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DTA grilled over Education’s AU$20m NEC ‘digital disaster’

The Department of Education (DOE) on Friday decided to scrap its Australian Apprenticeship Management System (AAMS) project, following a number of delays and a doubling in cost.

The project, awarded to NEC in October 2015 and worth an initial AU$10 million, was intended to deliver a new IT system to replace the Training and Youth Internet Management System (TYIMS) which supports Australian Apprenticeships.

The Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee heard on Monday night the AAMS ultimately did not meet “business needs”, after the cost of the project blew out to nearly AU$20 million.

While the project falls under the remit of DOE, executives from the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) faced probing over their involvement in the now-binned project.

The DTA was in early 2017 charged with looking into the structure of existing Australian government technology projects over AU$10 million.

Addressing Estimates on Monday night, DTA chief investment and advisory officer Lesley Seebeck said the AAMS was one of 15 projects the DTA has on its “engage” list as a result of the IT project probe.

“We started looking at this program in April to 2017 as part of our first data collection and at that point we put it on the engage program given its slippage and given the declining confidence in delivery,” Seebeck explained.

“So we worked with the Department of Education since that time, we discussed with them options for the future of that program and when they came to the conclusion that it was actually not worth investing further money into that particular program we agreed and supported that outcome.”

Seebeck said the DTA had monitored the AAMS project and discussed with the DOE the range of issues it was facing such as the future of the program and the management of legacy systems.

“The agency made the call and said we are not going to continue investment in something that is not fit for purpose given that it was — we agree with their conclusion that it was actually best to call it and learn from that outcome, which is unfortunate as it is, to the benefit of the whole of the Commonwealth,” she continued.

“We would much prefer that our projects didn’t fail, but occasionally they do. These are complex projects but we appreciate the efforts the Department of Education had put into resolving the issue.”

DTA CEO Gavin Slater told Estimates that responsibility and accountability for the delivery of the programs being looked at by his agency lies with the relevant agencies, not the DTA.

“The agencies that determine a specific initiative to secure the funding, set it up, and get on with delivering that program; the oversight role we’ve played — and it’s only one we’ve picked up early in 2017 onwards — was to produce a perspective of projects over AU$10 million, how the overall portfolio of projects is performing,” Slater explained.

He said the DOE is probably best-placed to provide more of the history of the now-binned program.

See also: Turnbull commissions capability review of Australia’s Public Service

The DTA in its current form was stood up in late 2016 following a rebranding of the now-defunct Digital Transformation Office (DTO). The DTO did not have the same IT project oversight the DTA currently has.

Concerns over DTA’s capacity to monitor IT projects

With the AAMS project on the DTA’s watch list since April last year, the committee, in particular Senator Doug Cameron, was concerned over the agency’s ability to proactively prevent similar occurrences in other government departments.

“So AU$20 million invested over a number of years and we’ve got nothing to show for it,” Cameron asked the DTA on multiple occasions, calling the NEC project a “digital disaster”.

According to the DTA, each round of data collection from the 80 IT projects the DTA is monitoring occurs every two to three months.

“We ask agencies what projects are over AU$10 million … the latest data we have is there’s 80 projects across the Commonwealth,” Seebeck explained.

“The great majority of those projects have a medium-high to high confidence of delivery; there are a small minority that had low confidence … from of those 80 projects we currently have 15 in the engage category — those are the ones where we talk a lot more closely to agencies.

“Those projects aren’t necessarily failing, we are engaging with them because they are highly complex because of the size of the project, because the reach across the Australian community, and in some cases because we have a declining confidence in their delivery.”

Of further concern to the committee is that the prime minister’s office was not informed of the status of the AAMS.

The DTA said it does however report on the status of the probed IT projects through the Digital Transformation and Public Sector Modernisation Committee — which is chaired by Minister for Human Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Digital Transformation Michael Keenan, and also comprises Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield, Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann, Minister for Revenue and Financial Services Kelly O’Dwyer, Minister for Regional Communications Bridget McKenzie, and Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton — when the committee sits.

Additionally, the DTA has not looked into the tendering process to determine why NEC was awarded the contract that less than three years later was flagged as not fit for purpose.

“Every every dollar spent is important, but the role that we play is we provide an overview of how projects are performing; it is really the accountability of those agency heads through their ministers to identify and report issues as they see fit,” Slater added.

“I believe at the end of the day you need to marry up accountability, those that have accountability for the delivery, and the dollars needs to stay with those individuals — they have to be the ones that are accountable.”

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