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Grilled over failed DoE project, Turnbull's Transformers turn turtle

Senator's 'what are you doing?' a tough question to answer

Australia's Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) appears unable to explain its involvement in a failed AU$20m Department of Education IT project that was cancelled last week.

Under questioning from Labor Senator Douglas Cameron during a Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee hearing yesterday, neither DTA CEO Gavin Slater nor its CIO Dr Lesley Seebeck were able to detail what role the DTA had in the failed project.

The collapsed project – the Australian Apprentice Management System (AAMS) – was supposed to replace the Department of Education's ancient Training and Youth Internet Management System.

After delivery delays, the government hired consultants PwC earlier this year to provide recommendations about the project, and after receiving that report, the department canned the project – with about AU$20 million already spent.

Since part of the DTA's brief is to ensure “effective ICT and digital investments”, since its reorganisation in early 2017, Senator Cameron repeatedly asked the agency to outline whether it had any role in the decision to abandon the project, and what advice it had provided to government.

Accountability != Responsibility

After Senator Cameron remarked that the project wasn't “sending a spacecraft to the moon”, Slater tried to explain the difference between project accountability and the DTA's oversight:

“Accountability for these programs sits with the agencies … The role we play, and it's only one we picked up early in 2017 onwards, was to produce a perspective of how the projects are performing – which are showing some stress issues.”

Accountability for the AAMS lay with the Department of Education, Slater said, because “agencies … determine an initiative, secure the funding and set it up”.

In a later exchange, when Senator Cameron persisted in seeking information from the DTA because it's “part of this agency's responsibility”, Slater replied “but not part of our accountability”.

Dr Seebeck stated that the Department of Education was one of 15 projects – out of 87 projects worth more than $10m the agency is watching – the DTA has on its “engage” list, meaning “we talk closely to agencies”.

She said these projects “aren't necessarily failing – we are engaged because they are highly complex, size, reach, and in some cases because we have a declining confidence in their delivery”.

In response to yet another question from Senator Cameron, Slater said of the abandoned Department of Education project, “I wouldn't characterise it as a total disaster”, and Dr Seebeck elaborated that this is because “we are seeking to ensure it doesn't happen again”.

The DTA has not examined the tendering process for AAMS because the project started before the agency was set up, an a formal review by the DTA has yet to commence.

“That process will be kicking off shortly”, Dr Seebeck said.

On Monday, during a committee hearing, questions turned to the federal government's newfound enthusiasm for blockchain technologies.

Mooted projects include tracking welfare payments, corporate information, health data protection and other applications, and the agency pocketed $700,000 in the federal budget this year for research.

DTA chief digital officer Peter Alexander told the committee blockchain research is a pet project of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who “wrote to our minister and asked us to have a look at blockchain, which evolved into this particular piece of work”.

The DTA's responsible minister is assistant minister for digital transformation Michael Keenan.

Alexander said as well as the PM's interest, “lots of vendors” are talking to the government about blockchain.

Thus are we governed. ®

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