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Australian government ICT spending under fire

The opposition Labor party has called for a review of the government’s higher ICT spending and digital transformation programme

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The surge in information and communications technology (ICT) spending by the Australian federal government has come under fire following a number of embarrassing technology failures over the past year.

The government’s ICT spending was averaging about A$6bn (US$8.3bn) a year until the previous financial year when it ballooned to around A$9bn.

The extra spending had created a bonanza for technology suppliers while the government pursued an ambitious digital transformation strategy across agencies, and spent its way out of several blunders it made with government ICT systems.

In December 2016, the external websites, client portals and tax agent portals of the Australian Tax Office went offline. Tax officers sat idle, as many internal processing systems went down as well.

Months earlier, in August 2016, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ much vaunted census website was taken offline after a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.

The website remained inaccessible for 40 hours, leading to mass frustration and confusion among citizens trying to file their compulsory census forms.

A cross-party Senate Economics Committee report into the census debacle was highly critical of the bureau’s technology supplier IBM, which reportedly did not put in place proper testing and recovery processes.

Observers have said the causes of the spate of failures were partly the fault of cultural problems inside agencies where incumbent IT managers were resistant to change and too close to suppliers.

To counter the problem and help drive change and fresh thinking, the government created a Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) with expanded powers and budget.

But whether the DTA – which would soon benefit from a A$70m increase in funding – can turn government ICT around remains an open question.

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The opposition Labor party has become increasingly vocal about the sharp rise in federal ICT spending. Earlier in 2017, Ed Husic, the Labor shadow minister for the digital economy, said he feared the government’s digital transformation agenda was heading off the rails.

“With project after project hitting the skids, it’s hard not to take the view that dysfunction, turf wars and a distracted focus have delivered digital debris and inertia,” Husic said.

At an Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) summit in April 2016, Husic called for an independent review of the government’s digital transformation programme and the increase in federal government ICT spending.

“The opposition believes that the only way forward is for the government to do what it has previously shown an eagerness for – submit its entire digital transformation process to review,” Husic told the summit’s attendees.

The review would investigate why so many government IT projects have come unstuck, find out what processes had been put in place to get value-for-money out of the A$9bn ICT budget, determine improvements to the digital transformation programme, and review governance and oversight on technology projects.

Husic told that the opposition would step up scrutiny through the parliamentary estimates process and get answers to legitimate questions about what the government spends on ICT.

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