Australian government is currently juggling 62 high-cost IT projects

Information revealed to ZDNet under freedom of information has shown all of them are valued at over AU$10 million, and one was contracted to Telstra back in 2013.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor
Image: Asha Barbaschow/ZDNet

There are currently 62 technology projects underway by Australian government entities that are valued at over AU$10 million and loosely under watch by the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA).

The DTA in early 2017 was charged with looking into the structures of existing Australian government high-cost technology projects, but as was revealed during a round of Senate Estimates last year, the DTA's powers only go so far and the best way to avoid scrutiny for a troubled IT project is to ignore phone calls from the DTA, not reply to emails, and bump up self-reported scores.

Documents received by ZDNet under freedom of information (FOI) revealed the earliest project the DTA is aware of started in April 2013 and has yet to be marked as completed.

The project in question, Department of Defence's Terrestrial Communications program, called JP 2047, was originally touted by the department as a multi-phased project to maintain and improve Defence's networked communications infrastructure. 

Telstra was handed AU$1.1 billion to build the network. A handful of million-dollar cash top-ups have since been paid, Austender shows.

The DTA previously said it was facilitating the exchange of information -- collaboration -- between other agencies and Defence for this project, with the DTA also engaging Defence to discuss lessons learnt from similar projects undertaken by the Commonwealth.

See also: Defence finally reveals AU$190m major IT support contracts

While the DTA has claimed section 33 protection under the FOI Act in providing information on seven projects, other Defence projects being monitored include an enterprise student management system. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) hopes to enhance the education and training of personnel, having handed Brisbane-based TechnologyOne a contract to deliver student management software in 2018.

After receiving nearly AU$1.4 million for the proof of concept, around AU$18 million was awarded in October.

Defence had also previously confirmed during Senate Estimates in October that it spent AU$7 million to procure an automated travel management system as part of Project Concur, which was ultimately abandoned. The final cost of this project exceeded a possible AU$10 million.

The travel management system was supposed to be completed by 2017.

The DTA previously made the status of high-cost IT projects available, without having to resort to an FOI, revealing in May 2018 that there were 80 projects that fit the bill.

At the time, the DTA had given the projects a rating: Monitor, verify, or engage.

Getting on the agency's "engage" list meant the project, already exceeding AU$10 million in government expenditure, was either highly complex, has a wide community reach, or the DTA had highlighted a declining confidence in delivery.

At the time, 19 projects had featured on the engage list at some stage.

Defence's Terrestrial Communications program was on the list, as was its End User Computing project, which saw the department replace its existing desktop environment, including the purchase of new PCs, communications, and supporting network infrastructure.

See also: Defence to overhaul tech capabilities as part of digital transformation program

New name, same projects

With the Department of Human Services (DHS) cum Services Australia still in the midst of its seven-year project to overhaul its 30-year-old payment system which is currently responsible for processing over AU$100 billion in Centrelink payments annually, the DTA still has its eyes on the project.

2021 will be seven years since the Welfare Payment Infrastructure Transformation (WPIT) program -- expected to cost the Australian government at least AU$1 billion -- was first announced.

It made an appearance on the engage list previously, and the DTA says WPIT is now in "tranche 3", which commenced in July 2018. SAP was named as the preferred solution back in 2016.

When the project was announced, former Treasurer Joe Hockey said Centrelink and the Pentagon in the United States were the only two customers in the world of "this one company that maintains the Centrelink mainframe, which is extraordinary".

Also in the hands of the department responsible for robo-debt and overseen by Minister Stuart Robert is the Remote ICT Capability Enhancement Project, which since August 2018 has been the program of work to implement remote IT capabilities for staff.

Separately, Services Australia is also working on a Compliance Improvement and Modernisation project. With a start date of 2015, just before Centrelink's Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) initiative began sending automated debt letters, the project is aimed at improving engagement and compliance with the welfare payments system.

There's also the Enforcing Welfare Recipient Obligations program, which has been in development since mid-2017. It focuses on "improving transactional welfare payment obligations".

See also: Services Australia wants a one-stop shop for data to verify welfare claims

And after it was revealed in early 2018 that DHS had blown AU$135 million on a bad and functionally incomplete child support system, known as Pluto, the department now has on its books a "Child Support Inquiry Program" instead, which is concerned with the delivery of "recommended improvements to the child support program".

The department went to tender for the Pluto project back in 2013, but after having selected Accenture and SAP to help deliver Pluto and paying the pair around AU$62 million, it decided in 2016 to pause the delivery of the system on the advice of former DHS secretary Kathryn Campbell.

It then decided to implement some work that was previously developed as part of WPIT.

The National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), the independent statutory agency charged with implementing the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), also has its "Business System Enhancements" projects under watch by the DTA.

The project is described as an "Enhancement to NDIS business systems; CRM, Participant and Provider Portal".

The NDIA currently uses an IT platform delivered and supported by Services Australia to support its core operations, including a Services Australia-hosted SAP CRM solution that is used as the system of record for all participant information, such as participants' personal details and budget information. It wants to eventually shift these records to the cloud.

