DTA wants new tech change powers

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DTA wants new tech change powers

Proposes altered budget models, new coordination controls.

The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) is pushing for changes to outdated government IT funding models to remove cloud adoption barriers, as part of the independent review of the Australian Public Service.

It is also wants further powers to effect government-wide transformation, as well as a revised risk appetite for agencies exploring innovative service delivery approaches.

In its submission [pdf] to the biggest review of the APS in more than 40 years, the DTA said the changes were needed to ensure Australia continuity as a world-leading digital government.

The agency has used the submission to doubled down on the need for an overhaul of Treasury's budgeting process, formalising calls for change from former chief Gavin Slater earlier this year.

It follows consistent complaint from senior technology leaders in government that the funding model for IT projects is "fundamentally broken".

“Budgeting processes should recognise the fast pace of change in technology, where the best solution to a problem today may be obsolete in just a few years’ time,” the submission states.

“Similarly, budgeting processes should support new models of working in the digital age, such as incremental, agile, approaches to delivery or cloud-based solutions that are purchased more like a utility than owned as an asset.”

The DTA said these changes would allow the APS to better respond to opportunities brought by new technology – particularly cloud, which “provide cost savings and performance improvements over on premise installations” – as well as address risk.

“Future budget processes could help government make more frequent, smaller-scale decisions, helping to adopt to new technologies sooner,” it said.

“This would allow the APS to respond to emerging risks and changes in the policy context.

“It would also help ensure that budget decisions – at the time they are made –are still relevant in the current context.”

More powers, greater risk

Better - or more formalised - coordination arrangements between agencies is another key consideration for the DTA, noting that digital transformation “cuts across” the otherwise “hierarchical and policy-portfolio structures of government”.

“The APS Review should examine where structural incentives could be tweaked to improve collaboration – including accountability, incentives to share investments or partner with agencies, or work together to address funding or technology barriers,” it said.

“Governance over whole of government change is one aspect that could be reviewed.”

It suggests that animosity between key service delivery agencies and an unwillingness to partner on projects continues to sway the transformation efforts of government that cut across agency boundaries.

It could also mean that the DTA is looking to shake off its reputation as a helping hand on agency projects – particularly those that are high-risk – and adopt a more proactive stance, as the government's enforcer of digital transformation discipline.

The DTA also looks to want to regain some of its credibly as a disruptor – which it lost when it became a fully-fledged agency – by arguing that there is a need to “revise the current tolerance for risk, through public discourse, to enable more ambition innovation”.

“Setting a frame in which to innovate, where a certain amount of risk is tolerated by the APS’ key stakeholders, will encourage agencies to explore newer and better ways of delivering services,” it said.

Unfinished business

Following recent criticism in the senate’s ‘digital delivery of government services’ report, the government’s lead on IT policy and procurement also uses the submission to argue its ongoing importance for leading digital transformation across the APS.

“The DTA is well-placed to help the APS address the challenges and opportunities ahead,” it states.

It points to the “significant improvements in the APS’ digital capabilities” that have resulted since it was created three years ago through the development of common platforms such as the govpass digital identity program and ICT procurement reforms.

The agency also insists that the government now has “a more complete view across the ICT portfolio ... where it did not previously” through initiatives like the digital investment management office and its watchlist of projects.

This is despite failing to catch two recently high-profile tech failures: the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s national biometrics database project and the Department of Education’s national apprenticeship management system.

But the senate review, which was unsurprisingly scathing of the government’s digital transformation policy given the handful of tech wrecks that initiated the inquiry in the first place, had a different opinion of the agency.

The committee said evidence it heard in relation to the DTA was of an agency “that 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” and that no other organisation was either.

It also raised concern that the DTA had been “sidelined” by recent initiatives by government such as handing the Department of Home Affairs responsibility for cyber security, which resulted in the agency loosing cyber expertise.

“There is a clear need for a whole-of-government vision and strategic plan for the digital transformation of government administration,” the report said.

The DTA is now preparing to release a new government-wide digital transformation strategy, having spent the last couple of months circulating a draft across the public sector.

This strategy, the DTA said, is “closely aligned to the goals of the APS Review”.

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