Visa outsourcing is a very bad idea: CPSU

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The public sector union has urged the federal government to reconsider its latest attempt to outsource the development of a visa processing platform, labelling it another “rush to use consultants” for work that should be done by the APS.

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has written to the Department of Home Affairs to begin discussions on the decision to contract out the development of a new “permissions capability” to eventually be used across the APS for a range of government services.

The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) late last year issued a tender looking for a private company to build a base platform that is capable of handling the digitisation of incoming passenger declaration cards and a simple digital visa application. This platform would then be used more widely across the APS as a permissions capability.

Give it a rest: The visa outsourcing plan needs a bit of a think

The government has shortlisted three tenderers for the work, and all are major US tech companies.

The three remaining bidders are IBM, Pega in partnership with Accenture, and an Oracle, PwC and Sayers consortium. The government is expected to pick the winning bidder within the fortnight.

The “scalable, innovative” platform would be an “integrated, enterprise-scale workflow capability to be used across the Commonwealth, not just by Home Affairs”.

But the CPSU said this work could be done cheaper and more effectively by APS staff, and they were never given the chance to make their case or pitch for the work before a tender was issued late last year by the DTA.

“CPSU members know that they have the skills and experience to deliver this project for the department,” CPSU assistant national secretary Michael Tull told InnovationAus.

“But they were not given an opportunity to make a case that the work be done in-house. It’s yet another example of the rush to use consultants, contractors and external vendors for work that could and should be done by the public service itself,” Mr Tull said.

“We believe that there are strong arguments, on both cost and capability development grounds, for the government to reconsider the decision to go for a complete external build.”

The CPSU has written to Home Affairs requesting a meeting about the issue, with plans to also write to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and the Parliament and request it be investigated by the current senate inquiry into the capability of the Australian Public Service.

It is the third time in recent years that the federal government has attempted to outsource the development of a new visa processing platform.

In 2006 work began on the Generic Visa Platform, which was built by IBM as part of the $520 million Systems for People program.

Five years later, after a spend of about $450 million, the platform was launched. But it was only in operation for less than a year before it was decommissioned because it was not fit for purpose.

Then in 2016 the Coalition embarked on the development of the Global Digital Platform, a digital visa platform. It spent more than $90 million on the project, which never made it past the tender phase, including $65 million on external consultants.

The project was shuttered early last year following ongoing conflicts of interest with the tenderers.

This is the third time that the government has attempted to outsource this core government function, but in the meantime the system developed in-house by public servants has proven effective, Mr Tull said.

“The previous two were expensive failures. But in between those two failures there was a project that worked – and in-house built – where APS staff built the visa system and tools that have worked successfully for years. Despite that history, the department and government have again opted for an external provider,” he said.

“There has been a number of reviews and reports that have pointed to the need to reduce the reliance on external providers and build internal APS capability. Most recently the Chief Statistician, David Gruen, who heads up the new APS Data Profession, has said that there is a need to build ‘native capability’ and have key skills in-house.

“I’d say that a permissions platform that is intended for use across multiple departments is indeed a key capability the APS should further develop in-house.”

The union is not pushing for the entire project to be completed in-house, but for it to be led by the public service in partnership with local tech firms.

“We don’t say that every element of the work has to be in-house, and there may well be specialist solutions or other elements of the work that will require external involvement and would present opportunities for Australian businesses to be involved, but we do say that major projects like this are generational opportunities to build on the existing skills and capabilities of the APS,” Mr Tull said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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