When IT projects really need doing

Sometimes I worry about how governments decide which IT projects to fund.
Written by Suzanne Tindal, Contributor

Sometimes I worry about how governments decide which IT projects to fund.

It seems fairly obvious to me by looking at a recent audit report from the Victorian auditor-general that the Victorian Department of Human Services (DHS) is in desperate need of an electronic records-management system. Not only is the department completely failing to fulfil freedom of information (FOI) requests, which was the topic of the audit, but it's also likely losing hours of staff time as employees comb through its records for the information they need to do their jobs.

The DHS received 1047 FOI requests in 2010-2011. However, instead of meeting the 45-day deadline for fulfilling these requests, the average fulfilment time was 75 days.

The situation is so bad that the DHS has been offering to waive processing charges of FOI requests in exchange for the applicants waiving the requirement that the DHS get back to them within 45 days.

The audit report put this down to the DHS' record-keeping practices being below acceptable standards. And they certainly sound like they are.

Have a look at the pictures displayed in the audit report, which depict record indexes with cards sticking out in all directions in a higgledy-piggledy manner, as well as record books with parts of their covers missing. These files are stored in commercial storage and at a DHS facility in Melbourne's CBD for $1.75 million per annum. There are 28 kilometres of shelves, storing records of up to 150 years old. Here is the auditor-general's opinion of the department's record keeping.

DHS's storage facility is in disarray, and its search system is unnecessarily complex. The type of search required depends on the age and type of record requested, as multiple indexing systems are used within the facility. For example, Office of Housing tenancy records are contained randomly in numbered boxes. In order to search for an Office of Housing record, DHS must search through a folder that contains pages of random record references, and only when the reference is found can the corresponding box location be ascertained.

Yes, these are old, hard-copy documents, but you'd think that an electronic index would be able to keep track of where items are stored, and their contents.

Unfortunately, the physical realm isn't where the DHS' problems end. Its electronic documents are also in disarray. The DHS estimated that 90 per cent of its documents aren't properly managed as records.

"Records are stored in network drives, hard drives, portable devices and emails. Records that have not been managed in accordance with better practice are difficult to locate, requiring more resources to search for them. In some cases, these records cannot be located," the audit report said.

The DHS asked for $8.16 million to set up an electronic document- and records-management system, with $448,000 per annum extra afterwards.

However, this request was refused.

It's difficult to get too riled up about this without knowing the details of the application — the audit report said that there were some factual inaccuracies in the business case for the system — but even based on fulfilling FOI requests alone, I would think that the department deserves money for a new system.

What do you think?

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