The federal government had “utterly failed” to justify its decision to outsource the visa tech processing system, a project which has cost $80 million even before a winning bidder has been selected, former Immigration department deputy secretary Abul Rizvi says.
A Senate inquiry into the impact of changes to service delivery models of government programs held a public hearing in Canberra earlier this month, with a focus on the Coalition’s plans to outsource the development of a new IT system for visa processing – the Global Digital Platform.
The visa outsourcing plan has prompted concerns about on data security and privacy issues, the privatisation of the visa system and a lack of transparency around the tender process.
Home Affairs officials at the hearings revealed the procurement and tender process had so far cost about $80 million. There are now two shortlisted parties, with the government “well advanced” in making a final decision, despite previously saying this would be completed by the end of October.
Committee deputy chair and Labor Senator Kim Carr questioned what value had been obtained from the $80 million that has already been spent.
“We’ve got a design that we’ve been able to use to test the market and get responses to so that we can ensure that we’ve got a platform and a tool that will work in practice for us,” Home Affairs Immigration and Settlement Services Group deputy secretary Malisa Golightly told the hearing.
“We’ve got a procurement exercise that takes into account all of the risks and mitigations … and has led to the position we’re in now where we’re in the process of an evaluation,” she said.
Also addressing the hearing, Mr Rizvi said the government had “utterly failed to make a business case” for the outsourcing of the new tech system. While the government has continually claimed that it is not outsourcing or privatising the actual decision-making process, Mr Rizvi said this is beside the point.
“I would acknowledge the department and the government remain in control in terms of the legal aspects through the Migration Act. No-one’s arguing that. No-one has. The fact that the government keeps pushing that issue seems bizarre to me,” Mr Rizvi told the hearing.
“What is being changed is that the ownership of the platform on which visas are processed will go from public hands to private hands. To me, that is privatisation, pure and simple. What they haven’t explained is why a privatised system is better at solving that than an in-house built system. There is nothing in their submission that explains that.”
“It failed to make a business case in terms of how the public interest benefits, and, moreover, it failed to deal with how the extraordinary risks involved will be dealt with. Indeed, it actually just ignored all of those risks. The real cost in this is ultimately a loss of control in the visa system.”
The visa privatisation process would lead to many losers and only one winner – the successful bidder, Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) national secretary Melissa Donnelly said.
“The private interest will be given a privatised monopoly with the potential to build a whole range of wraparound services that they can market and push to visa applicants. This will have negative impacts for competition and see government, industry and visa applicants beholden to a private interest,” Ms Donnelly said.
“Our view is that this is bad policy, and the case for change is short-sighted. The proposal carries substantial risks that will be near impossible to manage if the decision is made to proceed, and the privatisation of a core government function will deliver no winners but to private interests to whom government, industry and visa applicants will become beholden.”
The tender’s focus on “emerging technologies” is problematic and the process has shut out local SMEs, CPSU assistant national secretary Michael Tull said.
“We don’t actually know what the solution is and what those emerging technologies are. In a more normal process you would have a much clearer and much together description around what exactly it was that you were buying, what you would get for it and how that would work. That’s not the case here,” Mr Tull said.
“I think one of the reasons why there are only two tenderers and such limited competition is that a whole range of other providers, particularly small and medium Australian enterprises that do have potentially very good solutions, feel they’re locked out of it because the tender process is opaque and they can’t find a way in.”
The Home Affairs officials told the senate committee that visa processing is not being privatised.
The tender is the only way to ensure that the department’s IT system remains fit for purpose, Ms Golightly said.
“Our current ICT systems are ageing. While we have invested in new technology over time where feasible, there is very limited capacity to improve systems to meet our clients’ expectations,” she said.
“The global digital platform will allow us to meet these challenges so that the department can continue to support key export industries through efficient and competitive visa service delivery arrangements.”
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