End of an era: Greg Farr to leave Defence


news The Department of Defence has advertised for a public sector executive to replace its long-serving and highly regarded chief information officer Greg Farr, whose departure will amount to the end of an era for the department.

Farr is currently the most high-profile technologist within the Federal Government, having previously had a long career at the Australian Taxation Office, where for some years he led the agency’s colossal Change Program, recently heralded as one of the few major successful IT transformation projects within Australia’s public sector.

The CIO was appointed to lead Defence’s CIO Group in April 2007 at time when the organisation had been suffering high-profile problems with its IT operations and a perceived lack of strong governance from its central CIO office. Since that time, Farr has done much to stabilise and modernise Defence’s systems and is currently spearheading the Defence ICT Strategic Reform Program, which is one of the largest ongoing IT transformations in Australia, involving hundreds of millions of dollars in IT spending. In January this year Farr was awarded a Public Service Medal for outstanding public service in leading major reforms of the strategy and delivery of ICT systems, particularly in the Department of Defence.

In a statement issued late yesterday, Defence said: “Greg was employed on 19 November 2007 on a five year contract that comes to an end on 18 November 2012. There is no opportunity to extend the contract. He is planning on finishing the contract, will take a break then will look at opportunities next year.” It is not known why Farr is leaving Defence or what his next move will be, after several decades of public service.

In an advertisement recently placed on the Australian Public Service jobs site and first reported today by Intermedium, Defence noted it was looking for a CIO to lead its CIO Group.

“The Department of Defence CIO is one of the largest and arguably the most complex ICT role in Australia and the region. The CIO has responsibility for the architecture, integrity and evolution of all ICT systems within Defence (other than those forming an integral part of specialist military equipment),” the advertisement states. “The CIO will lead the whole of Defence ICT Strategic Reform Program now underway. This seeks to radically reform ICT delivery to the Australian Defence Organisation (ADO) as Defence moves to a Single Information Environment through a series of major innovations.”

“To be considered for this role, applicants must have a track record of leading a significant and complex business or government technology related organisation through innovative change and reform. Strong leadership and influencing skills will be evident from how they have delivered reform outcomes and managed risk … This is a demanding role which will offer immense satisfaction to those with the required track record, capabilities, executive demeanour and collaborative behaviour and values.” Defence appears to have commissioned executive recruitment firm EWK to find a replacement for Farr.

Farr’s departure from Defence comes as the third major senior IT executive departure from within the Federal public sector over the past several years. In April 2011, long-time Department of Immigration and Citizenship chief information officer Bob Correll retired from his role, following the completion of most of the work under the department’s mammoth Systems for People internal technology revamp. That move came after Department of Human Services deputy secretary of IT infrastructure John Wadeson indicated his retirement plans in February that year.

Alongside current ATO CIO Bill Gibson, Farr, Wadeson and Correll were regarded as the most important IT executives in the Federal Government, with all four overseeing large programs of work and ongoing IT purchasing worth in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars. The executives have also played a strong role in driving discussion in the technology sector of various industry trends, especially as they relate to government service delivery through the use of technology.

While Farr’s improvement program at Defence over the past five years has paid great dividends for the department’s IT operation and has been widely regarded in the IT industry as strong success under his tenure, it still has some ways to go. In December last year, the Federal Government’s chief auditor warned that Defence’s ICT operation was teetering on the brink of a dangerous precipice, in a landmark report published this afternoon into its current ICT governance structures and projects.

The report stated that Defence had commenced the “vital work” of remediating the “publicly acknowledged deficiencies” in its ICT systems, with the program of work progressing under the department’s wider Strategic Reform Program kicked off in mid-2009. At the time, the Government announced it would invest more than $940 million over four years to reform Defence’s IT environment. “Since then, Defence has made modest progress in improving the performance of its ICT systems and has started replacing obsolescent equipment,” the report states.

However, in many ways, it appeared as though the risks involved in Defence’s ICT strategy went far towards outweighing many of the department’s abilities to meet its goals.

“At the time of its March 2010 progress report to the Government, Defence considered the Strategic Reform Program to be as complex an organisational reform agenda as had ever been undertaken in either the private or public sectors in Australia,” the report states. “Delivering ICT reform in Defence is a challenge of a very high order, entailing the simultaneous remediation of existing systems, the development of ICT systems critical to the SRP reform streams, and the achievement of savings at the upper bounds of feasibility.”

“More than two years into the reform process, ICT continues to represent a material risk to the timely achievement of the SRP investment and savings targets set in support of the longer-term objectives of the [2009] white paper.”

Greg Farr’s departure from Defence marks the end of an era for Australia’s IT industry.

I’ve interviewed Farr several times and followed his work at the ATO and Defence continually for a period of around seven years now, and there is nobody who I respect more in Australia’s IT industry. In an age where all of Australia’s governments have struggled with the basics of IT service delivery and project management, Farr has represented an incredibly safe pair of hands and a stable and reliable management style that continues to steer both the ATO and Defence in the right direction.

