A wide-ranging review of the Australian Public Sector has uncovered some IT horror stories from within government agencies and called for an immediate audit of the technology ecosystem. 

The outdated systems are stymieing transformation efforts, affecting policy decisions and leaving some agencies vulnerable, according to the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service, released on Friday.

The current Immigration Records Information System used in visa applications, for example, was installed in 1989. 

Now a decade past its “end of life” date – when vendors stop supporting technology – the records system today relies on aftermarket parts from places like eBay to operate, according to the review.

The national audit office highlighted the visa problem in 2003 but “critical parts of the system” are still in use, according to the APS review. The Department of Home Affairs is currently using the need to upgrade its visa information technology as a justification for privatising the process

Elsewhere, the Medicare payment system, responsible for 600 million payments worth around $50 billion each year, “relies on a complex web of legacy and inflexible ICT systems” including 200 applications and 90 databases, according to the APS review.

The 30-year-old system is now inhibiting policy options, the review says, and will prevent “more personalised health services” in the future.

Legacy systems creating disruption risk

At the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (now Department of Agriculture) legacy systems are putting Australia behind its global counterparts and impacting global trade agendas.

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources reported to the review that its technical capabilities are “increasingly not fit for purpose, difficult and costly to maintain and enhance, and are limiting the department’s ability to deliver the services necessary to protect Australia’s primary industries”.

“If the current system isn’t improved at a rate commensurate with the demands on it, its performance is going to get worse and potential failures will lead to real time trade disruptions.”

The review, which called for an acceleration in the digital transformation of Australia’s public service, found the IT problems could be much worse than it revealed because it has been several years since a comprehensive review of the technology and Australian agencies typically spend more on running systems than other national governments.

“The review heard numerous examples of ageing systems across the APS. Moreover, there is limited knowledge and understanding about the overall state of ICT in the APS,” the final report says. 

“The last time the APS documented whole-of-government ICT spend was in 2015-16. There is now no detailed inventory of the systems that exist across the APS nor of associated risks, costs and upgrade needs.”

Audit and replace

The review calls for an “urgent” and comprehensive ICT audit, which it claims would take six months. The government has agreed to “conduct an urgent audit of government ICT capability, risks and needs” and will consider a longer term “ICT blueprint”. 

The review said the replacement of end of life IT systems “will be a monumental and complex multi-year effort, requiring significant funding and skilled resources” and must be accompanied by a new culture to ensure the same mistakes are not repeated.

While it will require “considerable” funding there is potential to bring cost savings to government with new IT, the review said.

“For example, each face-to-face transaction currently costs the Government $16.90 and each phone transaction an average of $6.60 — whereas an online transaction costs the Government approximately 40 cents.

“Even if only one quarter of Australian individuals chose to switch from phone and face-to-face transactions to digital channels, this could save the Government millions of dollars each year — money that could be invested into providing better services.” 

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