Australia’s opposition party calls for inquiry into government’s “digital wreckage”

SUMMARY:

The Labor Party claims that the Coalition Government has doubled its digital spend to $10 billion, but is continuing to see failure after failure.

The Coalition Government in Australia has come under fire from the opposition party’s shadow minister for the digital economy, claiming that the federal government has doubled its digital spend to $10 billion but has left nothing more than a “digital wreckage.

Ed Husic is calling for a senate inquiry into the government’s technology spend, citing a number of either failing projects, unplanned over expenditure, and website crashes.

The Australian government set up its Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) in 2015 to help departments rethink how they deliver services to citizens, using digital technologies. It’s responsibilities are very similar to those of the Government Digital Service and diginomica/government has previously cited the similarities between the two organisations.

The Labor party believes, however, that the government is failing on its ambitions and that the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee should examine why so many projects have failed, been cancelled, or crashed and what can be done to “put the vital work of digital transformation at the centre of government”.

It claims that the “digital wreckage” that has built up under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is “staggering”, and cites the following as examples:

• The Australian Tax Office website’s repeated crashes over eight months
• The Centerlink robo-debt debacle
• The highly publicised census failure
• The NAPLAN online failure
• Child support upgrades running late and over budget
• myGov running almost 200% over budget
• Abandoning the GOV.AU program to create a single government website domain to simplify access to government information

In April, Labour asked the government to initiate and arm’s length, independent inquiry into digital transformation, but claims that the call has “gone unanswered”.

In March a poll commissioned by the Australian Information Industry Association found that only 16 per cent of Australians though the government was doing a good job of providing digital services.

In a press release, the Labor party said:

Worse still, at a time where the Turnbull Government increasingly pressures the Senate to support harsh budget cuts, it is remarkable the government has ploughed billions more into its digital spend without explanation.

Despite all the digital failures the Turnbull Government has remained silent as services crash and projects go off the rails. The Australian public deserves to know what went wrong and how it can be fixed.

Union support

Australia’s national trade union, CPSU, has welcomed the calls for a Senate inquire into government IT spend, but also warned that it must seek real answers and should not become an excuse for public service bashing or scapegoating.

CPSU Assistant National Secretary Michael Tull said:

An inquiry is essential. The Government spent around $10b on IT this year, up more than $3b on last year, yet APS staff are clients are still experiencing huge problems.”

It is crucial that the inquiry is full and frank. Public sector staff are struggling to deliver good outcomes for the public in an environment dominated by outsourced IT planning and delivery. If anyone thinks that public sector IT problems can be fixed by blaming a few public sector workers and then giving even more contracts to the big ICT companies, they haven’t been paying attention.”

Over recent years we’ve seen Government try to fix IT problems by throwing money at external vendors, always to no avail. With Census fail, ATO crashes and now the huge Child Support problems, it’s time to ask some fundamental questions about how Government manages IT.”

The recent Head of the Government’s Digital Transformation Office, Paul Shetler, is on the record as saying that years of outsourcing has de-skilled the Commonwealth public sector and produced an over reliance on external contractors which is driving ‘eye-watering’ costs.

The CPSU said that it is crucial that the inquiry focuses on the government’s “over-reliance” on outsourcing and external vendors. Tull added:

Every day CPSU members experience the issues that come from a system dominated by external vendors, complex contracts and lack of leadership from the very top. We think this inquiry is a chance to get some big issues on the table. As long as the Inquiry Terms of Reference provide proper protections for witnesses, CPSU members will be able to speak openly and frankly.”

The massive developments in digital technology have set new standards for digital services and engagement, and it should be the goal of Government to match that standard.

Criticism

The CPSU’s reference to Paul Shetler, the Australian Government’s recent head of the DTO, who was plucked from the UK’s Government Digital Service to head up digital change down under, comes following his decision to step down following what he describes as a “fundamental disagreement” with Angus Taylor, Australia’s Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation.

Upon stepping down, Shetler published a blog post on LinkedIn that was highly critical of the Australian government’s resistance to change, which he said was largely due to “structural, cultural and skills” blockers.

He said that there was a “fear of digital” and a “remarkable” reliance on consultants.

Since then, Shetler has continued to mount the public criticism on the government, citing reasons that will be familiar to those of us in the UK that have also seen a resistance to change. He has been quoted as saying:

I came in to do a thing and the thing I came in to do was to transform the Australian government and to do so through delivery. When you have somebody saying, ‘Well we don’t want to do that, let’s take a different approach, let’s take the same approach we tried several times before which didn’t work’… I don’t want to take the same approach that didn’t work several times before.

The idea that the Digital Transformation Agency should just become a policy agency and essentially stop doing its delivery was not something which I agreed with. It’s not the way that I want to work and it’s not the way that I do work. And it’s not the way that I will work.

It’s extremely difficult to get an incredibly bureaucratised, incredibly balkanised bureaucracy to decide it wants to transform itself. That’s an awful lot of inertia in the systems built in. It’s obviously possible to do that but you need to have strong support along the way from the ministers and the top. I think that there has to be the ambition and, extremely importantly, I think there has to be the political will to do so. And I question that. I think it’s absent.

My take

Scrutiny is a good thing and the Australian government should welcome an inquiry into what is working and what (clearly) isn’t. However, the trade union is right, this shouldn’t be used as a political stick to bash those on all sides. It should be used to identify failings, find out what has worked, and put together a plan to move forward. But, this is politics, and when is that ever sensible?

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