#CentrelinkFail, IBM wins billion-dollar contract

Email update, 9 July 2018

Good morning.

I’ll be on annual leave from next week until mid-August, so I’m planning on sending out a few additional emails this week to compensate. As always, I welcome any feedback.

#CentrelinkFail and Aus Gov IT cynicism

In the last email we discussed the high-profile failures in Australian Government IT delivery. A day later, the website for Centrelink (the government social security provider) crashed during a critical time for parents trying to access childcare subsidies, nicely underlining the point.

From the SBS:

Parents attempting to update their details with Centrelink to access the Turnbull government’s revamped childcare subsidy have complained the site has been frequently unresponsive over the past few days.

The site was shut down over the weekend for “scheduled maintenance”, just as the Coalition’s highly anticipated reforms to childcare rebates took effect on July 1.

But on Monday and Tuesday many users were still unable to log in, prompting the agency to apologise for the “intermittent issues” and extend deadlines for support recipients trying to declare their weekly incomes.

Part of the problem is that the repeated failure of large government IT projects has made the Australian public extremely jaded when it comes to what might otherwise be understandable technical outages, and the government doesn’t do itself any favours by creating situations where website downtime can have large real-world financial consequences.

This tendency to tar all systems with the same brush was something I noted in the survey results for my Master’s thesis: when describing their concerns about the security of electronic voting systems, a large number of respondents specifically called out the failure of the 2016 eCensus as evidence that the Australian government couldn’t operate an online voting system securely.

People can have long memories when tech fails them, and annoyance can quickly turn to contempt. It doesn’t take much to shift an attitude from “this government IT system sucks” to “the government sucks at IT systems”.

IBM’s billion-dollar win

IBM has landed a billion-dollar contract to become a “central technology partner” of the Australian Government. From Bloomberg:

International Business Machines Corp. has secured a A$1 billion ($740 million) agreement to become a central technology partner of the Australian government over the next five years.

The contract will see services such as automation and blockchain provided to federal departments including defense and home affairs, IBM’s Asia Pacific head, Harriet Green, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV on Thursday.

(One hopes blockchain is just being used as a buzzword for PR purposes, and wasn’t actually a major component of the contract. You probably don’t need a blockchain, and the Australian government certainly doesn’t.)

Given that IBM was responsible for the botched Queensland Health payroll project, as well as for the failure of the 2016 Australian eCensus, this is going to be a highly scrutinised contract (and rightly so).

It’s also worth pointing out that less than a year ago, the Government announced that future IT contracts would be capped at a maximum value of $100 million or three years’ duration, to give small and medium businesses a better opportunity to get a foot in the door.

From the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, in August last year:

The Commonwealth is announcing significant reforms to the way businesses can sell IT services to Government.

From today, Government IT contracts will be capped at a maximum value of $100 million or three years’ duration. This is to allow small and medium sized businesses the opportunity to bid for smaller components of larger projects.