news The Department of Defence has appointed high-flying global IT executive Peter Lawrence, currently group manager of IT, Energy Markets for utility Origin Energy, to replace its outgoing chief information officer Greg Farr.
“Dr Peter Lawrence has been appointed to the position of chief information officer within the Chief Information Officer Group,” a spokesperson for Defence said in a statement late yesterday, confirming industry rumours about the appointment. “Dr Lawrence was selected from a highly competitive field of public and private sector candidates.”
The spokesperson said Lawrence (pictured, right) had ‘over 20 years’ experience in planning, implementing and managing technology across a wide range of businesses and business functions on a local, regional and global basis. He is currently, the group manager IT, Energy Markets at utility Origin Energy, but he has over the years occupied a number of other senior IT positions in Australia, New Zealand and internationally.
Lawrence’s LinkedIn profile shows that he has held his current position since August 2011, after leading ANZ Bank’s IT division in New Zealand for three years. Previous to that he was ANZ’s head of infrastructure. Before that period, he held a number of senior positions from 1999 with global energy giant Shell. He was educated at the Universities of Bath and Nottingham in the UK in Chemistry. Defence said no start date for Lawrence had been determined at this point.
Lawrence will replace one of the Australian public sector’s most highly regarded and experience IT executives, Greg Farr, who served as Defence’s CIO for the past five years, following an extensive career in similar positions at the Australian Taxation Office, where 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.
Farr 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 in July when Farr’s departure was announced, 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.
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.
Lawrence will share a great of corporate history with Wadeson’s replacement at the Department of Human Services, Gary Sterrenberg, who was appointed a little over a year ago. Like Lawrence, Sterrenberg’s has a previous role over the past half-decade was at ANZ Bank – his most recent position as chief information officer of its Australian division – and Sterrenberg also worked at Shell during some of the period that Lawrence was with the energy giant. It is likely the two IT executives have directly worked together at several points in the past; and will again in their roles at Defence and Human Services.
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  white paper.”
To say Lawrence’s appointment is an interesting one is an understatement. For starters, we never really found out why Farr is leaving Defence in the first place. It doesn’t seem as though the executive is planning to retire, but after spending pretty much all of his career in the public service and even winning a Public Service Medal for his efforts, it’s hard to see Farr working in the private sector. Did Defence not renew Farr’s contract? It’s not really clear at this point.
Secondly, there is the matter of Lawrence’s shared history with Sterrenberg. I’m not going to allege any impropriety in Lawrence’s appointment, and frankly I would find it hard to believe there was any, but it does seem like the pair have pretty extensive links going back a decade; both holding leading IT positions at ANZ Bank and at Shell at the same time, and now both holding top positions in the Federal Government.
The appointments of Lawrence and Sterrenberg also appear to mark a new era for the Federal public sector. Usually the CIOs of major departments come from within the ranks of the public service; executives start off working within IT in a department, gradually progress and become the CIO of a small department, and eventually then win spots as the CIO of a larger department. However, it seems as though the public sector is increasing recruiting outside its ranks at the really top level at the moment.
This is in general a good thing – as public servants can get a little stuck in their ways and the bureaucratic ‘culture’ sometimes – but in some cases you have to question the situation a little. Is an executive like Lawrence, for example, who has never worked in the public sector, according to his LinkedIn profile, ready to lead IT for that most rigid of organisations, the Department of Defence? Only time will tell. In any case, he’ll have big shoes to fill. In terms of Australia’s IT sector, Greg Farr is a giant.
Image credit: Peter Lawrence