opinion The Australian Government’s peak IT strategy agency is currently drowning in a sea of technocratic waffle that would do Sir Humphrey Appleby proud. It needs to take a step back and appoint a leader from the private sector to help it focus its efforts on a limited number of high-profile projects which would actually enhance government IT service delivery.
Last week, the Federal Government did something that, after the best part of a decade dealing with it as a journalist, I have become accustomed to never expecting: It gave in and released a large amount of sensitive information voluntarily.
The information consisted of a series of reports and documents which had been commissioned into the performance of the Government’s centralised IT strategy agency, the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO), as well as a separate document put together by that agency to steer technology strategy across government in the coming years.
Now, I had been expecting the worst kind of dogfight to wrest these documents out of the Government’s hands. We only know of their existence because of a successful Freedom of Information request I filed a while back. It exposed the fact that Special Minister of State Gary Gray was pretty concerned about the ability of AGIMO to deliver on its mission of setting central government IT strategy, as well as the existence of a number of reviews examining that issue.
But last Friday afternoon, only days after I filed a second FoI request for the reports themselves, I received an unexpected call from the Department of Finance and Deregulation, which houses AGIMO. The agency, I was told, had decided to release the reports voluntarily through its website that very day. So there was no need for me to persist with my FoI request in the area. At first I was puzzled by this response. Release information voluntarily? The very concept is normally anathema to the Government. But then as I read through the several hundreds of pages of documents which had been released last week, it all started to make sense.
Three reports were released last week. One, put together by AGIMO, constitutes what it describes as a Strategic Vision for the Australian Government’s use of Information and Communications Technology. One, put together by high-profile consultant Ian Reinecke, is a report into that vision. And one, by former broadband department secretary Helen Williams, is a report into AGIMO’s ability to deliver on its vision.
And, despite the three reports in total constituting some 153 pages of expert government opinion, none of them says much of anything at all, in a great amount of detail. If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to read the reports yourself. After a certain number of pages, your brain begins to turn to mush.
AGIMO’s ICT vision predominantly contains a number of high-level statements about the importance of technology to the Federal Government. A representative paragraph:
“Technological developments have increased personal, business and national productivity. ICT has also become fundamental to how government operates. The Government’s use of ICT affects all Australians. People and businesses benefit from simpler, easier-to-use and quicker interactions with Government. The use of ICT-related opportunities is integral to developing government policies and services. ICT offers new ways to design, develop and deliver services, automate existing services, and more effectively consult and engage with a broader range of stakeholders.”
Yes, you might ask yourself; it all sounds very well and good, but what does it actually mean? Or take this paragraph, from Williams’ report into AGIMO’s ability to deliver on its vision:
“Some months ago, [the Secretaries ICT Governance Board] approved a schema summarising a proposed model for cases where a lead agency is required to progress a feasibility study with support from stakeholder agencies. The model gives the lead agency responsibility for project and resource management, for initiating and chairing a cross-agency reference group, for promulgating information to stakeholder agencies and for reporting to the relevant governance committees. AGIMO has been given responsibility for preparing the governance committee papers, ensuring that appropriate terms of reference are prepared for each reference group and providing support for the reference groups.”
Again, you might ask yourself, what does this actually mean? I’ve been writing about technology in government for the better part of a decade now, and to be honest, I really have no idea. Reinecke’s report is a little better. The consultant is quite plain-spoken as an individual, and he often tends to say what he means. But that doesn’t mean his report is lacking a certain style of bureaucratic waffle of its own. Witness the following statement:
“In its current version the implementation plan for the vision has a somewhat ‘technology first’ approach rather than an emphasis on defining business requirements and processes that deliver them effectively … There is an inherent tension between the tactical functions of designing and providing operational support and the strategic approach necessary for policy formation that obliges agencies to undertake specific actions. To conflate the level of authority and type of expertise required for the former with the level of authority required for the latter blurs the governance model and weakens accountability.”
Now, I think it is relatively clear, from the perspective of someone in my position as a reporter and commentator on government technology matters, what sorts of problems AGIMO faces.
The agency’s fundamental role is that of an organisation setting technology policies and strategies across the entire Federal Government sector — from Tax to Human Services, from Defence to Customs, and all the tiny agencies in between. However, it sits in the middle between a number of powerful organisations, and has very little real power to enforce outcomes on those organisations, or any control on how they spend their money.
Thus, you get individual agencies signing individual contracts with major suppliers, ignoring the potential to save money through cross-government scale, and individual agencies rolling out individual IT projects, without regard to how standardisation could aid collaboration across government.
In an environment with limited IT staffing resources to start with (predominantly, Canberra) and at a time of intense technological change when governments right around Australia and the globe are struggling with problems of governance of IT projects, AGIMO has often been left in an untenable position in the Government; sometimes, I would anticipate, screaming into a void.
If you try hard to get beyond the waffle and read between the lines of the reports released last week, you can see these problems coming up again and again. The issues with governance, especially associated with the Secretaries ICT Governance Board and its arcane processes. The necessity, when working cross-government, of constantly trying to translate high-level motherhood statements into tactical approaches to generating real-world outcomes. And especially, a constant public sector mandate that all t’s must be crossed and I’s dotted, lest the heavy gaze of each department’s political masters come down on them, following a failed initiative.
