Parliamentary paperless coup aborted

Australia's elected representatives have shown just how ugly IT cost-cutting exercises can become if users are not consulted. An opt-in option has produced an uneasy truce over attempts to force-march senators onto electronic documents and away from paper.

Federal senators are now able to receive their daily fix of Hansard - the official record and transcripts of parliamentary proceedings - in both electronic and printed formats due to the an opt-in solution, but only after a startling admission by the Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Reporting Services (DPRS), Hilary Penfold QC, that an attempted paperless parliamentary coup had quite literally been stuffed up.

The unruly saga started in December 2004 when DPRS decided it could kill some $250,000 in printing costs by cutting out paper copies of Hansard to the Parliament House recipients - but neglected to tell its senatorial user community about the move until February.

"We did not do well in communicating what was going to happen. All I can say is that we stuffed it up," Penfold told an irate Labor Senator John Faulkner at a recent Senate Estimates committee hearing.

Unconvinced, Faulkner demanded answers as to who was consulted about the shift to an electronic-only system. Penfold replied that nobody outside her office was consulted about the shift.

However, Penfold bravely insisted elected representatives and their staff could still access Hansard through the "Senators' and Members' Services Portal", noting some politicians "would not miss the regular delivery of large chunks of paper which we later in the week or month had to remove from the building".

The suggestion of a more modern means of content delivery did not go down well.

"What hope in Hades have you got of using that [the portal] when you are about to get to your feet in the chamber? Zero," user Faulkner responded.

Then came the admission that rather than shifting to a purely paperless model, parliamentarians were actually expected to print out (preferably double-sided) what they needed from Hansard on their own office printers rather than having it delivered to their door, thus raising questions over whether there was any real saving on printing...or that printing costs were merely being transferred.

Asked if there was any bottom-line saving to the taxpayer in senators printing off their own Hansard, Penfold conceded, "We did not work out what the alternative cost would be... we knew there would a certain amount of cost shifting."

Then there was the availability of printers.

"We had a day last week when we could not print anything in this place," protested Labor Senator Michael Forshaw.

Asked by Senator Faulkner whether it was fair to say the attempt at paperless Hansard was "basically a complete foul up", Penfold was diplomatic in defeat.

"I would agree with you that we have not covered ourselves in glory in terms of how we implemented it," she said.

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