Over the past five years in particular, Defence’s IT operations have turned a huge corner, and much of that is down to the initiatives and team which Farr put in place. Farr leaves Defence IT a much, much stronger and more capable organisation than when he joined it. And given the organisation is one of the biggest IT groups in Australia, that’s saying a lot.

If I was to attribute Farr’s success in leading technology initiatives at the ATO and Defence to one thing, it would be to the CIO’s humility.

If you’ve spoken to Farr in person, you’ve probably been struck by how humble, yet firm, the executive is. He’s strong, but he doesn’t ever seem to lose his temper or get frustrated. He has a vision for how he wants things to be done and a firm will, but it’s his ability to connect with his fellow humans on their own level and communicate well that has allowed him to cut through the Defence bureaucracy and achieve real outcomes for the organisation. More than anybody else I’ve met in government, Farr embodies the ideal of public service. Farr’s the sort of leader who becomes a seamless part of the organisation he joins, driving change as part of the team from the inside — inspiring positive moves rather than forcing them.

It will be fascinating to see what task Farr takes up next — and who takes his place at Defence. Those are some big shoes to fill; and I’m not even really sure who would be the appropriate person to fill them at this point.

Image credit: Department of Defence


  1. ” While Farr’s improvement program at Defence over the past five years has paid great dividends for the department’s IT operation and has been widely regarded in the IT industry as strong success under his tenure, it still has some ways to go. In December last year, the Federal Government’s chief auditor warned that Defence’s ICT operation was teetering on the brink of a dangerous precipice, in a landmark report published this afternoon into its current ICT governance structures and projects. ”

    Its paid great dividends, but ” Defence’s ICT operation was teetering on the brink of a dangerous precipice ”

    What kind of doubletalk is this ???

  2. Anyone who has worked in an orderly room, Q store, workshop, medical centre… anyone who has been a soldier in any of the services on operations will tell you that the supporting computer systems within the Australian Defence Forces are dreadful. The computer systems are a burden. They don’t actually assist people perform their duties in the workplace. They can’t even assist with marking the roll or automate the administration of simple things like periodic fitness and health tests.

    The chief auditor is right.

    A matter of fact: – Farr is not a technologist. He holds no meaningful qualifications in technology whatsoever. Neither does his Chief Technology Officer, Matt Yannopoulos, whom he brought with him from the ATO. If you want an accurate view of the ATO computer systems go to http://delimiter.com.au/2010/04/23/the-change-program-is-a-failure-and-thats-not-all/

    The ADF is an organisation that spent $1.2 billion on ICT during 2010-2011. (See:
    http://www.google.com.au/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=ciog%20budget%20for%202010-2011&source=web&cd=2&sqi=2&ved=0CFYQFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.anao.gov.au%2F~%2Fmedia%2FUploads%2FAudit%2520Reports%2F2011%252012%2F201112%2520Audit%2520Report%2520No19.pdf&ei=fosKUJurJeuciAfkl-i5DQ&usg=AFQjCNE_lx4LFwJPUoTVuh85dExU00ThGA )

    PMKeyS, the hopeless Defence personnel management system, can’t even automate the administration of annual readiness checks or the personnel appraisal system. It was once budgeted to cost around $90 million but has cost more than a billion dollars. ROMAN, an accounting system is so complicated even seasoned clerks despair, has also cost more than a billion dollars. MILIS replaced SDSS and cost over $750 million. It is no better and many say it is worse than SDSS. So how could any sane group of people have done this? For 6 months after MILIS was introduced, Defence could not even produce stocksheets. SDSS was so bad that, in 2006-2007, there was a complete collapse of corporate governance that was only remedied by imposing on units, whose manpower was already stretched by deployments, additional manual checks and procedures.

    Neither Farr nor Yannopoulos have materially made any difference at the coal face. Mobile Surgical Teams in Afghanistan still do not have meaningful, helpful computerise administrative and operational support. On their watch over $5 billion dollars have flown out the door to an adoring vendor community of Big IT. Their strategic paper points to greater and greater centralisation of data with fewer and fewer competing suppliers of software. This is nothing short of madness. This concentration and utter dependence on high quality communications breaks fundamental military principles. But the very senior military officers seem oblivious of this.

    There is no doubt Farr and Yannopoulos are “nice chaps” but Defence is in dire need of something more than nice guys. Borrowing from the words of Bob Woodward’s, “The War Within”, “In the words of Eliot Cohen, a member of the Defense Policy Board and the Director of the Strategic Studies Program at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, “Everybody’s just a great guy”, he said. 
    “You know what?  It’s true.  They’re all great guys.  But the war could not be about how likeable the generals were.  It has to do with how effective they are.”

    I leave it to you to opine on how effective these nice guys have been. The chief auditor already has formed his opinion.

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