DHS issues due to ‘chronic’ IT underfunding, says union


news Computer malfunctions and other issues at the Department of Human Services are due to “chronic and prolonged underfunding” according to the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU).

Some of the most vulnerable people in Australia are among those who have been hit by computer malfunctions at Centrelink over recent months, the union said.

In the latest case, around 73,000 customers were incorrectly advised they owed Centrelink money, while late last year computer issues were linked to missed payments. The Department of Human Services has since said the issues have been fixed.

The CPSU said that problems causing the Bureau of Meteorology’s website to crash also suggest insufficient funding in an agency that is heavily reliant on technology.

“These computer malfunctions at Centrelink could not come at a worse time of year, given the extra financial pressure many families are under over the Christmas period,” said CPSU National President Alistair Waters in a statement.

“Workers care deeply about their clients, and our members are sick of governments failing to provide the tools and staff numbers needed to deliver the excellent service the community deserves,” Waters added.

With the government refusing to invest in IT systems while cutting staff numbers and turning to greater numbers of casual workers, it is not surprising that customer service standards have eroded in recent years, he said.

Waters called for the government to provide the DHS with “adequate resources” for computer systems and an “engaged and well trained” workforce.

“The problems with the Bureau of Meteorology website are also a cause for concern, especially given the important information provided for people facing potential disasters such as bushfires and flooding at this time of year,” said the union chief.

He further commented that reductions in the number of people working in the public sector back to 2006 levels are at odds with the fact that Australia’s population has grown by more than 3 million people who “expect decent services from Centrelink, BOM and other agencies”.

Back in March, the government announced it would replace Australia’s ageing Centrelink computer system at a cost of AU$1 billion. The improvements are expected to take place over several years.

“The case … has been pretty strongly made that this system is groaning under the weight of what’s being demanded of it,” Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh told Sky News at the time.

Image credit: Amanda Slater, Creative Commons


    • While this might be true in some cases, I wouldn’t be so quick to jump to conclusions.

      As a disclaimer, I work in State Government (Qld) and while you certainly get some incompetents, you get many more competent people, at least in IT, than you might guess. I do understand though, because I used to think the same as yourself, until I started working in IT in government (coming from private sector, and specifically a large IT services company).

      Underfunding is rife within government IT in my experience. As much as government of all ilks (local, state and federal) like to talk about being innovative and looking for opportunity to leverage IT as an enabler, that talk stops the minute they see the bill for any … not all, not a few … but any … new initiative that IT departments try to put forward, citing accountability and taxpayer value for money. Noble goals to live up to, and ones that I as a professional applaud, but don’t talk about innovation and opportunity and balk at its cost.

      Every new direction costs more at the start than it does to maintain, but the lack of understanding that IT is not just a cost sink (a myth that needs to die, and the sooner the better), but a business enabler is what is killing public sector IT.

      As a past CIO magazine article said to me once … “CIO’s need to put down the scalpel, and get out the compass.” Today, in government IT, that is even more relevant than when I read it years ago.

      • @m I’d not ask anyone in govt or the public sector to identify, let alone design a compass. I agree they all claim to be good at their jobs though.

        In my experience (not guessing), dealing with a large number of depts, I can’t remember my last competent encounter (universally refusing to put anything in writing today, showing a remarkable legislative ignorance). Nor can I remember the last govt IT project that has been completed on budget with appropriate functionality (I could list dozens of failed projects). Amazing is the number of project failures hidden from the public, journalists too busy I guess.

        Public sector teams find themselves underfunded due to top heavy management (managers typically responsible for just 3 employees or LESS) and layers of purchasing oversight (corruption).

        But that’s only my experience. Perhaps you can name govt depts that claims not to be underfunded or requesting a smaller budget. Given their outstanding competency there must be a least one right?

        • Richard …. then you can count me the first to be able to put something in writing, at least for the limit of my responsibility.

          You can also count me the first, in your experience, who has delivered a project on time and on budget, however I have knowledge of others. You are limited in your knowledge. I know of others as well that weren’t, but this is not exclusive to government.

          The difference between private enterprise and government, however, is that private enterprise doesn’t have to release near as much information as government, simply by their two different natures.

          And I’m sure that you do realise that asking me, to name names of departments would require at least CIO level or higher. I can assure you that I am not that high. I do not speak for government as a whole, any of it’s departments, including my own in an official capacity. Nor would I wish to, there are legal ramifications if I attempt to do so. If you think this justifies your view, you would be very wrong. There are avenues available to you, such as Freedom of Information. I can tell you, that those of us in at least my immediate surrounds, take those requests seriously.

          Similarly, I could ask you to speak for whatever organisation you work for, but I would suspect your answer would be similar, unless of course you are an executive member of it’s management. In which case, I would suspect you are of a level enough to determine why my response is so worded.

          • @m the other public v private difference is the acceptance of responsibility and accountability. Depending of their size it can take time. I can’t think of the last failed govt IT project where anyone was held accountable, nor in this article (deflecting blame).

            Don’t worry about naming one, they don’t exist. Govt exists to forever grow larger.

          • This is starting to sound like an ideological debate. Remember that Delimiter is an evidence-based site, not a place to assert ideological alternatives to reality.

          • Incorrect again Richard.

            The most high profile one was the IBM vs Qld State Government. Have you forgotten the Qld Heath debacle?

          • @Paul

            Not ideological, at least on my part. I have had the luxury of being on both sides of the fence in my career, and can see both perspectives. It’s easy to pigeonhole your opinion based on a lack of knowledge.

            Don’t get me wrong, some concerns are justified. But many are not, and differ from department to department. But whitewashing government (as I used to do when I was naively in private enterprise) with the same wall coat is not justified as some myths are not prevalent as I thought they were. I was trying to pass those lessons on.

