Federal outsourcing tales of woe

Regular system outages, disappearing e-mail and a four-day wait to replace printer toner - these are just a few of the persistent complaints users reported under the federal government's IT outsourcing program.

The litany of complaints -- unfolding in the Senate as part of the Finance and Public Administration committee hearings into IT Outsourcing -- has provided the first public forum for users to share their experiences since the program began in 1996.

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) canvassed its members as part of its hearing submission and found up to half the user complaints came from the Australian Tax Office (ATO).

The CPSU found users had difficulties logging on to systems and had to wait up to three days for assistance, an executive officer had no e-mail for 19 days and another public service employee waited 76 days to get a computer, because the external service provider had lost the original request.

In one case, a federal agency had to wait three days for the vendor to move a computer from one desk to another because of asset tracking restrictions.

CPSU national president Matthew Reynolds told the Senate hearings: "To replace the toner in printers is not a highly technical task - outside the health and safety risks of toners - but in one instance it took four days to get the toner replaced because only the vendor could do it."

Users complained help desk support is non-existent with staff resorting to IT-savvy colleagues to assist them.

Reynolds said in some agencies it costs a fee every time an employee makes a call to a help desk.

During system failures, these calls come "thick and fast" and it "may cost an agency $25 every time somebody calls the vendor."

In its submission the CPSU said it canvassed members because "at no time have the views or experiences of users working with outsourced services been part of this debate. This is a curious omission as these employees are in a unique position to provide clear and useful information on service levels within agencies."

One of the first recommendations in the CPSU submission is to regularly survey users to address service quality issues.

The Health Insurance Commission currently has such a survey under way.

Reynolds said there is a critical IT skills shortage within departments as a result of outsourcing and IT staff that have remained are being called upon to take on the basic responsibilities of the help desk.

He said staff morale is "extremely low" because staff were never consulted before outsourcing.

"The whole of government outsourcing initiative was an imposed one; there was huge debate among our members and some agencies set up bulletin boards in tea rooms, but we were not really consulted."

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