Government is increasingly reliant on digital information and communications technologies (ICT) for its core business activities, ‘back-office’ corporate operations, and service delivery to the public and other stakeholders. Government spending on ICT procurement is increasing, but so are reports of ‘tech-wrecks’, procurements and projects that have exceeded their budgets or timeframes, or have failed to meet expectations. It would be useful to have a single source of information where the public and stakeholders could track the progress of major ICT procurements and projects.
The US Government has shown how this can be done. In 2009, the US IT Dashboard was launched ‘to provide Federal agencies and the public with the ability to view details of Federal information technology (IT) investments online and to track their progress over time.’ A performance audit by the US Government Accountability Office outlines how the IT Dashboard operates. In Australia, similar dashboards are operated by the NSW, Queensland and Victorian governments.
During the 2013 election campaign, the Coalition’s Policy for E-Government and the Digital Economy undertook to ‘improve the transparency of government ICT spending with the establishment of a US-style online dashboard so taxpayers can assess the performance and progress of major projects’. In August 2016, the Parliamentary Library noted that the ICT projects and spending dashboard had not yet appeared; the next month, it was reported that ‘the Department of Finance continues to actively develop a public-facing ICT dashboard’. (Separately, a commitment to tracking the usability of government services has been fulfilled by dashboard.gov.au).
With no dashboard released by May 2017, the Government’s ICT Procurement Taskforce recommended the development of ‘a public dashboard of significant ICT projects and spending that will allow the government and public to see the status and outcomes of its ICT investment decisions’. However, responding in September 2017, the Government only partially accepted this recommendation, committing only to ‘a dashboard of ICT spending which will be accessible to government and government agencies’.
The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) plays a key role in the government ICT space, monitoring all digital and ICT initiatives with a budget of more than $10 million and not classified as Secret or Top Secret. Through its website the DTA has provided some information to the public. But, in contrast to the searchable project-level US website, the DTA has released a static, portfolio-level bar chart, and an indicative pie chart (reproduced at the top of this Flagpost). So far, the DTA reports 72 projects with a budget of more than $10 million, but these are not identified on the DTA’s website. Of the 72, seventeen projects are in the ‘engage’ category (projects closely monitored by the DTA due to complexity or strategic importance), but further information will not be found by a search engine, as details of the 17 projects are in a non-searchable pdf tabled at a Senate Estimates hearing on 15 November 2017.
This approach contrasts with the direction of the US Government, which is moving to a new level of public engagement with data about government ICT projects:
In response to high demand from Federal agencies and the software development community, we plan to make the source code of the IT Dashboard available to the public soon. This first open source release will represent a starting point, enabling communities of interest to adapt and mature their own versions of the Dashboard to their own unique needs. We invite suggestions and contributions from the user community, the software development community and the general public.
In the absence of a public dashboard for Commonwealth ICT projects, existing resources are available but have limitations. AusTender is useful for upcoming and new procurement opportunities, but does not enable monitoring of established projects. The Department of Finance publishes annual statistics on Australian Government procurement contracts, but at an aggregate and portfolio level, with ICT only one part of the report. Performance audits conducted by the Australian National Audit Office often examine ICT-related aspects of programs and projects. These resources do not, individually or collectively, approximate the information and functionality provided by, for example, the US IT Dashboard.
Arguably, a public ICT spending and projects dashboard would be even more useful into the future as current Government policy will increase the number of ICT-related procurements and projects.
Increasing expenditure on ICT, through initiatives such as the multi-faceted $500 million Public Service Modernisation Fund, is likely to increase the number of contracts and projects.
Since August 2017 Government ICT contracts have been capped at a maximum value of $100 million or three years’ duration, with the intention of making it easier for Small and Medium Enterprises to bid for components of larger projects. This is likely to increase the number of contracts and projects, with the effect becoming more noticeable as existing contracts expire.
Without a public dashboard, it seems likely that the release of information about burgeoning ICT projects, contracts and expenditure will depend on questions asked at Senate Estimates.