The government’s record when it comes to major ICT projects has been slammed by a Senate inquiry into the digital delivery of services.
The report from the Senate's Finance and Public Administration References Committee argues that the government has overseen a litany of ICT failures during the half decade since the 2013 election that saw the Coalition swept to power.
Those failures include the online component of the 2016 Census being temporarily pulled offline, a series of outages of key Australian Taxation Office services, problems with the delivery of the Department of Human Services’ new ‘Pluto’ Child Services payments and case management system, the Digital Transformation Agency’s (DTA) decision to ditch the Gov.Au project, problems with online NAPLAN testing, and the scrapping of the Australian Apprentice Management System (a replacement for the Training and Youth Internet Management System).
Additionally, earlier this month, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) revealed it had scrapped its Biometric Identification Services (BIS) project.
The report also makes note of the controversial Centrelink data-matching program (dubbed ‘robo-debt’).
The potential of the DTA to deliver better access to government services is not being realised, according to the report.
“The committee considers that the government has not demonstrated that it has the political will to drive digital transformation,” the report argues. Although the transformation of the Digital Transformation Office into the DTA increased its scope of operations, “it was less empowered to take action”.
Two years on from its creation, the DTA “performs a useful role in providing governance standards and guidance” but its contribution to digital transformation is “muted because its role is confined to the level of assistance with discrete projects at the operational level.”
The DTA had only a minor role in the case studies of ICT failure examined during the inquiry, the report said.
The DTA has been “sidelined” the report argues. The Department of Home Affairs has taken the lead role in cyber policy, while data policy is the purview of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the planned Data Commissioner will be separate from the DTA, and there is no “formal interface” between the agency and the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.
The agency has also seen significant leadership turnover, including the recent departure of chief executive Gavin Slater.
The report makes eight top-line recommendations, including that the government “undertake a review of the digital, cyber and data policy functions performed across government—and then establish key digital performance measures shared and reported across departments and agencies” and that the government issues an annual ministerial statement on digital transformation.
The committee also recommended efforts be made to boost the digital capabilities of the Australian Public Service.
During the inquiry the committee heard evidence from the Community and Public Sector Union and Paul Shetler, the former CEO of the DTO, that aggressive ICT outsourcing has led to agencies being left at the mercy of external vendors.
In a joint submission, Shetler, former senior digital advisor Jordan Hatch and former digital marketplace head Catherine Thompson warned that the government faces structural, cultural and skills-based barriers to its digital transformation efforts.
The government should “consider developing a longer term strategy to build internal public service capability to help drive the development or in house build of digital activities regularly contracted out by government,” the Senate inquiry’s report recommended.
It also argued that the DTA should develop education and training initiatives to boost the digital competency of all Australian Public Service employees.
In a dissenting report, the Senate committee’s government members opposed the creation what they described as a “centralised mega-agency” to drive digital transformation efforts. The dissenting report also rejects the argument that ICT outsourcing has led to a shortage of ICT skills within the public sector.
“Government senators consider the DTA to be achieving exactly that which it was intended to achieve at every stage of its mandate,” the dissenting report states.
“The DTA is the government's lead agency for the digital transformation of government administration. It has a whole-of-government focus for the development of strategy, policies and guidelines to assist departments and agencies to undertake digital transformation.”
The full report of the inquiry is available online.