The government in 2016 was found to have been under-resourced and underprepared in rolling out the NDIS by PwC, which resulted in a number of disruptions to the online MyPlace portal including delays in payments being issued to service providers and those with a disability.

See also: Australia's NDIS the next target for blockchain

Health, health, and health 

Appearing again is Australia's incumbent telco.  

In 2015, the Department of Health began its National Cancer Screening Program. The project's AU$220 million contract was awarded to Telstra in 2016, with the telco signed on to create a database of cancer records for those who have been screened for bowel and cervical cancer.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) in 2017 called out the program for having no plan around how privacy and security of the register would be handled, saying at the time, "inadequate" planning had led to the incurrence of additional costs.

Another project undertaken by Health is a payment administration for high-cost medicines on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). When tendering for the project in 2017, the department said the current 30-year old "obsolete" system made in excess of 600 million payments per year -- worth approximately AU$50 billion across the health and aged care services.

See also: Re-identification possible with Australian de-identified Medicare and PBS open data

The Enterprise Data Warehouse (EDW) Data Portal project that Health started in early 2016, meanwhile, is currently described as "a key stepping-stone towards enhanced EDW information capability".

Phase one of the Data Portal was released on 28 June 2016, which saw the provision of a stand-alone file-sharing website.

Health last year also kicked off a project to strengthen aged care by "establishing a risk-based targeting and information sharing system". The DTA said the proposed solution would replace the existing systems and automate manual handling processes.

Also still plodding along is Health's compliance measures to support immunisation rates.

"No Jab No Pay" is a requirement [PDF] which withholds Child Care Benefit, the Child Care Rebate and, the Family Tax Benefit Part A end of year supplement for parents of children under 20 years of age who are not fully immunised or on a recognised catch-up schedule. It imposes fines on childcare centres that admit unvaccinated children.

The spend for the tech behind this measure has pushed past AU$10 million.

Meanwhile, the My Aged Care Extension Measure -- the implementation of the My Aged Care website and information gateway -- has been contracted to Liquid Interactive, for a total of AU$15.8 million until October this year. The original budget was AU$12 million.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has also been working to reduce the grant application and assessment-related burden on the health and medical research community.

Its RGMS Replacement with Sapphire project started in July 2017 and went operational from earlier this year.

The Department of Social Services (DSS) is also on the list of entities with multiple tech projects under the DTA's watch. One such high-cost project is the National Redress Scheme, which came in response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The project delivers business processes and IT systems to support the scheme, which offers survivors of instituted child sexual abuse access to counselling, a direct personal response, and a redress payment.

Also where payments are concerned is the "Increased New Migrant Waiting Periods" program of work that kicked off in 2017. Legislative changes came into force in 2018 and from the start of 2019, the government began following the new method for issuing welfare to new migrants into Australia. 

More projects with nationwide reach

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) had its Single Touch Payroll (STP) project on the DTA's engage list before, but despite its status being downgraded to "monitor", the project is still yet to be marked as complete, after coming into effect on 1 July 2019.

STP is essentially the automation of pay-as-you-go (PAYG) and super reporting between businesses and government.

The ATO is also involved with a handful of other high-cost super-related IT projects, such as the "super new measures contribution changes and improvement" program of work and the transfer balance cap, which caps payments to AU$1.6 million. Both projects appear seemingly straight forward but have almost been running for four years each.

myGovID -- the Australian government's digital identity credential handled by the ATO -- is another project under watch by the DTA. It's like the 100 point ID check but on a smart device, and it allows citizens to have their identity verified so they can access government services using that verified identity rather than being verified continually by each Commonwealth entity.

DTA said that by the end of 2018-19, there were 11,785 downloads of its myGovID iOS smartphone app and 6,676 digital identities created.

See also: More privacy conscious and not Australia Card 2.0: DTA defends digital identity play

Its Relationship and Authorisation Manager, which enables individuals to act on behalf of a business, is also costing the taxpayer more than AU$10 million.

The DTA also has its eye on its own "Tell us once" concept, which is part of the Commonwealth's Whole‐of‐Government (WoG) Digital Platforms play. The agency hopes myGov will be transformed through a set of new WofG platforms, including Tell Us Once and Notifications.

A matter of national security

The Department of Home Affairs (DHA) New Traveller Processing Platform makes an appearance on the DTA's list. The platform is touted as supporting the expansion of SmartGates, increasing uptake of self‐processing, and increasing availability of automated border processing.

It was announced in 2014 that the federal government would roll out automated departure eGates at each of Australia's eight major international airports from mid-2015.

The department's Seamless Traveller project has also been attempting to implement processes and technologies at airports and seaports to provide a contactless traveller experience for travellers.

Since 2018, international travellers departing Australia have been able to check in via smartphone, with airlines issuing electronic boarding passes for international flights.

Home Affairs also absorbed the Border Force project to upgrade the New Traveller Processing planning and scheduling system, which started in October 2015; and likewise with the mobile technologies initiative that is aimed at enabling officers to "effectively conduct border functions supported with equipment and technology allowing greater capability and system connectivity". The mobile technologies project, still not complete, began in July 2015.

