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OUR SAY: ITs complicated — and expensive

Care, time and eternal vigilance is crucial when huge fixes rely on technology.


Why did the trucking industry squeal like a stuck pig when the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator’s (NHVR) systems failed? Because it had been stuck, of course.

It has cost the industry and its customers a huge amount but it would be surprising if anyone asked, say, the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) to find out how much.

After all, in whose interest would it be to have that officially estimated? Not the minister responsible, nor, one would think, his otherwise lauded predecessor.

Sure as eggs are what they are, the former government’s opponents pointed to the now-opposition and sheeted the blame home.

Labor will say that it was all going swimmingly eight months ago but there was a change of government and our present minister has been in charge of it since, with his own people overseeing it — or not, as the case may be.

And, despite the previous government’s penchant for thinking big and ignoring the implementation, disastrously in many cases, that point cannot be ignored.

One of the national regulator’s main issues centres on the IT system. There are those who find IT not unlike a dark art. Such a reaction is a natural human response to a lack of knowledge. But, unlike witchcraft, we have an understanding of where it is coming from, with what ignorance there is due mostly to deep complexity and vast detail.

Such complexity and detail can work to sabotage new organisations or new systems of managing enormous undertakings. Among the biggest of the latter is health. Few technology disasters are as expensive, especially for taxpayers, than those affecting hospital systems. And nominally Anglo-Saxon countries seem inordinately prone to them.

The United States is still struggling to resolve, the website of the Health Insurance Marketplace, a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s, health reform initiative, known as ‘Obamacare’.

The British have been bedevilled by faulty systems as governments of both persuasions attempt to bring uniformity to the National Health System. These have cost the heavily indebted Exchequer billions of pounds.

Closer to home but recognised overseas, at the likes of, as the second-biggest IT disaster of last year, is the Queensland Health payroll debacle. That might end up costing $1.2 billion but probably more.

Despite it having been an initiative of the previous government, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman characteristically talked tough while IBM blamed lack of proper scoping by government, but the Chesterman Inquiry found fault on both sides along with a poor choice of advice by the government.

It was an expensive way of finding out that the cheapest is not necessarily the best and that choosing to rely on the counsel of a person who once worked for one of the bidders runs against best practice.

This sort of sloppy thinking — along with the strategic dimension, naturally — seems also to have informed our country’s involvement in the Joint Strike Fighter, which continues to be an unimaginably expensive and wasteful debacle. Again, the overly ambitious nature of the IT task has led to ongoing delays, though this aspect is overlayed by military confusion.

If it gets up, the Joint Strike Fighter could be just the most modern of Pyrrhic victories. If drone air warfare becomes the way of the near to medium future, it will have been all but pointless.

Whether the IT governance issues above have an echo in the NHVR difficulties is not known at present by this writer but they do show that such outcomes affect a variety of sectors.

And this is why the Australian trucking industry must be relentless in ensuring that any IT solution proposed for road charging that involves significant industry outlay is tested, retested, justified and checked again before it is agreed to.

Then it must run parallel with the current system for at least two years and the outcomes compared. After that, the inevitable glitches that only those whose own money is not at stake can shrug off might be ironed out.

Meanwhile, who was it who advised the Government that the national regulator was ready to go when, patently, it was not? Some detect the hand of an international accountancy firm in the mix.

A common device in the US, this sector’s involvement in political decision-making has become pernicious in the United Kingdom and is likely to be seen more often here. As with IT, its use should involve the most stringent planning and oversight.

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