news The Federal Government today published what it described as a new strategy document which would set the overall direction for the Australian Public Service’s use of ICT in the future. However, the document contains few specific details of steps that will be taken, preferring to focus instead on a series of high-level motherhood statements.
The document – published in full online – has been approved by David Tune, secretary of the Department of Finance and Deregulation, in his role chairing the Secretaries’ ICT Governance Board, which helps approve whole of government technology strategy in the Federal Government, working with the Australian Government Information Management Office to do so.
“The priorities and actions identified in the Strategy will position the Australian Government to use ICT in new, creative and innovative ways to deliver better, easier to use services in ways that best meet people’s needs and expectations,” wrote Tune, in the strategy’s foreword. “In developing and implementing this Strategy it is my intention to maintain and enhance the Australian Government as a world leader in the use of ICT.”
The document details three priority areas which the Federal Government is planning to focus on on a whole of government area. They are the need to deliver better services through more effective use of technology, the need to improve the efficiency of government operations, and the need to engage openly.
Under these top-line points, the strategy contains a number of implementation strategies which the Government plans to use to meet its aims. In the area of delivering better services, for example, one strategy will be to use the ‘lead agency model’ to develop new shared capabilities and re-use existing capabilities. The need to develop ICT workforce skills is also mentioned, as is, for example, the need to develop more personalised services that “serve people’s preferences”.
Under the heading of improving the efficiency of government operations, the strategy lists the need to increase the visibility of agency ICT activities, investments and plans, “consider alternate investment approaches”, and consider cloud computing as one of them, as well as better managing datacentres, generating new ideas through “challenges, competitions” and using the National Broadband Network for government services online.
Under the ‘engage openly’ heading, the Government has listed areas such as using business intelligence to create a “holistic” view of customer needs, using location-aware information, releasing government data into the public domain, and use online tools “in a targeted way to engage with people and business”, as well as “actively” participating in “external blogs” and creating online communities.
The document also contains a number of success factors – with some being relatively clearly defined, such as allowing Australians to personalise government online services by 2015, and identifying standard approaches to reduce the cost of back-office functions by the same date.
In addition, it also contains a number of brief case studies which it is believed represent examples which the public service could follow in delivering on the ICT strategy. These include the Standard Business Reporting project, the implementation of teleworking at IP Australia, the development of the myregion website to support regional Australia, and the development of the Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record.
However, the ICT strategy in general contains very few details of how actual ICT projects will be managed. It very rarely mentions actual technologies to be used, it only occasionally mentions specific departments or agencies which will be affected by the strategy, and it does not appear to mention any of the Federal public servants – such as agency chief information officers who will be responsible for implementing segments of the strategy.
Additionally, very few of the major ICT projects currently being undertaken, or recently undertaken by the Federal Government – such as the integration projects currently underway at the Department of Human Services, the Australian Taxation Office’s Change Program, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s Systems for People initiative – were mentioned in the strategy, and only in extreme brief detail when they were.
The release of the report comes as the Victorian Government has also this week released the draft of a similar document, containing primarily motherhood statements regarding technology use and failing to address details about how it will go about implementing the strategy.
The news also comes several months after it was revealed that the Minister overseeing the Australian Government Information Management Office, which is largely responsible for centralised IT strategy in the Federal Government, has concerns about its ability to deliver on a whole of government technology strategy.
Documents released under Freedom of Information laws at the time showed that Special Minister of State Gary Gray, who oversees AGIMO, was concerned that “the various discussions about ICT in the wake of [various recent reviews] have occurred in a closed circle that embraces [the Secretaries’ ICT Governance Board] and some input from AGIMO and CIOs, but much less from those executives tasked with resolving the major business issues in public administration”. Gray wrote that he understood that SIGB had not appointed any external members with ICT backgrounds, as the previous Gershon and Reinecke reviews into government use of ICT had recommended in their reports.
Adopting this kind of “taskforce” approach, would, according to Gray, help the government “break out of the current mould that appears to be constraining the emergence of initiatives that improve the way we manage ICT in government”. “External appointments to membership of SIGB would,” he added, “also enhance the process of seeking wider input from business as well as technology sources of expertise”.
Gray also highlighted similar initiatives internationally, noting that administrations in the UK and USA had been focused on ensuring maximum value for money from ICT investment in the public sector. “The reviews of ICT major investments in these countries have revealed considerable waste from projects that have over – run budgets and timetables, at considerable costs both financially and in effectiveness,” Gray wrote. “They have also revealed the necessity for greater discipline by government agencies and increased central oversight to ensure that ICT projects meet their objectives.”
I have read through many government documents containing hundreds of pages of waffle before, but this “ICT strategy” released by the public service this week takes the cake.
How, the Federal Government should ask itself, can it release a whole of government ICT strategy which barely mentions technology? Which barely mentions any of the major ICT projects which are currently going on or have recently completed within the Government – projects worth billions of dollars? Which does not mention any of the chief information officers, secretaries, agency chief executives or ministers who will be held accountable for them?
This document released by the Federal Government this week, frankly, is not an “ICT strategy” by any stretch of the imagination. A strategy, by definition, aims to define what someone will do, when and how, and even sometimes why. This document details none of that.
What it does do, like the Victorian Government’s ICT strategy this week, is contain hundreds upon hundreds of motherhood statements detailing the Federal Government’s belief that technology is, in general a good thing, and how everyone should use more technology – but not which technology. It contains dozens of buzzwords, but very few action points. It contains dozens of ideas, but no implementation plans for how the Government might put those ideas into action.
I really don’t know what you would make of this strategy, if you were a Federal Government chief information officer in charge of a major department’s ICT strategy. If I was such a person, reading this document, I would probably come away with the belief that I should completely ignore it, or at best, pay only lip service to it in my reports to the higher-ups. If I was a lower-order IT worker in the Federal Government, I would doubtless ignore this document as a complete irrelevancy to their daily work.
There have been very substantial reviews of the Federal Government’s ICT strategy over the past few years, the Gershon report being the most significant one. Another review worth reading was Iain Reinecke’s examination of how reforms stemming from Gershon’s recommendations had been implemented. Both of these documents contain very hard and useful truths about the Federal Government’s use of technology – truths which I am aware are discussed at the highest levels between agency CIOs.
However, like the Victorian Government’s similar strategy released this week, this ICT strategy released by the Federal Government is not that kind of document. It does not contain hard truths, or even soft truths. What it does contain is a fluffy white cloud of waffle with little relevance to actual life in the Federal public sector. Because of this and the other reasons I have outlined in this article, it will be largely disregarded by important people such as politicians. But, perhaps that’s what its authors always intended. In that sense, it may be an ideal document, fit for its purpose. In this context, the only phrase which I can hear echoing around my mind just now, is … “Yes, Minister”.
Image credit: BBC