Australian national smartcard open to outsourcers

Von Julian Bajkowski

Australian Human Services minister Joe Hockey has resurrected the introduction of national services smartcards, and vowed to make technology deliver the goods to his A$80 billion (US$62 billion) portfolio and sack public servants responsible if they stuff up his IT shop.

Outsourcers who feel they can do a better job have also been encouraged to submit their ideas.

In a roving speech citing Mao Tse Tung and the innovation of Eftpos in the retail sector, Hockey told a visibly sullen audience of commonwealth employees at the National Press Club in Canberra he will "dissolve" the boards of both Centrelink and the Health Insurance Commission.

"The existing boards of the Health Insurance Commission and Centrelink will be dissolved," Hockey said, adding Australia"s two biggest IT bureaucracies would be "recreated" as statutory agencies answerable directly to him.

Hockey said requisite legislation would be introduced in the Winter sitting of parliament, when the coalition will be in command of a full senate majority.

He also pledged to decapitate public servants he feels are responsible for IT stuff-ups, and talked-up operational efficiencies that will be achieved through the introduction of retail-style smartcards.

Computerworld understands the new smartcards will be branded as Human Services cards and are intended to enable some 3.6 million social security recipients to conduct transactions across Centrelink, Medicare, Tax and other government entities.

The card will not be called the Australia Card, despite its stark resemblance.

"What the smartcard represents is one set of keys to open a number of doors to a range of government services and benefits.

"There are compelling reasons for us to ensure common standards for this technology. This will hopefully prevent us from winding up with a new technology repeat of the mixed rail gauges debacle of the 1800s," Hockey said.

Hockey also explicitly warned government CIOs and IT managers that blowouts and stuff-ups embarrassing his ministry will be ruthlessly punished.

Citing the recent Australian National Audit Office report into a combined Centrelink and Department of Family and Community Services" $64 million transactional software development write-off called "Edge", Hockey labelled the blowout "outrageous".

"We will be focusing intently on how well each of the six agencies is managing their major IT projects. The Auditor General"s report released last week into the failed Edge project in Centrelink indicates an urgent need for increased and more careful management attention to major projects."

But there was more.

"I am also mindful of Mao Tse Tung"s warning that "passivity is fatal to us". With that in mind we have begun the Human Services reform agenda with many small steps. It will be a partnership with staff, other agencies and the private sector.

"...we will form partnerships within the public sector and with the private sector to ensure that government policy intention is carried through in the delivery of programs.

"We will be looking outside existing agency boundaries if there is a service that can be provided to us in a cheaper and more efficient manner by the private sector," Hockey said.

On the IT infrastructure consolidation front, Hockey said he was not interested in a "big brother supercomputer", noting that Centrelink"s [zSeries IBM] mainframe was "already...the largest in the Southern Hemisphere...with the HIC"s mainfame not far behind".

Rather, he stressed this was different to the "back-end infrastructure".

"There are obviously significant synergies that can be gained by data matching across"s that back-end that will help deliver better retail outcomes.

"As for the failed Edge project, I simply asked the question who was responsible. The answer came back that there were a lot of people responsible... but no one in particular.

"I understand that. There was a previous culture that a "thousand flowers may bloom", to quote Mao again, in one of the agencies.

"But that has changed, there is now direct accountability. Those people responsible for the decision will be the people responsible for the end game. It is also the case that there needs to be checks and balance along the way.

"It is also the case that those people responsible for a failed project cannot be allowed to continue in their existing roles, and that is what we did," Hockey said.

A spokesperson for Hockey said an IT review was now underway in line with the minister"s objectives. While there is no defined deadline, she said Hockey is willing to "listen" to as wide a range of opinions as possible.

"There will be a consultative process," the spokesperson said.