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Agriculture’s BICON project approach losing favour

by Michael Read •
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Long term projects, apart from risking changes to scope and cost and time blow-outs, are often outdated from a technology perspective before they are implemented.

This view is behind the pledge in South Australia’s ICT Strategy, SA Connected, “From now on, we’re not going to start up any more big ‘ICT’ projects” and is increasingly being voiced in other jurisdictions. 

Federal government agencies have been firmly immersed in a cost-cutting environment since the 2011-12 Labor budget.  This cost-cutting is likely to extend not just into the Coalition Government’s 2014-15 budget, but possibly through the entirety of its first term, given its determination to manage the structural deficit.

Against this backdrop, the Department of Agriculture’s (Agriculture) Biosecurity Import Conditions system (BICON), initiated in 2007, is set to go live in mid-2014, both over budget and behind schedule, providing a contemporary justification to SA’s pledge.

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Rona Mellor told a recent Senate Estimate Committee that BICON is designed to scale back the Department’s expenditure on manual processes.

Currently, to apply for a permit, industry is required to use an email based e-permit system.

“They are very manual. Things get printed off. They get handled manually. The object of [BICON} is for an importer to be able to apply for a permit online, to have receipt and approval online, to be able to pay their fees online, and so we take out many manual processes that have existed in this department for many years,” said Mellor.

Mellor estimates that the Department manually processes about 25,000 permits a year under the current email based system (or in other words, an average of approximately 500 per week).

In this environment of fiscal restraint and reductions in staff numbers, automation is viewed by agencies as a way to increase productivity, drive efficiencies and cut costs.

Agriculture’s average staffing level was cut by 5.1 per cent from 4,488 in 2012-13 to 4,258 in the 2013-14 Budget.  A reduction of 230 staff, at an estimated average full direct and indirect ‘on cost’ of $100,000 per staff member will result in per annum savings of $23 million but will put pressure on the agency to find productivity to absorb this decrease in staff levels. 

Once the BICON implementation is complete, importers will be able to search for specific biosecurity conditions, apply for, pay for and receive import permits without having to contact the Department via another channel.

BICON was budgeted at $35.7 million in 2009. This consisted of a $23.6 million capital budget for the software build and a $12.1 million operational budget for training, implementation and the re-design of current import conditions.

In November 2012, the budget was revised upward to $46 million with an expected completion date of June 2013. Approximately $3.5 million of the cost increase was as a result of the re-engineering of import conditions while $5.5 million was for changes in the cost allocation of corporate overheads.

Lynne O’Brien, First Assistant Secretary of Agriculture’s People and Service Delivery Division (a Division which reports to Mellor) stated in May 2013 that the project budget had again been revised upward – this time to $56 million- when questioned by Senator Richard Colbeck in Senate Estimates. Furthermore, the completion date had been pushed out by a year to June 2014.

“When the business requirements were originally put together it was a period of five or six years ago. What we have established through our review is that the requirements of the system designed six years ago would not meet the modern service delivery requirements of a user today,” said O’Brien, in a statement that fully supports South Australia’s view about long term, large projects.

Fujitsu has been Agriculture’s largest contractor in the BICON roll-out, signing a $16.7 million contract to undertake the redevelopment of the import conditions database.

Agriculture as a ‘light user’ agency

The Coalition’s ICT Policy places an emphasis on significant changes for the management of ICT in the ‘light user’ agencies.    

According to Intermedium’s Budget IT tool, the Department of Agriculture received an estimated $29.6 million in ICT Operational Expenditure (excluding staff costs) and Capital Expenditure funding in the 2013-14 Budget, making it the 17th largest agency in terms of ICT out of 97 agencies.

On this basis it is unlikely to be considered a ‘heavy user’ agency under the Coalition’s ICT policy.  According to a recent Secretaries Information Governance Board (SIGB) communique, work is underway to translate the Coalition Policy into a refreshed ICT or E-Government strategy for agencies to adopt.

According to the Coalition policy, light user agencies will be compelled to achieve greater efficiency through alternative procurement and system management models such as shared or cloud services.

The Federal Government, South Australia and Queensland have all made clear their desire to move towards an ‘as-a-service’ model of delivery.

“Over the past decade computing and networking have matured, standardised and evolved in ways that allow many of the capabilities they provide to be offered as a service rather than a product…Users consume what they need and pay only for what they use”, states the Coalition’s ICT Policy.

It is viewed that by treating ICT as a utility, there is reduced scope for cost blowouts and project failure. Under the Coalition, future large ICT projects such as Agriculture’s BICON redevelopment will require an external review every six months until the project is fully implemented to assure it is delivered on time and on budget.

In addition, the Coalition also intends to create a ‘dashboard’ to publish key metrics on the progress of major new investments such as BICON.

Related Articles:

DAFF refreshes ICT Strategy and reveals major projects

ICT roles feel the cold under APS job freeze

SA’s new ICT Strategy takes “share first” approach

For more information, please contact the Editor (02) 9955 9896.

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