Meanwhile, Unisys in 2017 signed a three-year contract with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, worth a potential value of up to AU$77.7 million, to provide managed service desk and end-user computing services.

There's also a biosecurity initiative costing north of AU$10 million.

See also: Department of Immigration and Border Protection: We can't afford to fail  

In a bid to tackle "serious and organised crime", the DHA superministry was also given AU$59.1 million in the 2018-19 Budget to develop a new National Criminal Intelligence System (NCIS).

The system is expected to provide law enforcement and intelligence agencies with a national repository of criminal intelligence and information.

The NCIS is on the DTA's radar due to the project's high cost and the fact it would contain highly sensitive information once complete.

CCTV upgrades and real-time information gathering also appear on the DTA's list.

DHA set out in October to refresh its Video Surveillance Equipment and Services Panel, seeking providers to support what it has called its operational requirements in the prevention, detection, and deterrence of unlawful activity.

The department's existing panel is set to expire on 30 June 2020, and it said it has an ongoing requirement for the delivery and support of its National Digital CCTV capabilities.

Currently, Home Affairs' CCTV network consists of around 5,500 cameras at 112 sites across Australia.

Relatively new, the Department of Education has undertaken a New Employment Services trial.

The trial is testing key aspects of the new employment services model, including the new Digital and Enhanced Services offerings, new payment structures, and a new IT system.

The new model began trials in two regions on 1 July 2019 -- Adelaide South in South Australia and Mid North Coast in NSW -- and it is expected to be rolled out nationally from July 2022.

Nortec Employment & Training Ltd was awarded AU$13.5 million in October.

Who's to blame?

During Senate Estimates in May, the DTA was grilled over Education's Australian Apprenticeship Management System (AAMS) project as part of its work around monitoring these projects that have received over AU$10 million, after the AAMS was scrapped following a number of delays and a doubling in cost.

The project, awarded to NEC in October 2015 and worth an initial AU$10 million, was intended to deliver a new IT system to replace the Training and Youth Internet Management System (TYIMS) which supports Australian Apprenticeships.

At the time, former DTA CEO Gavin Slater told Estimates that the responsibility and accountability for the delivery of the programs looked at by his agency laid with the relevant agencies, not the DTA.

"The agencies that determine a specific initiative to secure the funding, set it up, and get on with delivering that program; the oversight role we've played -- and it's only one we've picked up early in 2017 onwards -- was to produce a perspective of projects over AU$10 million, how the overall portfolio of projects is performing," Slater explained.

NEC was also involved in another failed Commonwealth project and in July commenced legal proceedings against the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) in an attempt to recoup costs and expenses after its contract to deliver the Biometric Identification Services (BIS) project was cancelled in June 2018.

The AU$52 million BIS project was labelled by ANAO in January last year as deficient in almost every way.

Then there's the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) online school testing environment. 

The testing authority responsible for NAPLAN, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), has had its project underway since October 2014 but has been plagued with criticism and has suffered IT blunders during testing time.

See also: 12 month extension for NAPLAN Online following May 'connectivity issues'

And lastly...

Elsewhere, the Department of Finance's Parliamentary Expenses Management System, in January 2018 set out to deliver a single, integrated online work expenses system to enable the management and reconciliation of Parliamentary entitlements and travel, as well as the regular publication of public reporting.

It is understood the department built the tech itself.

Also on the DTA's list is ASIC's Regulatory Transformation Program, which hopes to deliver a business operating model, including implementing a single technology portal to "enable collaboration across teams, allow easy access to data and interactions with stakeholders".

With the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) building the 2021 Census in the AWS cloud to avoid the troubles that using IBM caused back in 2016, it is also on the DTA's list after being given AU$38.3 million over three years in the 2019-20 Federal Budget to deliver the project.

Similarly under watch is the Statistical Business Transformation Program that in July 2015 saw the department kick off a modernisation program to "deliver an enterprise‐wide solution delivering productivity improvements".

The Federal Court Australia's technology transformation has also been on the DTA's radar for a while, with the agency saying previously it was engaged "because of the critical need for ongoing business function sustainability, the digital transformation of the court system, and the improvements to external user experience".

The Digital Court Program is meant to transform court processes, modernising from paper to digital. It started in July 2017.

The Commonwealth also has a handful of other projects on the list, including those to upgrade specific departmental networks; refresh telephony and other communications solutions; consolidate systems such as existing identity access management; an initiative to enable secure data-sharing; streamline case and business management; an enterprise resource planning solution; and a project to make it easier for businesses and individuals to deal with the government.

ZDNet had originally asked the DTA for the contracted vendor/s for each project, the amount spent to-date on each, as well as the project's status and whether the DTA had faith in the delivery of all 62 projects.

Access to the requested information under FOI was denied.

It was revealed last February that in the six months from July 2018 there were 524 requests to review FOI decisions -- up 42% over the same period a year prior. 318 reviews were finalised during that same time.

At the time, Information and Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk said there were 784 FOI Information Commissioner reviews on hand and 18 FOI matters that have been waiting 11 months to be assigned a case officer.

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