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APS must grow its own ICT experts: Senate digital transformation report

Green sprouts growing out from soil in the morning light

Opposition and cross-bench senators argue the Australian Public Service needs a specialist career stream for information and communications technology, in their report on digital service delivery.

The idea – also recommended by the 2008 Gershon review — is one of the more realistic of seven proposals contained in an extensive report that finally emerged last night from the Finance and Public Administration Committee’s fairly politicised and long-running inquiry. Government senators looked favourably on the proposal.

In the committee’s majority view, it should be up the Australian Public Service Commissioner to develop the career path via “mandated competencies and skill-sets” for ICT specialists, project managers and procurement officers. The next prescription follows on from this idea:

“The committee recommends that the government routinely report on how it intends to lift the number of digital apprentices and trainees that it is currently recruiting into the public service.”

Loss of internal capability by the APS

The Labor members of the committee, joined by tech-savvy Greens senator Jordan Steele-John and project management enthusiast Rex Patrick of the Centre Alliance, say too much ICT capability is outsourced and “a loss of internal capability by the APS” is the hidden cost of these contracts.

They cheekily enlist the Prime Minister to support this point, slipping in a quote from 2015 during his time as the Communications Minister when he took apart the all-fibre National Broadband Network.

Then, Malcolm Turnbull worried about departments becoming “mail boxes for sending out tenders and then receiving the reports and paying for them” and argued the government should invest in helping public servants do a better job, by building capability to do more of their core work in-house, instead of “panning” them all the time and outsourcing it all.

The committee says “digital work” should be considered a core job for public servants, on the basis that “ICT and digital” should not be seen as something “adjacent” to either the administrative back-end or service delivery.

“On its current trajectory, the APS risks becoming exclusively a cadre of generalist managers who no longer have the requisite policy and technical skills to conduct the business of government,” it argues, accepting at the same that this is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

“It is not always possible or prudent for every department to house every required skill on a full-time, ongoing basis. However, it is also not possible or prudent to view ICT expertise as the exclusive and proper preserve of the private sector.”

Of course, this was always a sharply politicised inquiry that could be placed in the category of putting the government’s general performance on trial, rather than investigating a special issue acknowledged as a matter of public importance on both sides of the aisle. Most if not all of the majority report is likely to fall on deaf ears in Cabinet.

Government committee members only agree with the rest on a few issues, including “that there is merit in the majority’s recommendation that the APS introduce a specialist APS ICT career stream” although they say it is a wider skills shortage, not outsourcing, at the root of the public service’s capability deficit.

The main report rakes over previous examples of underwhelming performance in IT-related projects, breakdowns and outages, as well as the typical advice about how to do better. For example, it reiterates the well-worn observation that even when paying contractors to do a piece of work for them, agencies at the very least need to be smart buyers.

“The evidence to this committee, however, was that there are significant efficiencies in departments having more than just this minimum level of in-house expertise,” argues the report, citing testimony from Human Services acting chief information officer Charles McHardie.

The senators found it particularly revealing when he spoke of a big increase in the number of DHS staff with certifications from the maker of ubiquitous enterprise software, SAP.

“We now have a lot more control of our destiny, particularly when we need to do work on core products such as SAP … We understand these products so much better now, and with us doing the in-house build we’re able to cost up those bodies of work much more effectively,” McHardie said.

While the report argues for building up the “digital capability” of the APS through this and other measures, it also warns: “Digital expertise should not be siloed in a particular career stream.”

In this regard, it reports a few suggestions from submissions that one might argue are already on the government’s agenda, at least to some degree. Creating an expert-in-residence program is an aspiration of the Digital Transformation Agency’s recent pact with the Australian Information Industry Association, for example, and a digital leadership training program for senior executives is just beginning.

The eighth recommendation, however, calls for the DTA to deliver training “to enhance the digital competency of all APS employees” as well as SES officers.

The committee endorses the establishment of something like the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service Academy, a new set of internal ICT qualifications, and the suggestion of:

“Providing the necessary commercial training in negotiation skills, contract design and management including re-negotiation of contracts as required, so that the APS takes over the role of the integrator—from waterfall to agile.”

And the rest…

Other recommendations include:

— Yet another review – of “digital, cyber and data policy functions performed across government” and a new set of “key digital performance measures shared and reported across departments and agencies” to follow.

— More priority on measuring the user experience.

— A new annual Ministerial Statement on Digital Transformation that reports on leading performance in the APS and explains efforts to turn around struggling projects.

— Regular audits of ICT contracting and subcontracting arrangements considering costs, risks and principles for better approaches in future.

— More scrutiny of project budgets with a view to finding and cutting out unnecessary spending on contractors and consultants, as well as a long-term strategy to guide the recommended efforts to build up ICT capability.

Senator Steele-John adds a short addendum focusing on the value of affordable fast broadband connections and the importance of privacy and security to the interests of citizens. Government senators Amanda Stoker and James Paterson provide a surprisingly long dissenting report, mainly to defend their team’s track record, but also offer constructive views.

They say the shift from older systems for service delivery, administration and records management referred to in the term digital transformation is “highly disruptive” by nature and challenges are to be expected, and accurately note:

“The evidence has shown that there is not a simple one size fits all solution. There are legacy issues which require individually tailored approaches — for example, the digital transformation journey for the Australian Taxation Office cannot be the same as for the Department of Home Affairs.”

The majority report shows “a callous disregard for the hard work and dedication of senior public officials” in the joint view of Paterson and Stoker, as its introductory chapters deliver a fairly savage assessment of ministers and senior mandarins in terms of their ICT strategies and governance. The Coalition senators also mount a long defence of the Digital Transformation Agency.

Mostly an exercise in insisting the digital transformation glass is actually half-full, by listing what the government has done in terms of structures and strategies, the dissenting report goes on to argue there is simply a skills shortage that affects both private and public sector organisations.

The reject the idea that there has been a litany of failures, suggesting this is cherry-picking for political reasons, and listing more projects as examples of success. “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,” Stoker and Paterson contend.

They also see “merit” in a view put forward by former New South Wales electoral commission CIO Ian Brightwell, that CIOs should sit in the top executive committees and always be separate from chief information security officers, and suggest that the APS Review look at the ICT governance issue.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

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