Services Australia has been roundly criticised by the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) for its growing reliance on IT contractors, with more than half of all staff in its technology service group now non-Australian Public Sector (APS) personnel.
In a submission [pdf] to the parliamentary inquiry investigating the digital and data capabilities of the APS, the country’s main public sector union said the agency had “lost sight of the benefits of in-house ICT”.
It blamed the government’s average staffing level (ASL) cap introduced in the 2015-16 federal budget, as well as an APS-wide bargaining policy that “limits enhancing APS conditions to attract the best and brightest”.
“A lack of career paths for ICT professionals and the government’s bargaining approach have impacted the agency's ability to attract and retain ICT talent,” its submission, one of several to the inquiry, states.
The union said members working in Services Australia's technology services group, widely regarded as one of the government’s largest IT shops, had reported “the increasing use of IT contractors for both day-to-day and specialist ICT work”.
“Historically, ICT contractors were used as surge capacity at times when a major project needed additional skills or specialist professional knowledge. However, the trend toward a growing contractor base started to change a few years ago,” it said.
Members have reported that 50 percent of the 2000-odd IT staff working in Services Australia’s Canberra and Brisbane delivery centres are now contractors, while at the 700-strong Adelaide delivery centre this figure is 45 percent.
Some teams within the group are made up of “almost 100 percent contractors”, according to member reports, as are most IT project managers in delivery centres.
It goes some way to explaining why spending on IT contractors has exploded in recent years, with the most recent figures indicating that expenditure climbed from $257.8 million in 2016-17 to $513.9 million in 2018-19, as reported by iTnews.
A separate submission to the inquiry by Services Australia [pdf] confirms that “non-APS” employees now make up more than half of all staff in the dedicated technology services group.
“As at December 31 2020, the group employed 2266 APS employees and 2442 non-APS employees,” the agency said, adding that a “range of external providers” provide the group with the “flexibility to enage short-term specialist services”.
In addition to Services Australia, the technology services group also serves the National Disability Insurance Scheme, as well as the Department of Veteran's Affairs under a shared services agreement that the CPSU wants reviewed.
CPSU also used its submission to highlight that its members had expressed views the agency’s ICT employment practices were “adversely affecting productivity, morale and the collegiality needed for ICT work”.
In some instances, members report a “strong prejudice amongst senior managers to prefer non-APS ICT contractors”, with “limited career opportunities with merit process or temporary higher duties” for APS ICT employees either “blocked or discouraged”.
“Members… advise that skilled APS ICT staff are leaving because they have no career anymore in Services Australia. This approach by the agency has meant that many staff are seeking jobs elsewhere, including in other APS agencies,” the submission states.
Differing rates of pay for contractors and APS staff in multi-disciplinary teams (MDTs) is another ongoing concern, with teams often comprising of “50 percent contractor and 50 percent APS employees”.
Members also reported that Services Australia has “hired ICT contractors without the requisite skills and in some instances paid for and prioritised their training, despite permanent APS employees having the skills required”.
Child support systems still not up to scratch
The CPSU also used its submission to highlight ongoing problems with Services Australia’s new child support IT system, with staff still using components of the legacy ‘Cuba’ backend system as part of their workflow.
The workaround was introduced due to problems with the 'Pluto' frontend SAP platform, which was found to have “significant functionality gaps and performance challenges” in a 2018 review of the redevelopment.
“CPSU members have said this stopgap has not fixed the problem as Pluto is a SAP system and cannot easily connect with Cuba,” the submission states, adding that “customers are not immune from these problems”.
“Members advise that not everything put into Cuba comes across to Pluto and vice versa. This means data is not always accurately aligned across the two systems, creating adverse outcomes for customers, including additional emotional and administrative issues.
CPSU said that members were “extremely frustrated” by the Pluto project, which had “failed to produce a system that works for customers and staff”, despite Services Australia having spent “significant funds”.