news One of the most high-profile figures in Queensland’s technology sector has resigned his post on the State Government’s ICT industry committee, in protest against a crackdown he claimed had seen the group effectively “gagged” and used as a mouthpiece for the Government.
Bruce Mills has long been a high-profile and vocal member of the state’s technology sector, with a career spanning several decades and a number of companies operating in the state. For the past five years he has jointly led consulting firm 3W, as well as holding other community roles such as being an executive board member of Software Queensland, an industry association group counting close to 100 member companies in the state.
Part of that role led Mills to sit on the State Government’s ICT Industry Workgroup, which was set up in 2005 to represent the industry to government, with the aim of building closer links between the pair. Other representative bodies such as the Australian Information Industry Association and the Australian Computer Society are also represented on the group.
However, in a statement issued yesterday, Mills noted he had resigned from Software Queensland — and hence from the workgroup — in protest over what he saw as an untenable approach from the State Government. Mills claimed the group — which is led by its executive officer Paul Campbell, whose salary is funded by the state — had become a mouthpiece for “political” statements from the state’s current technology minister Simon Finn, who was appointed in February this year.
“I can no longer in good conscience sit back and let our lords and masters within the current Queensland Government stymie critical reforms needed, just because they throw a few pieces of silver to an industry group that the Government themselves now “script” the commentary they desire,” said Mills.
The executive is concerned about a number of issues in relation to the State Government’s handling of technology policy.
For instance, Mills said he was concerned that Finn had “failed to genuinely consult” with the industry on the appointment of a new whole of government chief information officer, a role which Queensland Premier Anna Bligh recently announced. The announcement of the beefed up role came after Queensland has had a number of previous CIOs sit for relatively short periods in its CIO spot.
“The various collapses in communication and deliverables by former CIO incumbents might have been a signal to Minister Finn that a broader consultation process be entered into, but apparently not,” wrote Mills.
Mills — and others within the sector — have also expressed concern over time over the state’s handling of its disastrous payroll systems implementation at Queensland Health, which resulted in thousands of health professionals going unpaid and extensive budget over-runs and delays. “The ICT sector in Queensland can be the making or breaking of mega budgets and even governments if the strategic and operational direction is wrong,” wrote Mills yesterday. “Take the ongoing Queensland Health payroll disaster as a case in point. It never had to be this way.”
A series of damning reports by the state’s auditor-general over the past year have highlighted the fact that it has not been solely the Queensland Health problems which have dogged the government when it comes to ICT. A number of other major projects underpinning the operations of multiple departments have also been found to be running late and over budget.
Software Queensland as a whole has been broadly critical of the Government’s handling of a number of issues and engagement with industry in the past. In late July, its chairman John Vickers severely criticised the government, stating that when government IT projects were unsuccessful, the entire IT industry in Queensland was brought into disrepute.
At the time, Vickers said the presence of Finn in industry workgroup meetings dampened proceedings and curtailed robust exchanges. “It’s like having my boss at meetings, it certainly constrains matters,” he said at the time. Like Vickers, Mills has also been active in criticising the government on his blog.
Software Queensland has not been the only organisation to criticise the State Government on issues relating to its engagement with industry. In late June, respected Queensland-based ICT analyst firm Longhaus raised the question of whether the Government might be focusing too closely on its relationship with the Australian Information Industry Association.
At the time, Finn had announced funding to be allocated to the AIIA to examine how Queensland could best bolster its digital economy in readiness for the National Broadband Network. However, Longhaus principal Peter Carr questioned whether the money had been awarded uncontested, and whether the amount – $170,000 — was too small.
“In the opening of his address the minister … made the point that there was the opportunity for the industry to participate in the implementation of the digital economy. Maybe that should have been prefaced with – just not in Queensland,” wrote Carr in a fiery blog post at the time. “This kind of backroom bargaining between government and associations is a blight on the industry as a whole and flies in the face of the unification efforts of the ICT Industry Working Group over the previous years and the tremendous work of past execs.”
“I have previously commented that Australia’s ICT industry associations often run the risk of drifting too close to government at the expense of members, causing potential conflicts relating to partnerships between associations and government as the perceived way to achieve outcomes,” wrote Carr.
Yesterday, Mills noted that although he believed he had become a target, he wouldn’t give up his campaign for change in Queensland. “I, for one, won’t be a “yes man”, he wrote. “Our sector and all the stakeholders who are involved deserve much better than that, and I intend to deliver a strong voice of positive reform and advocacy for real action. Far from stepping back, I will step up, along with like-minded foot soldiers of such a critical sector to Queensland.”
The Minister’s Office was invited yesterday to respond to Mill’s comments, and was believed to be preparing a response.
There’s just something about Queensland’s ICT sector which keeps it at a constant boiling point. In no other state in Australia do we currently see such a high level of political activism and passion when it comes to technology policy. I mean, where else could you picture the industry banding together to blockade an election speech with brightly coloured t-shirts to make their point?
Personally, I believe Mills has a number of solid points. He’s right — the Queensland Government’s handling of ICT projects and policy, over the past few years, has been pretty disastrous, as its own auditor-general has chronicled exhaustively. We’ve seen whole of government CIOs come and go, projects delayed and run substantially over budget, and a lack of engagement on the issue at a ministerial level.
However, there also remains no doubt that Queensland is attempting to address these issues. Minister Finn himself doesn’t appear to have a background in the IT sector, but Premier Anna Bligh went a great deal to addressing many of the pain points which Mills has raised in a landmark speech to the sector recently.
In addition, in many senses I find it hard to blame Finn, if it is true that he has taken a dim view of Mills and Software Queensland. There is a certain decorum which is commonly upheld when dealing with ministers, and I have to say that some of the recent comments emanating from this camp have probably been a little too harsh for any minister to take. I’m sure Mills and Software Queensland would be able to take their case a lot further if they cloaked their words with slightly more diplomacy.
Having said all this, Queensland — and Australia — needs more passionate advocates like Bruce Mills. The executive’s energy and passion are very clear — and his ideas should be listened to. When someone as respected as Mills takes a stand, they don’t do it lightly. It will be fascinating to see what the reaction will be over the next few months.