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TRIM troubles catch parliament’s eye

The mystery of missing documents — another embarrassment in the “Zahalka issue” procurement saga at the Department of Parliamentary Services — has been narrowed down to TRIM record mislabelling.

Two draft documents and one letter were not included when DPS scooped up all the documents it could find relating to the procurement of commemorative pieces from Sydney photographer Anne Zahalka for Parliament’s 25th anniversary. The omission might have gone unnoticed except they were included when the Australian National Audit Office did its timeline.

The senate finance and public administration committee has been investigating the procurement for many months now, but without all the documents.

Myra Croke, DPS’s chief operating officer, was the first to notice the discrepancy, and given the pressure the department is under — its secretary, Carol Mills, was sacked last month — sought to make amends with the senate committee.

Croke last week told the committee the department had provided all the final versions of documents that reached the secretary for approval, but there were drafts that “probably” never got beyond the person who drafted them or beyond their supervisor:

“The difficulty we have with our system of filing on TRIM is that it stores every draft document from the very first rough draft that somebody at quite junior level might create on the system, right through to the final version that gets through and might go all the way up to the secretary, or even to the [parliament’s] Presiding Officers.

“Unless people carefully label those documents on the way through, it is not always clear how far the document got — as to whether it was in fact a very rough draft or it was in fact the final. It is something we need to get a lot better at because, as you know, we have had a number of recommendations in relation to our record keeping, so it is an area we really need to focus on improving.”

Under questioning from committee chair Cory Bernardi, Croke acknowledged that it was unlikely the documents would just disappear from TRIM, and were probably just not immediately noticeable because they were not marked as having “gone anywhere near the secretary”.

While TRIM is known globally as HP TRIM Records Management System, it began in Australia. The document management software originally published by Tower Software has dominated Australia’s public service agencies for decades now. Originally created by former Canberra bureaucrat Brand Hoff in the mid-1980s, the company was bought out by Hewlett-Packard seven years ago. Its customers included not just every public sector jurisdiction in Australia, but the FBI, US Navy and several British departments.

Australian National Archives boss David Fricker says TRIM has, for many public servants, been around all their professional lives:

“It was a system which brought order and consistency to information management storage. As well it offered a significant level of data security and protection.

“No longer could information be inadvertently deleted; it allowed a record to be kept of who had accessed certain information and when.

“And, most importantly for someone like me, it ensured the authenticity and validity of material it preserved.”

Unless it’s mislabelled and can’t be found easily, as DPS has learned.

In addition to improving their record keeping practice, DPS also flagged training and integrity checks in their procurements.

Croke told the finance and public administration committee that they’ve reissued their internal procurement manuals based on the ANAO better practice guide, and arranged for two-day training from the Australian Public Service Commission:

“We have also started setting up a regular discussion with all of our contract managers and people who are doing procurement regularly. We are calling it a practitioners forum. We are meeting roughly quarterly. We held the first meeting just a few weeks ago. The idea of that is to keep building on all the training that we have so that we continue the learning.

“We have a discussion with all the contract managers across the department about what we are finding is occurring in terms of practice, the sorts of learnings that we gain through both our procurement team and our legal team and the work they are doing with all the areas across the department. We are trying to increase the knowledge and the learning base on an ongoing and continuing basis.”

While DPS cannot guarantee that the circumstances of the Zahalka procurement won’t occur again, they will continually reassess controls, training and audits. Croke said ANAO had been invited back for a follow-up audit in 2015-16.

“We have also built up the procurement team within the CFO branch, so we have a good team of people there who are very familiar with procurement. The procurement team and the legal team are working very closely together on issues as they occur, and that is what we are feeding back in to the contract practitioners group to try and train staff around the sorts of issues that are coming up across the department and to keep staff informed.

“You cannot just conduct training for contract management and wheel people through their two-day training in February and think they are fine and that they do not need any more. They actually need some reinforcement of what they are doing and some further guidance as things change. As an organisation, as we learn about how we can do things more effectively we will cover that.

“In terms of record keeping, if you are conducting a procurement, the procurement manual clearly sets out the nature of the records we should be keeping. We have already rolled out some changes to the SAP system. We now have finance running on SAP, and all of the procurement and payment arrangements will be fully up by the end of June. We are consciously trying to reinforce that records are kept either in SAP, which is our payment and HR system, or within the TRIM system, so we should have a thorough record-keeping system as we go forward.”

Top photo by Anne Zahalka, part of the Parliament House at Work exhibition scrutinised by the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.