Australian government urged to produce long-awaited digital capability review

By on 02/12/2021 | Updated on 04/02/2022

A senate committee has urged the Australian federal government to finalise and publish a review of its ICT and digital capabilities following an inquiry into the current capability of the Australian Public Service (APS).

The digital review was assigned to the government’s Digital Transformation Agency two years ago, following recommendations set out in a root-and-branch review of the APS overseen by an independent panel led by businessman David Thodey. However, the project has since stalled.

The Finance and Public Administration References Committee, led by the opposition Labor Party, published a report outlining the findings of its inquiry last week.

“The committee recognises that the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 presented unforeseen challenges that understandably necessitated a shift in work priorities for the APS… However, while strategic oversight and scrutiny has stalled, expenditure is continuing apace,” the committee said.

“There is an urgent need for detailed information on the state of whole-of-government ICT [and] to develop an overarching blueprint to guide strategic investment and ensure that the APS has ‘fit-for-purpose’ ICT systems.”

The committee said the evidence brought to it suggested the APS “is suffering from a lack of investment in its people, its policy development, and its digital and ICT capabilities”, resulting in significant skills gaps. In a survey conducted by the APS in 2020, of the 95 agencies that responded, 72% identified critical skill shortages in data, digital and ICT.

The committee said it was “extremely disappointed” by the government’s lack of progress on the digital review. It recommended that the government complete the review and address its findings “as a matter of priority”.

“The government needs to confirm whether this piece of work constitutes the ‘urgent audit’ it committed to almost two years ago,” it said.

Over-reliance on external expertise

The committee report also cited concerns expressed by the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) about the high numbers of external contractors in ICT roles within the APS. It said that the government’s reliance on external providers had led to “huge amounts of unnecessary expenditure and contributed to the progressive de-skilling of the internal workforce”.

In January 2020, media outlet ITnews estimated that the government spent more than AUS$1bn (US$1.3bn) on IT contractors in 2019, and that some agencies had more than doubled spending on external labour since 2014-2015. According to accounts from Professionals Australia, a union representing 25,000 professionals in STEM fields, the APS’s favoured approach has been to import rather than invest internally in ICT skills. The union said the government should prioritise investment in what it called a “sovereign ICT professional workforce”, rather than relying on external personnel.

These concerns were echoed in the Thodey Review. In its report, the panel commented: “Those with skills in high demand, for example emerging technologies, do not look at the APS as a potential employer. Australia will require 100,000 extra technology-skilled workers by 2023, yet there are fewer than 5,000 local graduates from relevant fields each year.”

As Global Government Forum reported in 2019, the independent review also identified “long-running underinvestment in the APS’s people, capital and digital capability, while siloed approaches, rigid hierarchies and bureaucratic rules create barriers to effective delivery”. It added: “The APS needs a service-wide transformation to achieve better outcomes.”

The committee report recommended that the final digital review contain information on present and expected ICT expenditure and assets, as well as old or outdated systems and their associated risks, and any urgent capital investment needs.

It also recommended that the government “apply greater scrutiny in the awarding of ICT contracts” so that Australian companies could compete on a level playing field. This would require agencies to only use external providers when necessary, ensuring capacity is built within the APS.

“The role of the public service in providing ‘frank and fearless advice’ to government is one of the key characteristics of a properly functioning Westminster democracy,” the report said. “When the government, despite access to a skilled and independent APS, consistently chooses to spend exorbitant amounts of taxpayer money on commissioning strategic policy advice from private consulting firms, public sector capability is undermined.”

Register here for Global Government Forum webinar, Applied Leadership in the Digital World, taking place on 28 January 2022.

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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