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ACT budget: Barr spends big on government IT

The ACT Government plans to create almost 300 new full-time public service jobs in the next financial year as it spends up big on IT upgrades and develops its own workers’ compensation scheme.

Plans for infrastructure and urban renewal continue, including funding to build and refurbish facilities and equipment used right across the community in education, health, the arts, sport, events, disability support, emergency and municipal services, and government administration.

The Education and Training Directorate’s budget will have $615,000 directed towards “countering domestic violence” in 2015-16 through programs for teachers and students. That comes on top of a $250,000 commitment to a domestic violence “awareness and prevention campaign” at a later date, in a joint project with the Commonwealth.

“Heightened community awareness of domestic violence is creating increased demand for assistance,” the budget states, explaining that a further $250,000 to be split between the Rape Crisis Centre, Domestic Violence Crisis Centre and Canberra Men’s Centre.

In his budget speech on Tuesday, ACT Treasurer and newly anointed Chief Minister Andrew Barr talked up the benefits of Access Canberra, a one-stop shop for seven agencies that just opened new premises in Gunghalin. He said it would invest in “systems to boost private and public sector productivity” that aim to be cost-neutral. The creation of “a common customer service platform” and extra online services will cost about $2.1 million, which is expected to be fully offset by the efficiency improvements it engenders.

The 2015-16 ACT budget includes just under $8.5 million to upgrade Microsoft Windows and Office software for the whole government, to provide greater support for mobile devices and cloud solutions. There are also allocations for a range of portfolio-specific IT enhancements.

The “ageing” software used to manage the territory’s budget itself will be replaced, costing about $5.3 million plus $1.78 million over four years in associated costs. The government will spend $413,000 on a feasibility study to find “the most appropriate method of procuring equipment and services” to modernise its ICT.

There’s about $1.8 million over two years for the ACT Land Titles Office to replace its outdated TARQUIN system. According to the budget papers:

“The new system will generate savings by eliminating the need for Citrix tokens which are currently required for external access to the system by replacing it with web based access. The cost will be partially offset by additional revenue from the introduction of a user pays ‘title watch’ option, which would notify a proprietor of any change to the title information by email.”

The Community Services Directorate is getting a new “integrated client management system for Child and Youth Protection Services to improve information security and to simplify access and reporting for caseworkers, out of home care agencies, and foster and kinship carers” at a cost of about $2.77 million over two years in capital costs, with $2.55 million in associated costs over the forward estimates.

The ACT Teacher Quality Institute’s online services will be expanded, with teachers to help cover the cost through registration fees, which rise modestly from $100 next year to $115 in 2019. Over $7.8 million in this year’s budget goes towards upgrading ICT infrastructure and access to high-speed wireless broadband in schools, with an estimated $30 million spread over the following three years.

The Environment and Planning Directorate’s eDevelopment system will be upgraded as well, at a cost of over $1.88 million over two years plus $600,000 in associated costs in the two following years. The budget explains:

“The new system will provide processing for end to end Development and Building Applications, easier and more intuitive application steps, and fast multiple upload facilities to streamline the building industry’s interactions with Government.”

Corrective Services gets a new information management system to enable “better document control and … a more complete audit trail” at an estimated total cost of about $5 million over four years.

A replacement for the Emergency Services Agency’s Direct Turnout System to “ensure that emergency services continue to respond in a timely manner” will cost $971,000, and upgrading the ESA’s terrestrial radio network will cost $14.6 million over four years, with $2.38 million of that in 2015-16.

The ACTION bus network needs $1.8 million for a new version of its bus scheduling and rostering system, HASTUS 2014, and Domestic Animal Services gets a new incident management system worth about a quarter of a million dollars.

The Office of the Legislative Assembly will spend $348,000 on a new document production system to “increase productivity and ensure that the Assembly continues to produce reliable, accurate and timely procedural documents” with another $84,000 going to associated costs.

The Assembly building is also investing in a new $312,000 audio system, and expanding physically to accommodate the eight extra members who will be elected in 2016, at a cost of $5.2 million. The shift from 17 to 25 MLAs will mean some OLA staff members have to move elsewhere, and their new digs will cost $1.5 million with another 1.3 million over the forward estimates for associated costs.

Coming up with a new workers’ compensation scheme just for ACT public servants will cost about $1.16 million in 2015-16. Future costs are not detailed; they depend on exactly how the scheme is designed, which is yet to be hammered out. The budget’s brief summary of the new scheme’s purpose reflects the ACT Government’s view of where it can do better than the federal Comcare scheme it has left behind:

“The [new] scheme aims to improve government oversight and control of its workers’ compensation arrangements, provide more comprehensive and timely information to assist in planning workers’ compensation budgets and services, and improve productivity and work outcomes through assisting staff in their return to work.”

Increases in workers’ compensation premiums are costing the territory a bit over $1 million this year for Corrective Services staff, and over $5.1 million for emergency services.

This year’s budget shows general government sector (GGS) expenses going down by 1% — $5.149 billion for 2015-16 compared with $5.217 billion this financial year — despite the increase in overall staffing. But the apparent drop is illusory, coming after a 7% blowout in GGS expenses for 2014-15, compared to the $4.858 billion estimate in last year’s budget.

The government attributes most of that $359 million rise to the establishment and operating costs of the Asbestos Response Taskforce, a small agency set up to manage the purchase and demolition of homes insulated with dangerous loose-fill asbestos.

The unhappy saga of Mr Fluffy — for which the Commonwealth arguably bears some responsibility — also blew a similar-sized hole in the territory’s overall finances, helping to push the overall budget $407.6 million into the red, a deficit supposed to shrink to $51 million in one year’s time.

The surplus that is always just over the horizon fits nicely into the opposition’s rhetoric, and the Mr Fluffy issue sits equally comfortably with the Labor government’s pre-existing narrative, which Barr continued. He told the capital’s residents the main forces putting pressure on the finances — and causing him to dip deeper into their pockets — were the past two federal budgets and the asbestos crisis, while he stood up for them against the “attacks” and “savagery” of an uncaring Abbott government.

“The territory government will incur the full net cost of the [asbestos eradication] scheme, estimated to be about $370 million,” said Barr. “On top of that, the territory bears the interest costs on the $1 billion loan provided to the ACT by the Commonwealth over a 10-year period. It is disappointing the Commonwealth turned their back on the agreement they’d made with Canberra and failed to contribute to meeting the costs of the scheme.”

Abbott’s team, he said, had “walked away from health funding” leaving the ACT to “fill the gap” for a second year running, and reduced the Australian Public Service headcount without any of the assistance provided to other communities where large job losses have occurred.

“Losing about 5,400 Commonwealth public service jobs over the past year-and-a-half from the territory is a bigger proportion of our economy than the loss of BlueScope Steel from the Illawarra, or Ford from Geelong, or Holden from Adelaide,” Barr said. “Canberrans are Australians too, but while these other regions got a helping hand and tens of millions of dollars from the Commonwealth, there was nothing for Canberra in the recent federal budget.”

On a more positive note, the 2015 budget includes a list of all the areas where ACT Government agencies perform especially well, based on the Productivity Commission’s 2015 Report on Government Services.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.