22 November 2004 by Richard Chirgwin

Here is a hilarious coincidence.

This morning (Sunday, November 21 at 8.15am), Centrelink’s home page is down.

In the next Mozilla tab, I have a list of headlines detailing the history of Centrelink. Apart from the string of leaks to the computer press designed to get it some favourable press – stories like its commitment to open source software – we also get the darker side. I’ll get to that in a minute.

The third Mozilla tab has the most ludicrously unsceptical report I’ve seen in the IT press this year, from Federal Computer Weekly in America. FCW – the story is at – is telling us how wonderful is Centrelink, as demonstrated by an address given by its CIO, Jane Treadwell, to a conference in America.

FCW got the quotes right, and pretty much nothing else.

It described Centrelink as an e-government project, rather than a government agency which has an e-government project (in the usual self-congratulatory terms, Centrelink ‘serves Australians on the ground and online’). It’s described as having ‘customers’ when in fact it’s mostly in charge of delivering various kinds of welfare (hint: you don’t buy welfare; calling the unemployed ‘customers of Centrelink’ is double-speak). And its main role, in the blinkered faraway world of the US press, is … well, I’ll let the words of FCW speak for themselves: ‘One of Centrelink’s top services provides Australians the ability to change their addresses’.

But what’s stunning is the gap between the glowing media it gets as a conference presenter, and the kinds of headlines I find in Australia. Headlines like ‘ Planning flaws put Centrelink system at risk’ (AFR, October 27 2003), ‘ Glitch causes Centrelink scar e Millions of mistakes by Centrelink’ (The Australian, February 14, 2004), ‘ Office porn purge at Centrelink’ (Herald Sun, January 21, 2004), ‘ Computers block fix on errors’ (The Australian, February 16, 2004), ‘ Centrelink’s $5.3m website’ (The Australian, March 16, 2004), ‘IT failures that hit the public purse’ (AFR, April 20, 2004), ‘ Centrelink changes may cut back technical help’ (AFR, April 28, 2004), ‘ Centrelink web lost in the past’ (The Australian, July 23, 2004), ‘Glitch hits agency’s debt recovery’ (The Australian, August 3, 2004), and ‘ Privacy concern at data sharing’ (The Australian, August 27, 2004) .

And, proving that Americans haven’t stopped patronising this country, some dude from Washington seriously and with a straight face told FCW that Australia would have gone broke without Centrelink.

Centrelink’s $5.3 million Website returned to life some time this afternoon.