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Wednesday, 27 June 2018
Page: 4210


Senator McALLISTER (New South WalesDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (18:53): I present the report of the Finance and Public Administration References Committee, Digital delivery of government services, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee. I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

On 13 June, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Digital Transformation announced that the government's ambition is that, by 2025, Australia will be one of the top three digital governments in the world. That would be a tremendous outcome. However, throughout the committee, it's become very clear that the soaring rhetoric, pioneered by Prime Minister Turnbull during his period as communications minister, has not been able to be translated in any meaningful way into government practice.

In particular, we see the Digital Transformation Agency, the organisation within government charged with delivering this vision, marginalised in terms of its role within government, we see it beset by uncertainty in terms of its actual mission and purpose, and, most importantly, I think, we see a complete lack of government leadership or clarity around the agenda for digital transformation. This is actually a great shame, because digital represents a huge opportunity to transform the way that we deliver government services and to transform the way that we perform the broader business of government. Narrow, technocratic, penny-pinching and visionless approaches to digital transformation do not serve our democracy or our community well.

The committee has made recommendations in three broad areas. We argue for a cohesive structure for developing digital policy and reporting on progress against government. We think that there need to be clear measures of performance across departments and agencies, and public reporting on those measures. We think that in developing those measures we should prioritise user experience, not just pennies saved, because the robodebt experience teaches us that you might be able to save money, but if you make many, many thousands of Australians miserable in the process and you frighten them, then that is not a good project. That is not success, and it should not be defined as such. And we believe that there ought to be an annual ministerial statement on digital transformation.

We also made a series of recommendations about the use of contractors. Fascinatingly, we heard evidence from a number of government agencies which described the savings that were available to them, the improvements in performance and the increase in public value that came about when they dispensed with contractors and took the digital functions in-house. Digital is not an add-on; something that can be bought from outside government. Unless we have a core capability within government and are able to purchase digital services as informed purchasers, we will continue to see project after project fail as a consequence of the failure and lack of capability within the Australian Public Service.

That leads to the third bundle of recommendations. It's not enough to say that we're not going to use contractors or not use as many of them as we do at the moment. We actually need to develop public sector digital capability. This is not something that can be put off to one side, as I said earlier. This is something that is now core business for the Australian Public Service. The Australian Public Service Commission should develop a whole-of-government career stream for ICT professionals and project managers. They actually need to tell people how they are going in lifting the number of digital apprentices in the Public Service. And, more broadly, we need the SES, the Senior Executive Service, to engage with these questions because, too often, the people who are actually making the decisions—those who are sitting in the box seat when it comes to policy choices, or technology choices or program approaches—are not themselves familiar with the tools that are available to them in the new digital world. And that gap between the skills and knowledge of more junior members of the Public Service and their bosses is a big missed opportunity.

I will leave my remarks there, but I do, in closing, wish to thank my fellow committee members. This is a dry subject, and a little arcane, and fellow committee members from all parts of the chamber were most cooperative in making arrangements to hear evidence. I think it's important, and I appreciated the committee's willingness to participate. I wish to thank the witnesses whose gave their time, and I also thank the committee secretariat, who prepared the report so competently. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.