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Australian Senate committee dumps on digital transformation

Minority reports rebuts findings of lax leadership, low capacity

Australia's government is rubbish at computing, according to a new report from the Senate's Finance and Public Administration Committee.

The 146-page report tabled yesterday highlights problems in policy, IT skills, implementation, consultancy and spending.

Even after taking into account the composition of the committee - which had more opposition and cross-bench members than government senators (who penned a dissenting analysus), its “Digital delivery of government services” report is not encouraging for Australians hoping government makes effective use of technology.

For starters, the report lists the failure of Australia's 2016 online census; the Australian Tax Office's repeated storage-elated crashes; Child Support Agency infrastructure running late and over budget; and four abandoned projects the Department of Education (online NAPLAN tests), the Australian Apprentice Management System, the abandoned redesign and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission's biometric system.

The report had a surprise in discussing the biometric project's failure. Since it cost more than AU$80 million, we had assumed it was on the Digital Transformation Agency's (DTA's) “watchlist”, which is supposed to cover all projects over $10 million.

Not so, the report states: “The DTA is supposed to maintain a watchlist of at risk projects. However the Biometric Identification Services that was suspended this month was not on the list despite being a large project which was already significantly overtime and over budget.”

DTA sidelined

That is, perhaps, less surprising than it should be, since the report notes that in spite of being given a whole-of-government IT brief, the DTA has repeatedly been sidelined.

“Cyber policy” – that is, information security – has been nabbed by the Department of Home Affairs, data policy by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and both the Data Commissioner (a role not yet created but on the way) and the Office of the Information Commissioner are all outside the DTA.

Regarding the Office of the Information Commissioner, the report said: “No one in the DTA monitors whether the reported notifications by that office relates to Australian Public Service entities – agency performance in relation to security is not in its brief.”

The DTA, the report said, is “not at the centre of government thinking about digital transformation … Troublingly, no other organisation is”.

Without any central vision, the report said, technology becomes “solely a way to realise efficiencies and cut costs, rather than as a mechanism for transforming government service” – an approach it noted is reflected in the government's notorious “robo-debt” program.

The report therefore recommends a review of “digital, cyber and data policy functions performed across government" followed by the establishment of "key digital performance measures shared and reported across departments and agencies.”

User experience should be measured, the review said, and the government should “deliver an annual Ministerial Statement” explaining how well it's doing in digital transformation.

Send in the auditors!

IT contracting and subcontracting should be regularly audited (meaning it's not already audited, Vulture South supposes), and the committee complained that it couldn't really work out how much is spent on tech consultants: “It has been difficult for this committee to assess the cost of ICT consultants to the government, both in relation to major projects and for business as usual (BAU) spending”.

Why was it so hard for the committee to divine the spend on consultants? “Over a number of budget estimates, members of this committee have asked for information about the whole-of-government spend on consultants. The response has been that the government does not consider it good value for money to track this spend.”

The committee recommended that the government reverse the trend of more than a decade towards outsourcing as much as possible, and instead focus on building capabilities within the public service. By doing so, government could deliver programs internally, or at least have the skills to be a more informed consumer.

Another recommendation off this advice:

The committee recommends that the Australian Public Service Commissioner be tasked with developing a whole-of-government Australian Public Sector Information and Communications Technology career stream with mandated competencies and skill-sets for Information and Communications Technology professionals, government procurement officers, and Information and Communications Technology project managers.

The report divines a role for the DTA here: to develop education and training that reaches all the way to the senior executive service.

In their dissenting report, the government senators say there's no need for a centralised ICT capability because “The functions of government departments and agencies are diverse and distinct and it is important that the relevant corporate and policy expertise and knowledge are harnessed when transforming service delivery.”

The dissenting senators also defended the split-up of capabilities the report criticised, and said they “believe that strategic leadership is being provided not only by the Cabinet, but also by senior public servants. The government has a coherent strategy to implement the digital transformation of government.” ®

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