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How the Turnbull government killed off its big website dream

The Turnbull government has quietly killed off one of its biggest plans for "digital transformation": the hugely ambitious GOV.AU website project.

Fairfax understands that Minister for Digital Innovation Angus Taylor pulled the pin on the program, at the urging of the powerful Finance Department, just minutes before plans for its next phase were due to go to cabinet in August 2016.

Mr Taylor's office insists that a rebadged version of the plan will go ahead and that it is a "priority project".

The dramatic dropping of the much-hyped centrepiece of Malcolm Turnbull's "agile and innovative government agenda" came after a Canberra turf war that had raged for months between Finance and the Prime Minister's pet public service project, the Digital Transformation Office.  

The plan was for a massive one-stop-shop government website called GOV.AU, which would sweep away troubled platforms like myGov and ato.gov.au along with more than 1500 other Commonwealth websites.

The downgrading and defunding of the project in August 2016 meant that millions of dollars of taxpayers' money spent on temporary technicians, contractors and consultants to develop the program were wasted.

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The Finance Department was unhappy from the start about the Digital Transformation Office's plans for GOV.AU which was to be built largely by in-house technicians, an unusual approach in the public service, and based on the British UK.GOV site.

Finance had been working for several years on its own plans for government websites and had already signed up more than 50 departments and agencies to its govCMS content management system, for which it has paid tens of millions of dollars to US-based contractor Acquia.

The powerful central agency was unhappy with the competition from the new "start-up" operation, the DTO, which had been launched by Mr Turnbull, then communication minister, in July 2015.

After months of sparring and sniping between the two sides, who each believed they had a better technological solution, Finance prevailed with the announcement in March 2016, that GOV.AU would be based on Finance's system.

But the department still held serious reservations in August as a submission from the DTO for more money and resources for the GOV.AU project, was to be considered by cabinet, although it is understood the proposal was supported by other important public service outfits including the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

With half-an-hour to go before the cabinet meeting, Fairfax understands,  Mr Taylor made the decision not to take the submission to his colleagues, shocking the 53-strong team at the DTO who had been working on GOV.AU.

The latest "digital roadmap" published by the renamed Digital Transformation Agency makes no mention of GOV.AU and the project's blog has not been updated since May 2016, but Mr Taylor's office denied it had been killed off, saying last year's  GOV.AU proposal "did not pass internal government reviews."

"As a result of the reviews, it was decided that a more distributed model, building on the work done to date, would be more effective," a spokeswoman for the minister said.

"The GOV.AU project is a firm priority in the government's Digital Roadmap.  

"The recently published roadmap sets out delivery goals for the DTA for the coming 18 months."

Finance declined to answer questions, referring Fairfax's inquiry to the DTA which insisted that GOV.AU was till a "priority project".

In the wake of the veto over the cabinet submission, the team working on gov.au was reduced from more than 50 workers to just nine, who then spent their time working on directory-like australia.gov.au , a basic website which required much less technical expertise.

Just a month later, Finance Department boss Jane Halton quit and within another two months, the DTO had been re-organized, renamed and its boss Paul Shetler moved to a less senior job.

But a DTA spokeswoman said plans for GOV.AU had morphed into a "broader channel strategy" which was still a "priority project".

"The channel strategy is included in the Government's Digital Transformation Roadmap as a priority project," she said.

Mr Shetler declined to comment but he told ABC Radio on Monday that he resigned from his job because of a serious disagreement with Mr Taylor over the minister's approach to digital government.

 "I believe you can't do policy without delivery and the idea that the DTA should just become a policy agency and essentially stop doing its delivery was not something I agreed with," Mr Shetler said.

He characterised Taylor's re-branded DTA as "the same approach that didn't work several times before".

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