Australian government blasted for lack of progress on audit of IT capabilities

A Senate committee has been left scratching its head about how government can address its IT issues due to the lack of information available.

The federal government has been blasted by a Senate committee for the lack of progress made towards auditing its IT capability.

The Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration said progress on an "urgent audit" that government agreed to undertake has been lagging, which has resulted in delays for its IT advancement.

"The committee is extremely disappointed by the apparent lack of progress made on the 'urgent audit' of ICT capability, risks, and needs committed to by the government in December 2019," the committee said [PDF].

The committee's comments were made as part of its final report for its inquiry into the current capability of the Australian Public Service (APS).

At the end of December 2019, the federal government had agreed to follow through on a recommendation from an independent review of conducting an urgent audit of government IT capability, risks, and needs and, in light of the audit, it would then commission a longer-term IT blueprint.

The audit, currently being conducted by the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) under the moniker of a digital review, only commenced in March 2021. Since then, the audit's progress has been slow and the DTA has been unable to provide the committee with a timeframe for when it would wrap up.

The DTA also reported that a decision had yet to be taken by the government as to whether the digital review would be made publicly available.

The committee explained it was disappointed with the lack of clarity regarding the audit as the APS' IT capability is "severely lacking and required significant investment to remedy". It added that the audit's progress was important as the APS currently has no central data collection process related to IT expenditure across government.

"The committee encountered difficulty in ascertaining the total government spend on ICT contractors, as well as the total headcount of external ICT personnel working in the APS. This was due to a lack of publicly available data as the APS does not centrally collect or collate this information," the committee said.

With the lack of information available, the committee said it could not provide detailed recommendations about where the government could do more.

"The committee is reluctant to deliver detailed recommendations in relation to future directions because of the paucity of information either publicly accessible, provided to the committee, or discovered through the Senate estimates process," it said.

Where the committee could make recommendations, it has called for the federal government to immediately finalise and publish the digital review conducted by the DTA.

It has also recommended the digital review include information relating to current and forecast IT expenditure and assets, systems scheduled for retirement or no longer supported by software, vendors and their associated risks, future requirements, and any urgent IT capital investment needs.

Other recommendations put forth by the committee are for the federal government to prioritise using any findings from the digital review to develop and fund a long-term, whole-of-government IT blueprint as recommended by the independent review.

In terms of how the APS awards IT contracts, the committee said where IT contracts are awarded to multinational corporations, the federal government should require those corporations to produce a copy of reporting under the Global Reporting Initiative Tax Standard, or implement the standard within one year.

It also called for the federal government to apply greater scrutiny in the awarding of IT contracts to ensure that Australian companies are given the chance to compete on a level playing field. 

The Liberal senators in the committee dissented from the final report's view, however, labelling the recommendations as "little more than a wish list for the union movement".

"Notably, many of the recommendations from Labor Senators would significantly increase the workload for various agencies and their APS employees for no demonstrable gain in outcomes for the Australian public," Liberal senators said in a dissenting report.  

They did acknowledge, however, that the APS may have fallen short of expectation in certain instances. 

"With over 150,000 employees across dozens of Departments and agencies, it is inevitable that there will be occasions when the APS falls short of internal or external expectations," Liberal senators said.

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