In government, every decision must be able to be justified to the Nth degree, and every ass must be covered in the event of problems.
But what strikes me about the information released over the past week or so by AGIMO and the Finance Department in general, is that as this bureaucratic miasma of biblical proportions proceeds unchecked, an opportunity is being lost for some clear-sighted wins in the Federal Government. There is so much waffle in and around AGIMO right now that any actual leadership being shown by the agency is being obscured.
If you read between the lines of Special Minister of State Gary Gray’s internal memo about AGIMO, what strikes me is that it appears that the Minister, also is struggling with the same issues that I am about the agency; namely: What does it do? Is it doing a good job at that? And what should its focus be in future?
Public servants have long known that in Government, the way to generate substantive change is to get a small number of popular big ticket projects approved, and then tack smaller initiatives onto them under their large overarching umbrella. Good examples in the current Federal Government would be the way that Stephen Conroy’s National Broadband Network project is attempting to meet a number of complex policy objectives through attacking the populist issue of universal access to fast broadband, or the way that the Australian Taxation Office bundled a number of wide-ranging IT projects under the larger “Change Program” umbrella.
But if I look at AGIMO right now, I feel as though there is a vast gulf between the way that politicians such as Gray view the agency, and what they would like it to achieve, and the way that AGIMO and other departmental bodies view it.
Ideally, Gray and Labor in general would like AGIMO to be involved in the kind of big ticket projects which would illustrate to the public that Labor was achieving dramatic and positive internal change in the way the Government uses technology. In contrast, I feel that AGIMO feels much of its work is in tying together little things into bigger outcomes; setting standards across government, for example, or helping departments review IT projects. You know, the kind of things that slowly increase the quality of IT governance within the public sector, but which don’t necessarily create a big public splash.
You can see that AGIMO is trying to target these big ticket items. The agency’s work on centralised IT procurement, with whole of government contracts with vendors like Microsoft, is a good example of this. And AGIMO has also given a strong boost towards public sector accountability, through so-called Web 2.0, social media and document licensing initiatives. It’s been trying, but broadly failing, I would argue, to make some headway on cloud computing strategies.
But my overwhelming feeling, which returns every time I read another report about the agency, is that it’s not focusing enough on those big ticket items which would give it a more visible presence within Government; a presence that would demonstrate that what it’s doing matters, and that it’s having a real impact on the way the public sector uses technology. In short: AGIMO can’t focus. It’s an agency which needs to help oversee the public sector and push it in a certain direction. But it’s become too much a part of that same public sector for it to be effective at that task. It’s enmeshed in bureaucratic waffle, with no immediate hope of breaking free.
In my opinion, what its political masters need to do with AGIMO is to stop reviewing its operations and asking it to present reports. The agency needs new, dynamic, vigorous leadership; ideally from the private sector, from an industry like financial services and banking which has similar cross-jurisdictional issues, and it needs a beefed up mandate so that government departments and agencies would find it very hard to say “no” when it comes calling asking for change. It needs decisive action and vision, of which it currently has little. It shouldn’t take a year for AGIMO to get an ICT strategy approved. What it should take is a direct call from the leader of the agency to the Prime Minister.
This kind of change is not unprecedented, in at least one jurisdiction which Australia loves to compare itself to.
In the US, then-new US President Barack Obama unleashed a wave of change in the country’s Federal public sector with the 2009 appointment of Vivek Kundra as its first whole of government chief information officer. For all his faults (and I have severely criticised him previously for leaving his role too early for a job at cloud computing vendor Salesforce.com), Kundra was successful in the role by harshly focusing on just a handful of projects.
Kundra’s Data.gov, IT dashboard, TechStat and whole of government cloud computing initiatives profoundly changed the way the US Government as a whole manages technology projects, in just a short two-year period in which he held his office. Kundra was also successful in getting top-level executive buy-in from Obama himself.
It’s hard to imagine AGIMO getting to the point where it has the direct support and interest of Australia’s Prime Minister of the day in its efforts. And its certainly hard to imagine Australia’s current whole of government CIO Ann Steward wielding the same influence in our federal public sector as Kundra did in his. But there is no doubt that this is the sort of ambition which the agency should be holding. I know that a number of senior CIOs in Australia’s Federal Government — not to mention in the private sector as well — have closely followed Kundra’s efforts and are aware of the change going on in the US Government right now. Why aren’t we seeing these kinds of ideas incorporated into AGIMO’s approach in Australia?
You might have wondered what the picture was at the top of this article. That photo is of US President Obama testing out Kundra’s IT dashboard outside the Oval Office in the White House. That’s the sort of executive buy-in which AGIMO should be aiming for in Australia. It’s real, it exists and the agency is capable of it, if it puts its thinking cap on and its nose to the grindstone.
But the sort of vision which we’re currently seeing from AGIMO just isn’t going to get it there.
Image credit: Pete Souza, public domain