The federal government is still yet to decide which of the three shortlisted US tech firms will be tasked with building a new digital visa processing platform, with the plan delayed as the Department looks to incorporate health data of travellers in the system, including their COVID-19 vaccination status.
The Department of Home Affairs went to the market in October last year for a private company to provide a “permissions capability” that will eventually be used across government services.
The platform will initially handle digital passenger declarations and visa processing. It’s the third time the government has attempted to go to the market for this function, after ditching plans for an outsourced visa processing platform early last year after already spending $90 million on the project.
The federal government has allocated nearly $75 million to the new plan for the procurement process alone.
Three US tech firms – IBM, Pega and Oracle – are understood to have been shortlisted for the work. But despite plans to have signed a contract by the end of March, the process is still ongoing and the winning company is yet to be selected.
Speaking at a Senate Estimates hearing on Tuesday night, Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo said this delay was due to the government now wanting to incorporate health data, such as COVID-19 vaccination status, into the platform.
The Department is now “grappling” with this “jigsaw puzzle”, he said.
“As you open a border at scale and the government’s budget and planning assumption is that will not occur before the middle of next year, how do you ensure that you’ve got a robust digital signature of someone’s health status before they get on the plane?” Mr Pezzullo said.
“In a COVID world, that is an absolute recipe to bring COVID in at scale.
“The challenge here, and it’ll take the best part of six to 12 months…is how do you securely, proportionately and with privacy ingest health data before travel occurs. It’s quite a complex and technically difficult challenge.”
The integration of this health data, especially from international passengers coming into Australia, is now a “high priority” for the permissions capability.
A taskforce has been established to oversee the ongoing procurement process, including representatives from the Digital Transformation Agency and the Department of Finance.
The procurement process will see the government buying a private company’s existing tech and then configuring it to meet the needs of visa processing. This platform will later be licensed to other departments for use with other government services.
“It’ll be owned and operated within the department – we’ll have a licencing agreement in place. The vendor will build it and hand over the relevant IP, and there’ll be ongoing sustainment,” a Home Affairs representative said at the Estimates hearing.
“Once we have chosen a preferred tenderer, the provider will come to the Department with a range of capability it already owns, that it has developed over time. We will then work with our people to build our permissions capability. The IP that the company brings to that conversation is and remains theirs, and what is built together remains ours.
“The configuration that is built using our collaboration and work with the provider of the system will be owned by the Commonwealth, but what they bring to us, clearly we don’t acquire everything that provider knows when it comes through the door.”
The Department is understood to have shortlisted three tenderers for the significant project.
These include IBM, a joint bid from Pega and Accenture, and a consortium of Oracle, PwC and Sayers.
The move to outsource the visa processing platform has been slammed by the Community and Public Sector Union, which said the government is in a “rush to use consultants” for work that could have been done in-house by the public sector.
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