This is fine: Australian government senators back current digital transformation path

Canberra has a 'coherent strategy' for digital transformation, government senators say, as opposition senators claim there is a lack of will.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

The report by the Senate Standing Committees on Finance and Public Administration into the digital delivery of government services appeared on Tuesday, with partisan lines drawn from the off.

"Throughout this inquiry, however, it has become clear to the committee that digital transformation is a policy area beset by soaring rhetoric and vague aspirations by government, largely unconnected to the actual policy activities actually undertaken," the second paragraph of the majority view of the committee states.

The majority view cites the well-trodden path of federal government IT stuff-ups: The failure of the Australian Bureau of Statistics to handle the 2016 Census; the string of outages at the Australian Taxation Office in recent years; Centrelink's robo-debt disgrace that worked so well and is now being looked at by the Commonwealth Ombudsman; and the cost blow-outs hitting the Department of Human Services and its child support system.

"Though diverse in their nature, the incidents all have in common underlying infrastructure and design fragility of their digital systems," the report says. "These failures have the potential to cause harm to individuals as well as to undermine the public's trust in the Australian government's capacity to transition to a digital administration and economy."

In response, government senators appear to unwittingly be helping the opposition members make their point as they push a view that everything is fine and ticking along nicely, thank you very much.

"The very few examples handpicked by the committee represent very much isolated unfortunate exceptions against a background of high performance in the delivery of digital solutions," the response penned by Senators James Paterson and Amanda Stoker says.

"It must be highlighted that over the period of this government, there have been hundreds, if not thousands of digital projects, both large and small, funded by the government that have been delivered successfully."

The government senators called out the use of SmartGates used by customs and immigration authorities, the ATO's Alex chatbot, increased usage of myTax, and uptake of self-service for interactions with IP Australia.

It's worth keeping in mind that the Department of Industry binned its virtual assistant at the pilot stage, and that SmartGates are far from faultless and cause much havoc when they fall over.

Still, the response states that Cabinet and senior public servants are providing strategic leadership.

"The government has a coherent strategy to implement the digital transformation of government," the response claims.

Core to the report is the place that the Digital Transformation Agency has within the public service. It should not be surprising that this, too, is a partisan issue.

"The committee considers that the government has not demonstrated that it has the political will to drive digital transformation. This much is evidenced by the role it has given the DTA," the majority view says.

The view bemoans the change in focus that accompanied the shift of the Digital Transformation Office into the DTA, claiming it has been hobbled even as its scope was widened.

"At the time of its creation, it was intended to operate as a 'powerful new program management office' that would track ICT and digital projects across the whole of government, stepping in to remediate where things are not working," the majority view says.

"Now, two years later, the DTA performs a useful role in providing governance standards and guidance. Its contribution is muted because its role is confined to the level of assistance with discrete projects at the operational level.

"Cumulatively, the evidence heard by this committee revealed an organisation that was not at the centre of government thinking about digital transformation, or responsible for the creation and enactment of a broader vision of what that transformation would look like.

"Troublingly, no other organisation is."

Government senators rebutted the need for a centralised "mega-agency" to handle the digital needs of government.

"Such an approach to digital transformation is rooted in the old command-and-control view of the public sector that does not acknowledge the need for active engagement, flexibility and collaboration," they wrote.

"The functions of government departments and agencies are diverse and distinct, and it is important that the relevant corporate and policy expertise and knowledge are harnessed when transforming service delivery."

This argument bears a large resemblance to the approach taken by former Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Cyber Security Dan Tehan when taking about cybersecurity in late 2016.

"My view is we want each individual department and agency to take responsibility themselves, and the best way we can do that is just remind them of the need for them to take this issue incredibly seriously," Tehan said.

"What we want to develop is a culture with all departments and agencies within government that they have the mechanisms in place to make sure they are as cybersecure as they possibly can be, and if there is capability shortfalls, that they reach out to see how they can get them addressed by other agencies who can help in this regard."

Tehan dismissed the idea of any edict from government to force agencies to up their security game.

"I think if we go over the top ... sort of a centralised approach, I think that presents dangers."

As pointed out in the government senators' response, though, the government now has a "whole-of-government cybersecurity response" in the form of the Australian Cyber Security Centre within the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD).

The Tehan doctrine of cybersecurity self-reliance will not even make its second birthday when the ASD becomes an independent statutory authority within Defence on July 1, and begins to clean up the Australian government's cyber mess.

In the digital world, the idea of technology decentralisation where each and every agency is responsible and running its own stack is approaching equivalence with asking the same agencies to maintain the road and footpath to their front doors. There is a very good reason a proposition like this is never taken seriously.

Government senators further said they did not agree with the majority view that outsourcing had eroded the ability of the APS to undertake technology procurement.

To understand how the majority could have formed such a view, look no further than the report into the ATO SAN outage.

"The SAN was neither designed nor built to cater for greater than single drive failure or single cage failure," the report said.

That a storage system was allowed to be designed and implemented with such obvious oversight should speak volumes for the exodus of institutional knowledge out of Canberra in recent times.

"Digital delivery and applications are an increasingly significant part both of departments' internal processes, and their interactions with the general public and end users," the majority view says.

"The committee is concerned that the APS is unable to do much of this work.

"On its current trajectory, the APS risks becoming exclusively a cadre of generalist managers who no longer have the requisite policy and technical skills to conduct the business of government."

If the course is not changed soon and the warnings of the report not heeded, this is exactly the future Canberra will get. As the fires of incompetence and ignorance lap at Canberra's IT log cabin, the government appears as moved as a dog with a cup of coffee.

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