news The South Australian State Government has issued a new whitepaper designed to provoke discussion of its future ICT strategy, promising as part of the document that from now on, it won’t pursue “big ICT projects” any more, with all technology-related initiatives to last 90 days at most.
In his foreword to the paper, South Australia Connected: Ready for the Future, the state’s Premier and Minister for the Public Sector, Jay Weatherill, noted that the whitepaper (available online in various formats here) had been compiled in partnership with vendor lobby group the Australian Information Industry Association, which represents a number of industry giants such as IBM and Microsoft, as well as smaller players. The Premier noted that South Australia wanted to “embed a new culture of innovation between government agencies, and between government and industry”.
“Using and improving technology allows us to break down barriers that have previously prevented us finding shared solutions to common problems. To improve our ability to innovate, we will work more closely with industry to develop a practical and sensible framework for introducing new technologies into government,” Weatherill wrote.
“It is no secret however, that governments the world over are grappling with an environment in which savings need to be made, while at the same time there is an ever‐increasing demand for services and information. South Australia is not immune from these pressures. That is why we need to respond with a comprehensive, strategic approach for the use of ICT to ensure that we are connected and always innovating, so that the best possible service can be provided to all South Australians.”
In general, the whitepaper does not go into traditional concrete areas of discussion with respect to IT project and service delivery within Australia’s public sector, such as balancing IT outsourcing approaches with internal resources, governing IT projects and different models for delivering such projects, such as in-house development, outsourced development and the new cloud computing/software as a service paradigm.
Neither does the document deal with the sorts of standards and centralised purchasing issues which centralised government IT strategies normally deal with in Australia.
Instead, it outlines a set of principles which the state believes will guide its approach to IT strategy as a whole. For example, some of the directional statements which the state included in its whitepaper include the need to ‘serve people’, ‘secure resilience’, ‘improve delivery’, ‘work together’ and ‘innovate now’.
These ‘directional statements’ are broken down in the document in somewhat more discrete lists of items which attempt to show the definite direction South Australia wants to move in. For example, in the section labelled ‘securing resilience’, it states that it wishes to move from buying software and hardware to buying services, and in the section on ‘working together’, it notes that it wants to move away from departments and agencies competing, and towards a ‘share first’ approach. In the innovation section, it notes that it wants to move away from “big monolithic projects” to “rapid prototyping”.
Most of the statements in the paper are quite high-level and represent in very general terms the broad trends of current thinking with respect to government IT and project service delivery. However, there are some unusual aspects of the paper.
For example, in the ‘improving delivery’ section of the paper, it notes: “From now on, we’re not going to start up any more big ‘ICT’ projects. We’re only going to have service/information/productivity improvement projects. Projects will be shorter, typically 90 days at most, and they will be planned and delivered by multi‐disciplinary teams, not just IT.”
There is a long-term, gradual trend towards smaller, more iterative projects in the IT industry — particularly associated with the Agile software development methodology. However, it is rare that any sizable body of work in IT project delivery would take less than three months to deliver — often it takes at least that long merely to develop a business case to take to decision-makers such as Minister and heads of department.
South Australia appears to be flagging an approach in its document of not investing in major systems enhancements. In another section of the document, it notes: “We need to find smarter, more targeted ways of improving efficiency and effectiveness. Ripping out and replacing systems may seem like a straightforward and strategic response to dealing with so called ‘legacy’ systems. In fact, history teaches us that we may be just creating a legacy for the next generation to worry about.”
“Although we can all too clearly see their deficiencies, we ought not be hasty in condemning our ageing legacy systems. Although they often lack the capabilities and flexibility we see in more contemporary technologies, we have to recognise that, on the whole, they have served our democracy well for many years. Sometimes, they are better left alone, safely isolated via technology ‘wrappers’ that help insulate them from the rest of our technical ecosystem. Over time, data and processes can be progressively shifted to newer, more efficient platforms, an approach which essentially sees legacy systems atrophying, eventually being phased out.”
This approach appears to be similar to the model which Australia’s major financial services organisations, as well as large government departments such as the Australian Taxation Office and Department of Defence, took over the past several decades to the core, mainframe-based systems which still underly much of their operations. The banks were able to overlay modern systems such as Internet banking on top of their ageing core banking systems, and similar approaches were taken at the ATO and Defence.