            I guess whether anyone listens to those lessons is up to them, but I am aware that some don’t like to think outside the box they’ve painted themselves into.

          • Murdoch, my comments weren’t aimed at you – I believe what you have said has been pretty reasonable.
            The whole ‘private vs public’ argument seems silly to me. It is pretty clear that they are apples and oranges, with different purposes, goals, scope, responsibilities, strengths, weaknesses, applications etc.
            People who try to boil debates down to ‘public = bad / private = good’ are ideologues whose contributions aren’t based on reality and aren’t helpful to anyone.

          • @Paul

            All good, I didn’t take it as a shot at me. And you are dead right. Apples and oranges.

          • I agree. Having also worked in State Government (QLD) both as a direct employee, and as part of an outsourcing arrangement (Mincom Managed Services).

            There have been some absolute ridiculous cock ups. The clearest to me was one that evolved from a political stoush around the children in protection issues from the early turn of the century. In which a piece of software was delivered that was barely able to perform the functions it was required for.

            But there were plenty of projects that I saw that came in under budget or on budget, and on time. Most however did not have a lot of political focus.

            As to the Private sector, Top heavy is just as rife in private as in Public. The old boys club exists everywhere.

            My current woes revolve around the outsourcing of several functions in our organisation. Taken on by the largest outsourcer in the world. They are absolutely pathetic. They lack process and procedure, and cultural issues prevent them from identifying these issues to us as the customers. So the first time we hear of these problems, is when it falls over. They have failed to deliver on several projects, and complaints are consistent, as are clear evidence of failure to follow existing process and procedure.

            Surprisingly enough the reason they are still with us is internally political as well. The person who made the decision in the first place, doesn’t want to look bad by admitting the choice of that company was a mistake.

        • @pt if it’s purely an ideological debate then perhaps you could post the answer?

          Delimiter crowd calls ideology whenever they disagree. The IBM QLD health was again a govt project (partnership with private enterprise). Look to the changes in specs that lead to the continual failure.

          Given their obvious compentacy it must be easy. What specifically did you disagree with (mgmt staffing or perhaps restrictive purchasing;-)?

          I also have experience with both sides. Dealing with govt a weekly occurance these days in senior management, such is the invasion of legialsalation.

          • “@pt if it’s purely an ideological debate then perhaps you could post the answer?”

            This sentence barely makes sense. I haven’t said it is purely an ideological debate, I have said it is starting to sound like an ideological debate. There is a distinct difference.
            To follow up on your straw man is an implied non-sequitur. Being able to spot an ideologically based argument doesn’t mean I have lists of everything that you might dream up as being necessary for your whims. The non-sequitur posed is simply further evidence of the ideological bent you have brought to this topic.

            “Delimiter crowd calls ideology whenever they disagree.”
            No they don’t. This is a silly exaggeration. It is also not true that claims of ideology are disproportionate here.

            “The IBM QLD health was again a govt project (partnership with private enterprise). Look to the changes in specs that lead to the continual failure.”

            And? A government project failed. This is hardly news. It also doesn’t back up your claims.

            “Given their obvious compentacy it must be easy. What specifically did you disagree with (mgmt staffing or perhaps restrictive purchasing;-)?”

            I have no idea what you are even saying here. It looks like you have identified some issues you had with a project’s implementation. You might even be talking about something which did have legitimate problems (I can’t really tell what you are referring to specifically) however it doesn’t do anything to prove your point.

            “I also have experience with both sides. Dealing with govt a weekly occurance these days in senior management, such is the invasion of legialsalation.”

            Hmmm, anecdotal – not particularly good evidence there – particularly when better, more thorough and balanced anecdotes are being provided by others here. The finishing sentence just iterates the ideological bent of your posts.

            Pointing out some high profile failures and talking about personal anecdotes is not a good way to provide an accurate account of what is happening. The reasoning you have brought to the discussion seems to have a high risk of confirmation bias.

            Life is too short to indulge in ideology or to cloud your thinking with biases or sloppy logic. Plus we often see real people suffer real consequences from asserted ideology.

    • It has been my experience that the private sector is far more competent at wasting tax payer money.

      • That has been my experience as well.

        In spite of private sector pooh poohing the inefficiencies of government, they certainly have a disposition to add to inefficiency when taxpayer dollars are paying their bills.

  1. It would be good to see a proper analysis of the state of DHS’s systems. One that was done by genuine experts without an ideological axe to grind and without a financial incentive to skew the truth.
    I would like to see such an analysis also include the reasons why the DHS systems are in their current state – including the good, the bad, and the ugly.
    CIO Gary Sterrenberg has been in the position for long enough now that we really need to look to him for answers about the DHS systems. There has been a lot of talk about moving to SAP and obviously some effort to drive myGov – these are interesting and potentially positives, but there seem to be quite a few high profile debacles as well.
    So I guess the question is: what is really going on, is it good enough, and who is responsible?

  2. As a once frequenter of DSS/Centrelink/DHS/etc I remember very clearly client-side reps struggling with the latest greatest rollout/Operating System/software upgrade, usually every 6 to 9 months.

    I could not understand why it took so many–presumably intelligent–people so long to master the new whatever this iteration, and I will never understand why all these iterations had to happen anyway. Management fails to anticipate for some reason, that we the plebs on the unpaid side of the counter can see the furrowed brow and hear the cog-wheels whirring as the poor sap on the keyboard really is struggling to perform what should be a routine task.

    So I’m with Paul above: “what is really going on, is it good enough, and who is responsible?”

    And Richard’s comment: Public sector: underfunding = hiding\\\\\\creating incompetency.

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