How to fix the govt’s digital service disaster?

Published on the 13/02/2018 | Written by Jonathan Cotton

Aussie digital service disaster

Submissions are in for the Senate inquiry into the wreckage that is Australia’s digital service delivery...

The review, which launched August last year, examines past and future government digital services and whether the stated objectives security, efficiency, economy and reliability can actually be delivered on.

Though we’re all sick of hearing about the latest public sector digital failure, such a review is both necessary and timely. Government spending on IT has surged recently from AU$6.7 billion in 2014-15 to AU$9.3 billion 2016-17.

Now the submissions – 24 in total and originating from a variety of organisations and individuals – are in.

Among the submitters is academic, consultant and former CIO and director of IT at the New South Wales Electoral Commission in Australia, Ian Brightwell.

Brightwell contends that the problems we see with the delivery and management of ICT systems within government is not so much about the public sector’s inability to deliver ICT programs per se, but rather a reflection of the public sector’s ability to delivery programs in general.

“The reason ICT program failure appears to be becoming more prevalent is because the [Australian Public Sector – or ‘APS’] is now undertaking the implementation of more public facing online systems which have higher visible and irrefutable failures,” says Brightwell. “This means the public and media are more easily able to identify agency program failures.”

“It has been my observation that the sector has had the tendency to hide from public scrutiny by using confidentiality, privacy and secrecy whenever programs have failed to meet their stated objectives. They have been successful in avoiding criticism for program failures for traditional highly manual public service programs because performance for these programs is hard for external parties to measure.”

With online ICT programs however, failure is easy to identify and the public can readily see if the delivered system works or not, he says.

“The APS is not comfortable being in a position where they have the same information in their hands as the public. They do not deal well with the public and media scrutiny when they are being criticised with facts they cannot refute.”

And in a way, that’s to be expected. As Brightwell points out, the nature of the committee process is usually political and seeks to extract information which can be used to damage political opponents.

“If parliament at large want the public sector to be innovative and take risks then parliament will need to set some ground rules around what is acceptable risk and what does acceptable failure look like”.

Brightwell says that the only way to improve decision making about programs is for more information about program health to be shared openly and the best way to get objective information which could be shared is for agency programs to undergo independent reviews. To that end, the committee should recommend to government that a consensus be developed which defines “acceptable failure” for an agency ICT program he says.

ICT governance in agencies should only allow the delivery of public-facing transactional systems where the system – including the infrastructure – is independently determined to be able to meet community expectations of security, reliability and performance, he continues.

Given the raft of high profile IT embarrassments that have plagued the public sector in recent times – the Census failure, the Australian Taxation Office’s multi-day outage, Centrelink’s debt recovery debacle, just to name a few – the time is surely ripe for meaningful action.

And sure, reviews like these are usually politically motivated and Labor can be expected to twist the knife while it can. Nevertheless, such inquiries are an opportunity to take stock of what’s gone wrong and to hopefully salvage something – if only wisdom in hindsight – from the wreckage of past IT disasters.

The committee is due to report on March 20, having missed its December 4 deadline. The 24 submissions received by the committee are available for view and download here.

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