news The Queensland Government has committed to adopting two of the most radical measures implemented by then-US Government chief information officer Vivek Kundra in the Obama administration’s first term, as it grapples with a government-wide ICT Audit released last week that starkly demonstrates the potential for further disasters akin to the Queensland Health payroll catastrophe.
Kundra came on board in the US Government in March 2009, several months after Obama took office in the US. Kundra’s time in the US Government saw him preside over a number of major changes which have caused wider global ripples within the public sectors of countries such as Canada, the UK and Australia. Kundra, for example, was responsible for creating a whole of government IT dashboard through which government staff could easily gain a birds’ eye view of all major projects and IT expenditure across all departments. Part of the project was that each project had a picture of the accountable executive attached to it — usually a departmental chief information officer. The technology behind the dashboard is publicly available so that other jurisdictions can adopt it.
Kundra was also responsible for pioneering a ‘cloud first’ strategy in the US Government which saw agencies required to evaluate cloud computing options prior to making any new investments in IT.
However, Kundra’s tenure within the US administration did not last long, with the executive leaving the government just two years after he joined it, in August 2011. He then joined Harvard University as a visiting fellow, before being announced as executive vice president of emerging markets for cloud computing vendors Salesforce.com in January this year.
Last week the Queensland Government finally released the long-awaited audit into its ICT systems and processes across its operations. The report is an extremely troubling one for the state and for the future of state government ICT in Australia in general. It found that ninety percent of the state government’s ICT systems were outdated and would require replacement within five years at a total cost of $7.4 billion.
In addition, the Audit lists several dozen major IT applications within the Queensland Government which are at severe risk — if they fail, the state will not be able to keep on providing critical services to the community. Queensland is also far behind when it comes to its fundamental ICT infrastructure, and its ICT procurement processes do not appear to be efficient or effective.
As the state’s first response to the report, its IT Minister Ian Walker told the Queensland Parliament last week that several of the Kundra-style reforms would be implemented immediately in the state government.
“We are changing the way ICT is delivered in Queensland. We are determined to provide better and more cost-effective services to Queenslanders,” Walker told the Parliament. “To do that we are making ICT open and accountable like never before. In that regard I am pleased to announce a new IT dashboard. Within six months all significant government projects, their costs and current status will be released publicly. This is the next phase of the Newman government’s open data initiative and will allow greater scrutiny and transparency of ICT projects. This is just one way we will transform the sector following the release of the ICT audit.” In addition, Walker added, the state would also follow the US in taking a “cloud-first” approach to procuring ICT services.
Queensland is not alone in pursuing such reforms. The New South Wales Government, for example, has also increasingly moved towards a “cloud-first” policy in its operations, for similar reasons as Queensland, and Victoria appears to be moving down the same path as well. The Federal Government has not formally taken a “cloud-first” position, but it has set standards for cloud procurement and mandated that departments and agencies examine cloud computing options during ICT procurement activities.
The first cab off the rank for Queensland’s new cloud computing policy will be its whole of government email platform. The state had begun an in-house whole of government email program in 2007 with a budget of $252 million, with the aim of consolidating some 80,000 state government email accounts into one overarching platform to be based on Microsoft Exchange 2007. However, the project failed and was dumped by the state in July 2012, with then-Queensland IT Minister Ros Bates saying at the time that the potential existed for a cloud-based solution to replace the in-house option.
“We will adopt a cloud-first approach to the procurement of information and communication technology services, delivering annual savings of up to $17 million for the email component of that alone,” said Walker last week.
Other actions which the state plans to take immediately, as outlined by Walker in Parliament, include the establishment of what the Minister described as “the Queensland One Government Network” (believed to be centralised telecommunications infrastructure), as well as conducting basic technical upgrades for high-risk payroll systems (rather than committing to replacing them wholesale, as happened during the Queensland Health payroll systems debacle).
“Contestability will be key as we move forward, meaning we will seek best value for money while moving away from owning and maintaining ICT assets,” Walker said. “The ICT audit and the Queensland Commission of Audit recommendations have presented a strong vision for ICT reform. The Newman government is working closely with industry to create a decisive road map for the future. We have already released a discussion paper around that and look forward to listening to what it is that Queenslanders want. By working together, industry and the Queensland government can and will achieve great things.”
Further details of the state’s IT strategy can be found in its formal response (PDF) to the ICT Audit’s recommendations. The State Government has chosen to accept most of the recommendations of the report.
The Audit’s recommendations come in about a dozen key areas, ranging from how to immediately target savings and waste in the state’s ICT procurement to how to address critical business systems at risk of failure, how to put in place business continuity controls, how to implement new governance controls around ICT projects to ensure past disasters aren’t replicated, and how to handle commodity applications.
Many of the recommendations focus on the ICT Audit’s broad conclusions that the Queensland Government is not acceptably managing its ICT infrastructure and processes, with the recommendation that many aspects of its ICT operations be outsourced.
For example, the ICT Audit recommends that basic technical upgrades be carried out on high-risk payroll systems. However, it also recommends “as an immediate priority” that the state examine the external provision of payroll systems, with a view to replacing government-run systems, with pilot programs being run and business processes associated with payroll (such as the management of awards) simplified. The Audit makes similar recommendations with regard to financial management systems used by agencies, as well as recommending outsourcing in other areas such as desktop support, ‘cloud infrastructure’ and so on.
If you take the ICT Audit and the State Government’s generally positive response to its recommendations together, it appears that the state at least has a path forward out of its morass.
However, saying you’re going to do something doesn’t always mean you’ll do it. Vivek Kundra’s time attemping to implement very similar reforms in the US wasn’t without its controversies, and some doubt the long-term impact of the executive’s vision. A survey of IT professionals in government by online IT community MeriTalk published in September 2011 heavily criticised the executive. “Vivek’s tenure … was like a bottle of champagne — seems like a great idea, exciting start, but the plan’s unclear, and the next morning you wake up with the same problems and a sore head,” said Steve O’Keeffe, founder, MeriTalk, at the time.
Only time will tell whether the same will be said IT Minister Walker in the Queensland Government — and whatever IT executives are appointed to help implement the LNP administration’s new vision for its IT future.