A trail of government website crashes, tech wrecks and costly projects is expected to face scrutiny when Labor moves for a Senate probe into the Coalition’s troubled multibillion dollar IT spend this week.
The inquiry, if supported by the Senate, would haul government officials in front of a parliamentary committee investigating the causes of multiple controversies in the government’s roll-out of digital services, culminating in the infamous “censusfail” saga and the Department of Human Services’ “robo-debt” program.
Tech spending by the public service and military establishment has soared from $6.7 billion in the 2014-15 financial year to $9.3 billion in 2015-16 and it is projected to grow by another $300 million this year. But a series of high-profile blunders has shredded the government’s reputation for delivering digital services.
As the government hands the national postal plebiscite on same sex marriage to the Australian Bureau of Statistics despite concerns about the agency following job cuts and the short lead-up to the survey, the inquiry would probe the ABS’ readiness for the task given failures during the 2016 census.
The opposition is expected to seek crossbench support for the move.
Opposition digital economy spokesman Ed Husic said Labor was pushing to investigate the government IT blunders after the Coalition failed to conduct a review into its tech programs earlier this year, despite calls to do so.
“The government can’t explain what went wrong and what it’s going to do,” he said.
“We see the Senate inquiry as a critical process to get a handle on what’s happened.”
Failures on the scale of recent IT controversies – including a delay upgrading the DHS’ Child Support systems – would be punished in the private sector if they followed multibillion dollar spending, Mr Husic said.
“It would be surprising to see anyone holding onto their job,” he said.
The long-awaited new payment system for Australia’s $3 billion child support program ran into trouble almost immediately after its launch earlier this year, with Child Support Agency staff reporting the new system as slower and clumsier than the obsolete technology it was meant to replace.
The Senate inquiry would ask departments to explain how their projects were governed and contractors selected, and aside from the ABS and the mammoth DHS, senators would direct many of their questions at Australia’s Tax Office.
Outages hit the Tax Office’s IT system last month, forcing the agency to take its tax return systems offline at its busiest season, after the ATO’s website and internal systems crashed nine days ahead of tax time and remained unavailable for several hours.
Amid questions about its role and following an exodus of tech innovators, the Prime Minister’s own pet project, the Digital Transformation Agency, would also bear much of the committee’s scrutiny.
Labor is moving to investigate the tech programs after peak ICT body the Australian Information Industry Association found in March only 16 per cent of people told a survey the federal government was using technology very well to deliver services to taxpayers.
Customers had much greater confidence in online services from banks, telcos and shopping sites, the survey found.
Mr Husic said people increasingly relied on the government’s digital services for tasks.
“They don’t want to stand in a queue or sit in a phone queue, if they can use their smartphone to get things done.”
The inquiry, which would be led by Labor senator Jenny McAllister, could report back by December if supported by the Senate.
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