The government has largely rejected a new report that tries to cast its digital nous as dysfunctional and prone to failure.
The committee report [pdf] into the ‘digital delivery of government services’ was finally published on Wednesday evening, after being pushed back several times.
The report's assessment of government and public sector readiness and ability to execute on digital projects is searing, and left government representatives unimpressed with its broad-brush imputations.
Government committee members argued criticism of “a supposed lack of strategic focus at the ministerial and senior executive level of the Australian Public Service in relation to digital transformation … reflects a callous disregard for the hard work and dedication of senior public officials, but also a disregard for the facts.”
Considerable time is spent in the report trying to dissect digital transformation and what it means in a public sector context.
“It has become clear to the committee that digital transformation is a policy area beset by soaring rhetoric and vague aspirations by government, largely unconnected to the actual policy activities actually undertaken,” the committee’s majority said.
The report claims “the government has not demonstrated that it has the political will to drive digital transformation.”
“This much is evidenced by the role it has given the DTA [Digital Transformation Agency],” it said, arguing the agency is “less empowered to take action” than its predecessor and provides only a “muted” contribution to digital projects.
Worse, the report argues that the government has largely failed to get even the basics right in taking foundational steps towards digital transformation.
“True digital transformation is a higher aspiration,” the report states.
“The government to date has been unable to meet even the lower objective of being able to replace aging infrastructure without major mishap.
“Digital projects - rightly or not - have a reputation in the public and private sectors alike for running overtime and over-budget.
“Over the past five years, however, the government has overseen a litany of failures, largely unprecedented in scale and degree.”
The report highlights “the failure of the online delivery of the 2016 Census, repeated crashes of the ATO website, [and the] abandoning of the AAMS apprenticeship platform” as examples of digital projects that have fallen apart under the government’s watch.
Government representatives, however, panned accusations of systemic digital failure.
“While any failure is regrettable and should be addressed as soon as possible, it must be highlighted that over the period of this government, there have been hundreds, if not thousands of digital projects, both large and small, funded by the government that have been delivered successfully,” they said.
“Within this context of successful delivery, the very few examples handpicked by the committee represent very much isolated unfortunate exceptions against a background of high performance in the delivery of digital solutions.”
The committee also disagreed with government representatives over how digital transformation governance should be structured.
The report appeared to suggest the DTA should have a greater role and authority.
It said the “evidence” it heard in relation to DTA was of an agency “that was 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.”
“Troublingly, no other organisation is,” the report said.
“There is a clear need for a whole-of-government vision and strategic plan for the digital transformation of government administration.
“The evidence is of departments and agencies in silos looking internally and focussing on their own approach to the digital delivery of their particular government service, where in many respects all are facing the same challenges.”
But the government representatives rejected the idea that DTA was underpowered or should act as a “centralised mega-agency” with full digital transformation oversight.
They argued instead that the suggested centralised approach was old-fashioned and not aligned with best practice for digital transformation of governments.
The DTA is understood to be just months away from delivering a new government-wide strategy that will underpin efforts by Australia to become one of the world’s top digital governments by 2025.