Ex-IBM boss due to front payroll inquiry

Summary:Nurses were being driven to despair within 12 weeks of Queensland Health's new payroll system going into meltdown. Three years later, the pay problems continue.

Thousands of staff members have been underpaid, overpaid, or not paid at all since IBM installed a flawed payroll program for the state's hospitals and health facilities in March 2010.

Some were left temporarily destitute, unable to pay their bills, while dozens of overpaid staff were falsely accused of fraud.

Nursing director Simon Mitchell remembers all too well the pain that staff felt during the first three months of the debacle. He said pay slips were incomprehensible, and staff members were exhausted after spending their free time trying to have corrections made.

"Even the pay corrections were incorrect, and this went on and on," he said. "People were crying.

"They were stressed and disillusioned, and they approached every pay day with fear."

The system, which was meant to be largely automated and cost effective, continues to be labour intensive and costly to operate.

The AU$6.19 million contract for the new computer system will ultimately cost Queensland taxpayers an estimated AU$1.2 billion.

Mitchell, like many, wants to know who is responsible for Queensland's worst IT bungle, and how it came about. He hopes an AU$5 million government-commissioned inquiry into the fiasco will deliver answers.

The inquiry, headed by former Supreme Court Judge Richard Chesterman, QC, spent the first two weeks of hearings last month examining why IBM won the contract in 2007, and whether it had an unfair advantage.

It has developed a strong focus on Terry Burns, the consultant who led the tender process for the government. Burns had worked for IBM as its "top man" in South Africa for three years. He ran, and even saved, major IT projects in New Zealand and the UK, the inquiry has heard.

Shortly after arriving in Brisbane in 2007, Burns was appointed to a panel of four consultants to review the state's rollout of new computer systems for a number of government departments.

After the first review, he conducted others alone.

The government's IT arm, CorpTech, was managing the project, but the rollouts were not smooth and the budget was being spent rapidly.

Burns' report was critical of CorpTech, and recommended that the state create a number of powerful positions, to which he was later appointed. He also pushed for the state to outsource the project management to a single company under a prime-contractor model.

This meant that the state would not have in-house control over IT rollouts.

The state ended up following the recommendation.

Counsel assisting the inquiry, Peter Flanagan SC, told early sittings that the reliance placed upon Burns for important matters was of particular interest.

"Within a very short time, he had what he described as a 'short line' to the under-treasurer," Flanagan said.

Witnesses also told the inquiry that Burns showed a talent for quickly gaining the confidence of people in influential positions.

An email by IBM managers about Burns has emerged as key evidence.

The May 2007 email by IBM's public sector expert said Burns is "almost at a stage that he is coaching us, and is already strongly recommending the position we should take in some areas".

"Terry admitted today with a grin that he was once a 'long-time IBMer'."

The email was sent during the early days of the review process, before a full appreciation of the IT troubles was realised.

Mark Nicholls, a risk management consultant who initially hired Burns, told the inquiry the email showed that Burns had a preconceived view of what should be done.

A three-week tender process was held in September 2007, with the state ultimately awarding IBM the contract in December.

Burns is yet to appear before the inquiry.

Mitchell said the human costs of the debacle have been enormous, and he hopes the inquiry can expose who was responsible as well as any unethical behaviour.

Topics: IBM

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