AU’s govt ICT failures: Is outsourcing to blame?

Published on the 18/10/2017 | Written by Jonathan Cotton

AU's govt ICT failures

CPSU points finger at external vendors, contractors and excessive cost cutting…

With long wait times, low service standards and the 2016 Census, ATO and MyGov debacles, it’s no secret that the Federal Government has a few problems when it comes to doing tech right.

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) sure knows it, savaging the Government’s dependence on outsourced IT in a submission on the digital delivery of government services, which urges the Government to reduce its reliance on contractors and to build internal capabilities.

While it’s not surprising that a public service union would champion the hiring of more public sector staff, the submission does highlight several serious problems with the digital delivery of government services and the government’s approach to ICT generally, and offers some startling insights into Australia’s public sector digital service capacity.

“The Government’s credibility on innovation and service has been eroded by a series of high profile ICT failures and ongoing service delivery problems for clients, and poor quality ICT systems are also a major problem for APS staff,” the submission says.

“The Government’s service standards are not meeting community expectations,” says the submission, “falling behind service delivery in non-government sectors”.

The CPSU places the blame on decades of outsourcing and contracting, which has left the APS overly reliant on external vendors and contractors, creating critical issues with capability and cost.

They might have a point. While the Government continues to spend procurement, they’ve been cutting back on internal public sector jobs, with staffing levels projected to reach their lowest point in a decade (core public sector staffing in 2016-17 is projected to be lower than 2006-07 staffing levels). Contractors now comprise around a third of ICT staff.

“Since 2013 this Government has made $7.6 billion worth of cuts, costing more than 18,000 jobs. Previous ICT reviews and strategies have been focussed on achieving savings, and opportunities for strategic and architectural reform were missed.”

The submission says that 44 percent of all the government’s major applications are over a decade old and that 53 percent of the government’s desktops and laptops are past the end of their planned useful life. Those figures are supported by The Australian Government ICT Trends Report 2015-16.

According to the submission, inadequate access to IT support is also a problem.

“Many members report that outsourced IT service arrangements have substantial limitations on the range and timeliness of IT support. In addition, members report pressure from managers not to request IT support, changes and fixes because of concerns about the cost and budget implications.”

The submission urges the Government to reduce reliance on external vendors and contractors, rebuild APS capability, and to make a “long-term commitment” to “fostering an APS culture that better supports innovation and digital transformation”.

Access to online government services is high: Every month one in eight Australians – around 2.5 million people – seek to access government information and public services online. Small business owners are the most likely to have accessed a government website in the four-week period, followed by job seekers, parents and workers. A Boston Consulting group report found that more than half of users (55 percent) report facing a problem when using online government services.

There’s little doubt there are serious problems with the Government’s approach to digital delivery of services.

Unfortunately, whether those problems stem in part from its dependence on outsourcing – and whether reducing contractors would in fact address those issues – is hardly clear.

For now the inquiry rolls on, with a report due 4 December this year.

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