we’ve outsourced IT to large international technology vendors and consultants,” Mr Shetler said.

“Outsourcing makes the government seem smaller, but is expensive and contributes further to deskilling the public service.”

The Community and Public Sector Union also criticised the government’s outsourcing of tech work, calling on it to set an “express and specific goal to reduce the reliance on contractors and external vendors”.

This outsourcing has led to “critical issues with capability and costs”, the union said, and the government needs to cap agency expenditure on consultants and contractors and reinvest the savings to build public sector capability.

In his submission, Mr Shetler also said the government has a lot to learn from the private sector on delivering digital services.

“Government needs to have the same mindset as industry. It needs to understand the impact of digital on the business models we have, on the ways we can serve the public, and the ways we can rethink and reimagine our services,” he said.

The Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) agreed, saying that new technology alone is not enough to deliver digital transformation.

“The efficiency of moving a service online is only realised when the business process that supports the service is re-engineered…this has still not been addressed by a range of government agencies that deliver outward-facing services to customers – while the technology is new, the underlying processes remain antiquated,” the AIIA said.

The AIIA took aim at the internal government politics between departments that are “vying to protect their own self-interest and internal investments”, undermining the whole-of-government service delivery model.

“This continues to hamper the speed of digital adoption, typically at the expense of customers. Examples include approaches to digital identity, the proliferation and lack of interoperability of content between websites and agency specific procurement practices,” the AIIA said.

During its examination of one of the government’s most high-profile tech wrecks, the committee heard that the Department of Human Services believes its robo-debt program “went well”.

“We’ve made a submission to the senate inquiry and made it quite clear that we think the project has gone quite well. We’ve delivered lots of savings,” DHS acting deputy secretary of integrity and information Jason McNamara said.

“It was a disaster,” Senator McAllister replied. “It produced incredible anxiety for a very large number of citizens.”

The committee also heard from former Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim, who said that privacy concerns need to be baked into all government digital services, rather than being an afterthought.

“The automated nature of digital service delivery has the potential to create new privacy concerns or amplify existing privacy issues. As with all government initiatives, agencies delivering digital services should consider whether the use of personal information strikes an appropriate balance between achieving the objectives of the project and any impact on privacy,” Mr Pilgrim said.

“Agencies should also ensure transparency in relation to the information-handling practices so that individuals know how their personal information will be managed.”

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