28 June 2018

Digital Transformation Report

The Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration Digital Delivery of Government Services report offers a dim and in places distinctly partisan view of the latest grand vision to transform Commonwealth public administration.

The report comments on a 'Failure of leadership', stating
Transformation of any kind is challenging. It requires internal champions to overcome organisational inertia. 
The committee recognises that there are many senior public servants across the service who have sought to drive digital transformation within their departments. They have been let down in their efforts by the lack of a champion within government as a whole. 
Commenting elsewhere, former DTO CEO Mr Paul Shetler observed the following: "It's extremely difficult to get an incredibly bureaucratised, incredibly balkanised bureaucracy to decide it wants to transform itself. That's an awful lot of inertia in the systems built in...It's obviously possible to do that but you need to have strong support along the way from the ministers and the top. I think that there has to be the ambition to [digitally transform government] and extremely importantly I think there has to be the political will to do so."
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. 
At the time, the reorganisation of the DTO into the DTA was presented as representing an expansion of the agency's powers. In reality, although the agency's scope of operations did increase (for instance through the acquisition of responsibility for procurement), it was less empowered to take action. 
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. 
Even there, its involvement is limited. 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. 
In reality, it had only a minor role in the case studies examined by this committee. 
The DTA is supposed to maintain a watchlist of at risk projects. However the Biometric Identification Services that was suspended this month was not on the list despite being a large project which was already significantly overtime and over budget. 
The DTA has been sidelined in the new digital initiatives undertaken by the government. The committee heard that: Cyber policy will reside at the Department of Home Affairs. Data policy will reside at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The newly created Office of the Information Commissioner is organisationally separate from the DTA. No one in the DTA monitors whether the reported notifications by that office relates to Australian Public Service entities—agency performance in relation to security is not in its brief. The soon to be created Data Commissioner will be organisationally separate from the DTA.
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. 
There is a clear need for a whole-of-government vision and strategic plan for the digital transformation of government administration. The evidence is of departments and agencies in silos looking internally and focussing on their own approach to the digital delivery of their particular government service, where in many respects all are facing the same challenges. 
In the absence of any central vision, individual departments (and ministers) may end up pursuing projects that run counter to the aims of digital transformation. In particular, there may be a temptation to view ICT investment solely as a way to realise efficiencies and cut costs, rather than as a mechanism for transforming government service. 
The committee believes that it is a mistake to take such a narrow view. The consequences of adopting this approach can be seen in the "Robo-debt" case study. The committee found it galling that DHS officers could claim that despite the hardships it caused, the program went 'very well' because it saved the government money. For the department the impact of the program on vulnerable people seemed to be an irrelevant in its design; irrelevant in its evaluation. 
The committee was told by Dr Seebeck of the DTA that: "One of the key elements of digital transformation as it was envisaged—and you can track this through the DTO to the DTA—is that focus on user centredness, which is traditionally not the way government has tended to operate. Making sure that the user is absolutely dead centre in terms of any work of any government department, of any proposal that comes forward, is part of that process."
It is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile a program like "Robo-debt" with the principles of user-centredness that the DTA is supposedly responsible for engendering throughout government. 
This inconsistency is a direct product of the absence of a central vision for digital transformation. A cohesive and shared view, driven by a properly resourced and empowered department or agency, would serve to guide policy development and decision making by the bureaucracy and ministers alike. 
All departments and agencies would derive significant benefit from a whole-of-government strategic plan to achieve the digital transformation of government. Ultimate responsibility for this plan should rest with a central agency that is properly invested with powers and responsibility.
True digital transformation is a higher aspiration. The government to date has been unable to meet even the lower objective of being able to replace aging infrastructure without major mishap. 
Digital projects—rightly or not—have a reputation in the public and private sectors alike for running overtime and over-budget. Over the past five years, however, the government has overseen a litany of failures, largely unprecedented in scale and degree. 
In November 2013, the newly elected Coalition Government initiated an audit of government ICT spending. Although there was some room for improvement, the review was largely positive about the value for money achieved for taxpayers and the nature of risk taken on by departments. 
The same could not be said today. Since the last election we have seen: The failure of the online delivery of the 2016 Census; Repeated crashes of the ATO website; Overrun and delay in the upgrades to the Child Support Agency infrastructure; Abandoning the GOV.AU redesign proposal; Halting the start of online NAPLAN testing; and Abandoning the AAMS apprenticeship platform. 
Shortly before this report was tabled, the already overtime and budget Biometric Identification Services project was suspended by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, with contractors escorted off the premises. [discussed in my article in the next issue of Privacy Law Bulletin]
Each individual instance of failure, delay, and cost overrun can be explained by specific factors at the project level. However issues have arisen at every stage of the project lifecycle, in large and small undertakings, and across departments and agencies. The pattern of faults points to broader systemic problems. 
There seems to be serious deficiencies in the way that departments contract with the private sector. Although some ICT projects are delivered on time and on budget, too often government agencies appear to have assumed a risk that is inconsistent with both the contract price and community expectations. 
There are some examples of improvement. In its contractual arrangements for the WPIT project, for instance, DHS seems more willing to put its partners on risk for failure to deliver than it had been with previous projects in years earlier. 
This is heartening. It is not sufficient or satisfactory, however, to have a learning curve that is half a decade long and billions in taxpayer dollars deep. Nor should each department have to go on its own voyage of discovery. 
An independent audit of completed and ongoing major ICT projects would allow lessons to be drawn from the contracting (and subcontracting) arrangements entered into by departments. It would be able to identify common sources of problems, and compare the allocation and pricing of risk across projects and with best practice.
The Committee offers the following recommendations
1 With the increasing demands for government to improve the digital delivery of services and functions, the committee recommends that the government undertake a review of the digital, cyber and data policy functions performed across government—and then establish key digital performance measures shared and reported across departments and agencies. 
2  The committee recommends that the success of government digital transformation should prioritise measurement of user experience—as this is likely to also drive process improvements beyond simply the application of digital technology. 
3  The committee recommends that the government deliver an annual Ministerial Statement on Digital Transformation that reports on cross-portfolio progress to improve digital transformation, identifying leading performance in departments and agencies and also publicly explaining steps to lift performance on projects failing to meet budget or delivery expectations. 
4  The Committee recommends that the government establish a regular timetable to independently audit ICT contracting and subcontracting arrangements to identify whether government is taking on a level of risk that is consistent with the contract price and community expectations - and to help identify or improve contracting standards or set better principles based approaches to future contracting.. 
5  The Committee recommends that departments examine project budgets to identify and eliminate unnecessary spend on contractors, consultants and external vendors. Further, it should consider developing a longer term strategy to build internal public service capability to help drive the development or in house build of digital activities regularly contracted out by government. 
6  The committee recommends that the Australian Public Service Commissioner be tasked with developing a whole-of-government Australian Public Sector Information and Communications Technology career stream with mandated competencies and skill-sets for Information and Communications Technology professionals, government procurement officers, and Information and Communications Technology project managers. 
7  The committee recommends that the government routinely report on how it intends to lift the number of digital apprentices and trainees that it is currently recruiting into the public service. 
8  The committee recommends that the DTA be tasked with developing education and training initiatives to enhance the digital competency of all APS employees, including SES officers.