NT's 'white elephant' asset system will continue to bleed cash

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NT's 'white elephant' asset system will continue to bleed cash

Will it be scrapped?

The future of the Northern Territory’s IT white elephant, a $50 million asset management system that offers less functionality than the legacy solutions it replaced, will be decided early next year.

But witnesses before the NT parliament’s public accounts committee have made it clear that even if the Territory pulls the plug on the project it will continue to haemorrhage cash for years to come.

David McHugh, who heads up the Department of Infrastructure - one of the most intensive users of the asset management system - described the sector-wide solution as “a waste of space”.

But he conceded that the state had no choice but to remediate the system because “even if they decide to trash it... there wouldn’t be a revised system in place for maybe three years”.

“So there is no alternative but making it work,” he said.

Another of the system's biggest users, the Department of Housing, has suffered a huge drain on resources as a consequence of the system short-falls.

In its remote housing office, jobs that were previously undertaken by one person part-time now require full-time attention from three workers.

Weekly urban housing reports that used to take one hour to generate now take 5.5 hours.

Asked whether her department would operate more efficiently if the SAP-based solution was pulled, Housing CEO Anne Bradford said yes, but added it wouldn’t happen overnight.

“It would take a number of years to unwind some of the changes that have occurred,” she said.

“There is a bubble of cost either way.”

The public accounts committee found the line of sight to those accountable for the project equally murky.

The cabinet, project directors, the steering committee, agency heads, and even agencies themselves have been drawn into the melee by various witnesses.

Many of the executives who had oversight of the project when it was at its critical stages have now moved on. Those that are still working for the Territory government have described conditions which made success an almost impossible prospect.

“You have got to remember that at the time we had a [full-time equivalent] cap in place so agencies couldn’t go above their number resources,” said Wendy York, CIO at the Department of Infrastructure. York held an executive role overseeing the project for six years while it was still within her agency’s remit.

She highlighted “a very fuzzy budget line” as one of the key challenges to what the Auditor-General has described as an under-resourced project.

“It had a big impact. You can’t review documents, you can’t make informed decisions,” she said.

“Sometimes backpackers were the only staff we could engage. We could spend money but we couldn’t employ experts.”

She also said the project’s steering committee didn’t meet as regularly as it could have.

But Kathleen Robinson, who sat on the committee, claimed it was kept in the dark about the full extent of the issues being faced by the implementation team.

“There was not a lot to set alarm bells ringing at the steering committee level,” she said.

The Auditor-General Frank McGuiness said the buck should have stopped with the then-Infrastructure CEO Al Wagner.

Nearly all agreed that agencies had been stubborn and inflexible when it came to amending business process to fit the new scheme.

Earlier this month, corporate and information services minister David Tollner described the asset management system project, which is now nearly seven times over its original budget of $7.2 million, as the Territory’s answer to the Queensland Health payroll disaster.

He raised the prospect of scrapping the system, which only meets an estimated 11 percent of business needs, and also of taking prime contractor Fujitsu to court to recoup costs.

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