The BIS project has now been terminated.
The ACIC was formed in July 2016 after the Abbott government’s National Commission of Audit recommended a merger between the Australian Crime Commission and CrimTrac, “to better harness their collective resources”.
The merged agency had 830 staff members: 220 from the former CrimTrac and 610 from the former ACC. It inherited the BIS project from CrimTrac, which had been working on it since 2013. Once the project was passed on to the ACIC its administration was described by the audit office as “deficient in almost every significant respect”.
The ACIC was “unable to definitively advise how much they had spent on the project” and the projected cost rose by $12 million between April 2016 and June 2018, sometimes “without explanation”.
A $4 million payment for an “impossible” addition to the project was labelled “madness” and a $3 million “good faith” payment was unable to be explained fully to the audit office.
“The payment of $2,944,506 made to NEC [which was contracted to provide the technology] in September 2017 … does not appear to the ANAO to have been linked to the achievement of any specific milestone under the contract [and] ACIC was not able to explain how the quantum of this payment was calculated,” ANAO reported.
A $4 million bill for “reverse synchronisation” was described by an ACIC officer, as “madness and technically almost impossible to achieve” and labelled “one of the worst decisions” because a simple change to police procedures could have avoided the need for it altogether.
The BIS project’s record keeping was so poor it took more than a month for ACIC to find the original 800-page contract and was not measured against milestones or deliverables “at any stage” so there was no way of knowing that ACIC got what it paid for.
“Evidence obtained by the ANAO about milestone completion was confused and contradictory” and ACIC admitted that “no milestones were ever actually fully completed”, the report said.
Staff who worked at CrimTrac and ACIC told auditors that they had “concerns” about the workplace culture, and staff turnover reflected this between 2016 and 2018. Three chief executives, four chief operating officers, three chief technology officers, five national managers of a technology division and three BIS project managers left during this time, some of them “abruptly”.
In June 2017, a PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) review noted the BIS project team had 15 staff compared with its assessment of the 40 required.
In October 2017, the BIS project manager noted “ongoing staff reductions … are creating insufficient stable capacity to maintain schedule and scope”.
In May 2018, the “insufficient and inappropriately skilled BIS program team” was identified as a “key issue”.
The relationship between ACIC and NEC, the technology provider, had deteriorated so badly that in December 2017 they asked PwC to intervene with “turnaround” workshops to “reset the relationship” and “build trust”.
In January 2018, ACIC asked NEC to replace its program manager. ACIC could not provide any reasons for the request. The new NEC program manager left within two weeks, a third replacement manager departed in late February 2018.
While the BIS project floundered, biometric technology was being developed at other government departments, including Smart Gates for airports, and the National Facial Biometric Matching Capability, known as “The Capability”.
“Numerous reports” identified the project’s “red” status as early as August 2016 but little meaningful action was taken until it was too late.
In May 2018, more than two years after the project commenced, several ACIC officers realised that the contract did not include provisions to deal with undercover police, known as assumed identities and witness security. It was estimated an extra $10 million would be needed to cover this cost.
In September 2018, ACIC published a “Lessons Learnt” document of the 27 key lessons from the project and in December, then ACIC chief executive Michael Phelan, committed to implementing all of them.
Nigel Gladstone is The Sydney Morning Herald’s data journalist.