Senate to probe Commonwealth digital service delivery following annus horribilis

The Australian government has opposed a probe into the recurring failure of its digital initiatives, labelling it a waste of time and money.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

The Australia Senate voted to instigate an inquiry into the digital delivery of government services on Wednesday, following a recent series of embarrassing failures.

The inquiry will be conducted by the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee, and will look into whether the government's digital services have "due regard" for privacy, security, quality, reliability, and are value for money; the digital transformation approach by the government; and how digital projects are being delivered.

The Coalition opposed the inquiry, with Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister Senator James McGrath saying it was unnecessary.

"The government has initiated a review of all projects over AU$10 million, and all critical business systems, with the results to be released shortly," McGrath said. "The government publicly releases detailed IT investment information regularly on the AusTender website."

In February, the government charged the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) to review all its IT projects worth more than AU$10 million, in search of greater transparency and oversight over its AU$6.2 billion annual technology spend.

Labor Senator Jenny McAllister said in a statement it was important to examine whether the AU$10 billion spent on digital transformation was value for money when education and health funding are "being cut savagely".

"The inquiry will be at its most productive if the government adopts an open and transparent attitude," McAllister said. "Labor agrees with the views expressed by the CPSU [Community and Public Sector Union] that this 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."

"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."

In recent times, Australian government agencies have had to deal with a rolling series of crises.

Just over a year ago, the 2016 Australian Census turned into a AU$30 million debacle after a tiny distributed denial of service attack took down the system built by prime contractor IBM.

"The online Census system was hosted by IBM under contract to the ABS, and the DDoS attack should not have been able to disrupt the system," the ABS said in September. "Despite extensive planning and preparation by the ABS for the 2016 Census, this risk was not adequately addressed by IBM and the ABS will be more comprehensive in its management of risk in the future."

Over the second half of 2016, the Department of Human Services (DHS) implemented an automated online compliance system to grab back funds owed to the Commonwealth by welfare recipients, which would infamously come to be known as "robodebt".

A report into the system in June said DHS should reassess all debts raised by the system.

Between November 2016 and March 2017, at least 200,000 people were affected by the system error where a recipient's fortnightly income was calculated by dividing their annual salary by 26, rather than taking a series of fortnightly snapshots.

A June report by the Australian National Audit Office found the myGov project, also run by DHS, had cost AU$86.7 million -- AU$57 million above budget as of June 2016.

Not to be left out, the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) has been battling an ongoing series of outages since late December, beginning with what was claimed to be a "world first" storage issue with its HP Enterprise SAN.

The ATO later said the SAN was designed for performance rather than reliability, and when 12 drives failed, it took down a system of over 800 disk drives.

A report later found the system could not handle more than one drive or cage failure thanks to HPE design decisions.

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