Senate agrees to launch inquiry into Australia’s digital government failures

SUMMARY:

The opposition party in Australia this week had been putting pressure on the coalition government over its handling of digital projects in recent years.

Australia’s opposition party this week got it’s wishes granted after a Senate vote agreed to an inquiry into the digital delivery of government services, following a number of project failures and increasing spend under the coalition government.

The Labor party has been calling for a parliamentary inquiry into what it described as the “digital wreckage” left by the current federal government, which has also seen spend on digital double to $10 billion in recent years.

The inquiry will be carried out by the Finance and Public Administration Reference Committee and will report by 4th December 2017. It will investigate the “digital delivery of government services”, with particular reference to:

  • whether planned and existing programs are able to digitally deliver services with due regard for:
    privacy, security, quality and reliability, and value for money;
  • strategies for whole of government digital transformation;
  • digital project delivery, including: project governance, design and build of platforms, the adequacy of available capabilities both within the public sector and externally, and procurement of digital services and equipment.

Labor Senator, Jenny McAllister, and Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy, Ed Husic, released a joint statement following the Senate vote welcoming the news. It said:

Labor welcomes the Senate’s support for an inquiry by the Finance and Public Administration Committee into the government’s digital transformation program. The government’s spending on digital transformation and ICT has doubled since it came to office.

At a time when education and health funding are being cut savagely it is critical to make sure the $10 billion spent on digital transformation is value for money.

When Labor launched its appeal for the inquiry, it was welcomed by Australia’s national trade union, CPSU, calling it “essential”, citing the government’s over reliance on outsourced IT. However, CPSU also urged the Committee to speak real answers and not use the inquiry to become an excuse for public service bashing or scapegoating.

McAllister and Husic echoed these sentiments in their joint statement today. The pair said:

Labor looks forward to finding out why so many Turnbull Government digital projects have failed and what can be done to stop it happening again.

The inquiry will be its most productive if the government adopts an open and transparent attitude. Labor agrees with the views expressed by the CPSU that the inquiry should not be used to scapegoat public servants and we welcome the DTA CEO Gavin Slater’s public statements indicating he will cooperate with the inquiry.

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

It’s current CEO, Gavin Slater, told Fairfax Media the DTA would support the probe. He said:

It’s important. We will support whatever inquiry there is.

Problems have been brewing

The current Australian government has overseen a number of high profile technology failures in recent years, including:

  • 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

Not only this, but the DTA itself has been shrouded in controversy, after it’s previous leader Paul Shetler stepped down over 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

Transparency is important, as are checks and balances. A public inquiry could be useful to Australia’s government to assess what is working and what isn’t. However, what would be a shame is if the inquiry was used as a mechanism to scale back digital efforts or if the result was less appetite for digital ambition. We will be following this closely.

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