The Finance department needs to "urgently" start work on a fit-for-purpose online work expenses platform to fix underlying problems with the national parliamentary entitlements system, according to a review.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott commissioned a review into parliamentary entitlements in August last year following the "choppergate" scandal over former speaker Bronwyn Bishop's travel expenses.
The review [pdf] - conducted by a panel that included former MPs Brendon Nelson and Harry Jenkins, and released today - found the current system lacked clarity and proper monitoring. It proposed options for major structural and legislative reform.
According to the panel, one of the major problems with the current entitlements system is a lack proper technological support.
"Essential" to the clear rules, processes and flexibility needed for MPs to make the right choices and ensure they are adhering with the expenses guidelines is a "significant upgrade" to the IT supporting the system, the review panel said.
"It is long overdue," the authors wrote.
"Parliamentarians, their staff and administrators need to spend less time on redundant paperwork and processes, without compromising accountability.
"Updated information about expense usage must be readily accessible and timely, including to the public. A fit-for-purpose online expenses system, while requiring major investment, would allow the Department of Finance to replace manual processing and support higher quality customer service."
It pushed for the "urgent" development of a business case for such an online expenses system, and said Finance's parliamentary services wing should commit to meeting the Digital Transformation Office's digital service standard by July 1 2018.
The Finance department has been unable so far to acquire appropriate off-the-shelf technology solutions due to the complexity of the existing entitlements framework, the review found, and instead relies on "heavily customised and bespoke applications" to perform relatively simple tasks.
The "chris21" HR management system, built by Frontier Software, allows parliamentarians to access online HR services, manage entitlement budgets and check whether they are eligible to claim expenses.
Manual data is entered by parliamentary services staff, information can be handled multiple times, and delays can occur when data is incomplete or incorrect, the review found.
Finance's separate entitlements management system (EMS) is custom-built and captures, processes, and reports on expense claims.
While it has some ability to process claims in bulk, most of the time parliamentary services staff are required to manually enter scanned or photocopied forms they have been faxed or emailed by MPs, the report found.
Similarly, there is no real-time record available, making it "challenging" for MPs to monitor expenses and notify of errors within a reasonable timeframe.
"Problems have either not been addressed or been the subject of manual workarounds which, over time, have diverted resources which could otherwise have been used for system enhancements," the report's authors wrote.
"The lack of integration with chris21 makes it difficult for the Department of Finance to support the provision of expenses which attract a tax liability."
This "ensemble of makeshift technical solutions" do not talk to each other, are ageing and don't meet business needs, according to the review.
It labelled the approach a "complicated web of patches and fixes which barely support service delivery and cripple administration".
"Change is needed, and the Department of Finance should urgently develop a business case for a fit-for-purpose system that meets the needs of those who will use it and those who need to administer a more flexible expenses system," the panel wrote.
It put forward its case for an "integrated solution" - which it argued was "long overdue" - to replace the existing "disparate and ageing" platforms.
The review panel said it understood the Finance department was already developing a solution, and expected this would need a significant amount of investment which could set the project back.
However, it argued the current approach warranted an "urgent and significant" overhaul, not least to address the existing problems but also to bring the system in line with the rest of the public service, which it said had been moving paper forms online and automating processes for "some time now".
"By reducing manual processing and adopting more contemporary technology, the Department of Finance could simultaneously improve the quality of the service it provides to parliamentarians and the efficiency with which it does so," the authors wrote.
They suggested an "agile, cloud-based platform" to ensure it keeps up with future technology change.
The new "integrated solution" proposed by the review committee would include a client portal, the ability to lodge claims electronically, the processing of claims online once only, and real-time information for MPs and parliamentary services staff, among other things.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann today said the government supported the recommendation "in principle" and would start work on implementation.