Failed federal biometrics project slammed by auditor

Millions wasted on ACIC project

Management of a major biometric identification project by CrimTrac and, later the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), was “deficient in almost every significant respect,” a report into the project has concluded.

Despite $34 million being spent on the Biometric Identification Services (BIS) project, out of a total approved budget of $52 million, not a single deliverable or milestone was met, a report released today by the Australian National Audit Office said.

The ANAO found problems with both contract management and the governance framework for the project.

The report said that ACIC “did not effectively manage the BIS project”, with a range of a failures including poor risk management, not following a process mandated in the relevant contract to assess project against milestones (and linking their achievement to payments), and inadequate financial management, including being unable to definitively advise how much had been spent on the project.

CrimTrac, one of the ACIC’s predecessor agency, in 2016 signed the contract with NEC for the biometrics system. BIS was intended to replace the National Automated Fingerprint Identification System (NAFIS) operated by CrimTrac, with the new system to include facial recognition capabilities.

The ACIC in June last year cancelled NEC’s BIS contract, citing delays. In a statement issued shortly after the ACIC announcement, NEC said it was “extremely disappointed” with the decision. NEC said the project “was ready to be handed over to the ACIC for System Acceptance Testing when the project was placed on hold by the ACIC”

During the course of the BIS project, the ACIC approved 11 additional pieces of work by NEC, worth $12 million, that were not in the original contract. The ANAO said that an ACIC officer who was part of the project team described at least one of the additional pieces of work as “madness” and technically almost impossible to achieve.

“A senior executive service officer with knowledge of the project described it as ‘one of the worst decisions that was made’ and that a simple temporary revision to police operating procedure would have avoided the need for it altogether,” the ANAO report said of the work on a reverse synchronisation feature.

The ANAO said it also found evidence of a $2.9 million ‘goodwill’ payment to NEC made in September 2017 that “does not appear to the ANAO to have been linked to the achievement of any specific milestone under the contract”.

During the course of the BIS project, the relationship between ACIC and NEC soured to the point where the government agency engaged PwC to mediate. The consultancy in December 2017 staged trust-building “turnaround” workshops with the two parties.

The effectiveness of the measure seems dubious, given the ACIC next month requested that NEC change its program manager. The ANAO said that the agency was unable to provide any documented reasons for the request. A new program manager lasted two weeks before leaving. Their successor then left in late February 2018.

When it became obvious that a NAFIS successor would not be finished by the time the contract with the system’s operator Morpho expired in May 2017, the ACIC decided to extend the contract “for a substantially higher price,” the ANAO report stated.

“The NAFIS contract is now due to expire in May 2020,” it added. “ACIC has yet to decide the future of NAFIS.”

In a statement, the ACIC said that it considered the audit to be “thorough and comprehensive”.

“The ACIC has bolstered its program management office to ensure a consistent, high-level approach to the delivery of projects. This includes governance and risk management, contract management and records management,” the statement said.

“The ACIC will continue to focus on connecting police and law enforcement to essential criminal intelligence, policing knowledge and information through collaborative national information systems and services.”

“NEC welcomes the ANAO’S report into the BIS project,” a spokesperson for the company said.

“NEC has a proud history and reputation as a leader in biometrics technology globally and every day we strive to be cutting edge in this field.

“NEC has delivered many similar projects around the world successfully, often for Government and in most cases as project lead/systems integrator.”

“In this project however, NEC was not the systems integrator, but the contractor,” the spokesperson said.

“NEC was ready to hand over the BIS project for systems testing when the project was terminated.”

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Tags governmentNECbiometricsAustralian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC)Biometric Identification Services

More about Australian National Audit OfficeBiometric IdentificationNational Audit OfficeNEC

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