However, in all of these examples, eventually the organisations were forced to address the issue by undertaking major IT projects with a worth ranging from the hundreds of millions to the billions to replace the systems in the long-run; processes which are extremely long-running. In the case of the National Australia Bank, its core banking re-platforming effort is expected to take a decade in total from start to finish. And even in much smaller initiatives such as payroll systems overhauls in states such as Queensland and New South Wales, underlying systems eventually had to be refreshed.
Other aspects of the state’s whitepaper appeared to run contrary to current thinking in Australia’s state public sector. For example, at one stage it notes: “Often, different parts of government do the same things – differently. Instead of ‘going it alone’ we are going to share solutions across government.”
This approach saw the creation of IT shared services units across various states — Queensland, NSW, Victoria and Western Australia — over the past decade, but the trend broadly been rolled back as the shared services agencies proved unable to cope with key differences between the departments and agencies they were to serve.
The news comes as the Victorian and NSW State Governments have recently also issued new ICT strategy documents as they seek to reform their troubled relationship with IT project and service delivery. Both documents deal with many of the same issues and themes raised by South Australia. However, in comparison, both go into the detail of how they plan to progress their processes and systems — discussing specific technologies and projects, setting specific timeframes and so on. In comparison, the South Australian document could be better characterised as focusing on so-called ‘motherhood’ statements rather than hard actions. The state will now take consultation on the document with a view to formulating a more concrete ICT strategy to publish in future.
If you take a high-level view, this whitepaper by the South Australian Government hits all the right notes. Cross-agency collaboration, open data, communication with citizens, enhanced project governance, iterative development — it’s all in there, just as it is in the similar strategy documents released by the NSW and Victorian Governments.
But I do have several problems with South Australia’s approach; problems I am sure any seasoned IT professional or manager would share.
For starters, the phrase “The Australian Information Industry Association [AIIA] has already generously and effectively collaborated with the CIO in developing this paper” gives me nightmares. Doesn’t that sentence really mean something like: “We’ve let the fox into the chicken yard”? I would consider it highly unusual that an out-and-out lobby group such as the AIIA, which openly represents Australia’s largest technology vendors, would be allowed to collaborate with the Government on developing this kind of whitepaper. The AIIA’s self-serving media release issued today praises the South Australian Government on “getting it right”. Quelle surprise. The AIIA’s lead on the SA project is Peter Fulton, who’s also the regional manager in SA for Technology One, a key supplier of software and services to government in Australia.
Frankly, the AIIA, and all other commercial interests, should be kept right out of the Government’s ICT strategy until it’s public consultation time — then industry can make its own submissions alongside the general public. I really don’t like the fact that the AIIA co-developed this paper; it represents the Government walking a very thin line between being collaboration with industry and having its own policies shaped directly by those with a buck to make out of the process.
The whitepaper’s farcical declaration that South Australia will no longer pursue IT projects longer than 90 days is just a flat out a joke, and I’m sure there are many IT projects which have been going longer than that already in South Australia and will continue on regardless. I can’t think of virtually any IT project of any note which could be delivered in 90 days, and that’s just common sense.
Then too, it’s nice that South Australia wants its departments and agencies to collaborate in pitching for IT funding … but realistically that’s not going to happen easily. The heads of departments and agencies are known for their competitive nature in trying to get projects up, and that’s not going away any time soon. Whole of government CIOs right across Australia over the past decade have consistently found they do not have sufficient power to coerce collaboration between departments.
In addition to all of this, the major issue with the discussion paper is that it’s not detailed enough. It doesn’t go into any detail in virtually any area as to how its nice-sounding “directional statements” will actually apply in real life. It reminds me of Victoria’s first-gasp attempt at an ICT strategy last year, which was similar full of meaningless motherhood statements. Victoria eventually rectified that issue and came up with a concrete plan similar to the excellent one already in progress in NSW; let’s hope South Australia has some substance behind the pretty surfaces in this paper.
Look, I’m not going to sugar-coat this one. If I was an IT professional working in the South Australian public sector, and I read this strategy, I would think something like: “That’s lovely-sounding nonsense. No real application to my job.” And then I would go back to work doing the same thing, day in, day out, with not enough resources and not enough executive support, as I normally did. The South Australian Government has a long way to go before it will be able to convince such employees that it’s serious about driving real positive change with its new ICT strategy — and especially if it keeps the AIIA too close to the process.