The federal government’s digital transformation efforts have been plagued by “soaring rhetoric” and a “failure of leadership,” according to a report from a senate inquiry into the digital delivery of government services released overnight.

The report is based on a senate inquiry led by ALP Senator Jenny McAllister but included committee members from the coalition government, the opposition, as well as senators from the Greens and the Centre Alliance party. The inquiry examined the government’s “tech wrecks” like Centrelink’s robodebt process and ATO outages, as well as the government’s overall digital transformation.

The report’s findings and recommendations cast doubt over the current government’s claim Australia can become a top three digital government in the world by 2025.

According to the report: “It would be tremendous if Australia were able to achieve this [top three ranking]. Throughout this inquiry, however, it has become clear to the committee that digital transformation is a policy area beset by soaring rhetoric and vague aspirations by government, largely unconnected to the actual policy activities actually undertaken.”

A ‘muted’ DTA

The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) established by then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull to drive digital transformation across all of government was also found to have had its contribution “muted” by a government that has not demonstrated “the political will to drive digital transformation”.

“Cumulatively, the evidence heard by this committee revealed an organisation that was not at the centre of government thinking about digital transformation, or responsible for the creation and enactment of a broader vision of what that transformation would look like,” the report said.

“Troublingly, no other organisation is.”

According to the committee the DTA had been sidelined in several new digital initiatives being led by government departments including cyber policy, data policy, and the soon to be created data commissioner.

The report found the DTA still provided a useful role but, despite its scope increasing, it was less empowered to take action.

“Its contribution is muted because its role is confined to the level of assistance with discrete projects at the operational level.

“Even there, its involvement is limited. At the time of its creation, it was intended to operate as a ‘powerful new program management office’ that would track ICT and digital projects across the whole of government, stepping in to remediate where things are not working… In reality, it had only a minor role in the case studies examined by this committee.”

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Government Response

Government senators on the inquiry committee strongly denied the committee majority view that the DTA had been undermined.

In the Government senators’ dissenting report, Liberal senators James Paterson and Amanda Stoker said they consider “the DTA to be achieving exactly that which it was intended to achieve at every stage of its mandate”.

“The majority report has incorrectly concluded that the DTA has no purpose or responsibility under its current remit. Nothing could be further from the truth,” they said.

The liberal senators ague the DTA is not designed to be an agency with centralised power and all governments and agencies had a responsibility to deliver the digital transformation agenda.

“As part of its role, the DTA deliberately presents a different business model to the traditional APS hierarchical and bureaucratised approach. The DTA takes a collaborative and persuasive approach to change and innovation.”

However, the DTA’s revolving leadership strengthens the committee majority view of an agency facing instability and uncertainty. Last week DTA CEO, Gavin Slater, stood down after being in the role a little over a year. Slater was the fourth person to leave the DTA CEO position since the agency was created in 2015.

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