Vic Govt releases motherhood ICT strategy


news The Victorian State Government has released the draft of a new whole of government information and communications technology strategy, with which it aims to start addressing extensive IT project and service delivery issues which have resulted in more than a billion dollars in budget overruns and a string of failed IT projects over the past half-decade.

In November last year, Victoria’s Ombudsman handed down one of the most damning assessments of public sector IT project governance in Australia’s history, noting total cost over-runs of $1.44 billion, extensive delays and a general failure to actually deliver on stated aims in 10 major IT projects carried out by the state over the past half-decade. The report was undertaken over the preceding year by Ombudsman George Brouwer as a self-initiated action of his office, after a string of minor reports published by the Ombudsman and the state’s Auditor-General Des Pearson over the past few years had raised significant concerns with Victoria’s handling of IT project governance. Pearson’s office assisted with the report.

As its first response to the report, in June this year, Victoria appointed former South Australian whole of state government chief information officer Grantly Mailes, to lead a committee (VICTAC) to establish a new wide-ranging IT strategy to resolve Victoria’s ongoing problems with IT service and project delivery. It also appointed a high-level advisory committee led by Mailes which would provide advice on a new whole of government ICT strategy to rectify the ongoing problems.

Yesterday, the State Government released the first draft report produced by Mailes and that committee. It is available online in full, and the state is seeking feedback until October 17 from the technology industry and wider community on the plan.

Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Technology Gordon Rich Phillips said that the Victorian Government was in “a strong position to make the most of a changing ICT landscape”. “The committee has provided a practical, forward-looking approach to the acquisition and use of ICT by government and we are seeking the public’s input on the draft strategy,” Rich-Phillips said in a statement.

“With VICTAC’s draft strategy, ICT enabled projects will be structured to deliver benefits more quickly through co-ordinated smaller, staged projects. This approach should improve delivery timelines and reduce the risk of delivery issues,” Rich-Phillips said. “The Victorian Government will make better use of the expertise in the vibrant ICT industry that we have in Victoria and in our major suppliers. We will work with them to define and deliver business outcomes, rather than just narrowly defining technology requirements, that is why it is also important for us to seek their input on this strategy.”

The 26 page strategy acknowledges Victoria’s existing failures in IT project and service delivery. “Victoria has experienced some expensive failures in ICT-enabled business change projects. However, such projects are critical for productivity and service delivery reforms,” it notes.

It sets out a number of key principles which ICT decision-making in the Victorian Government will be guided by in future; ranging from the need to use “popular digital channels such as smartphones and social media to deliver policy, to the need to make government data open (this week Rich-Phillips also announced a new approach to sharing government-owned intellectual property), the need to deliver ICT projects in stages rather than in large projects, and the need to promote competition to drive efficiency and innovation in ICT systems and services. It also, for example, mentions the need for ICT systems to be “interoperable, modular and reusable”, as well as the need to trial technology so that options can be explored at at lower risk than had been experienced with existing projects.

In addition, the draft ICT strategy outlines very briefly a number of case study projects which could be followed by future projects. One example saw the Department of Health launch a free iOS application last year to “help Victorians take control of their health and wellbeing”, while another example focused on the way that VicRoads had used an agile project delivery methodology to deliver a project named the Road Closures and Traffic Alerts system in December 2011.

Another example examined the way that the Department of Business and Innovation had deployed software as a service platform as its department-wide customer relationship management solution. “DBI’s Salesforce implementation is on track to deliver a 40 per cent cost saving over five years compared to the estimated costs of a custom built option,” the case study notes.

The committee which produced the report was composed of a number of extremely high profile members of Australia’s enterprise IT community. Chaired by Mailes, other committee members included the chief information officers of ANZ Bank and Coles, Cisco Australia’s director of its public sector business, a director of Melbourne-headquartered IT services firm SMS Management & Technology, the chief executive of Victorian IT shared services agency CenITex, and the CIOs of large Victorian departments such as Human Services, Justice, Education & Early Childhood Development and more.

However, the report stops short of recommending hard actions which the Victorian Government could take to rectify its issues, appearing to focus instead on a series of so-called ‘motherhood statements’, which attempt to address issues from a high level rather than laying out practical steps to resolve the state’s problems.

For example, one of the key issues raised repeatedly with respect to Victoria’s series of IT disasters has been the need for stronger governance and accountability with respect to ICT projects. However, in the section of the draft strategy which deals with governance, there are only a short series of dot points outlining how the state will proceed. For example, the document mentions that international governance standards will be adopted by agencies – but gives no detail of how, when and by whom such standards will be adopted.

In another example, it is mentioned that Victoria will start breaking large ICT projects “into smaller, more manageable stages” to improve delivery timelines and reduce the risk of project failure – but the document does not mention at all which projects will be broken down in this way, and how specifically this strategy will be implemented.

The delivery of Victoria’s draft strategy comes as state governments all around Australia currently appear to be experiencing a systemic inability to deliver major IT projects, and in some cases, basic IT services. Queensland, for example, has revealed that its botched payroll systems implementation at Queensland Health has already cost $417 million and will need some $837 million to fix over the next five years. Currently, the platform requires just over 1,000 staff performing some 200,000 manual processes on an average of 92,000 forms to make sure Queensland Health’s staff are paid the approximately $250 million they are owed each fortnight.

Queensland has also broadly abandoned its IT shared services model, as has Western Australia, and in New South Wales in mid-August, a landmark report into the management of the NSW Public Sector commissioned by the state’s new Coalition Government has described how dozens of overlapping and competing systems and services providers have created “chaos” when it comes to the state’s current IT shared services paradigm.

I’m pretty sure that this draft ICT strategy is just the first step for the Victorian Government as it attempts to turn around the creaking, leaking, burning ship which is its technology delivery and services program. I am sure that eventually this document will be translated into action plans for each department and each major IT program, as well as centralised agencies such as CenITex. This is a document which isn’t meant to be specific – it’s clearly meant as a general guiding light rather than a specific roadmap.

But that doesn’t stop it being rather laughable. When it comes to government ICT projects and service delivery, things are about as bad as they could be in Victoria right now. If you read the 2011 Ombudsman’s report and then read this week’s draft ICT strategy, it’s as if you’re considering two different worlds, which have no relation to each other. It’s as if VICTAC – despite its many senior, highly respected members – are standing around handing those members cups of Earl Grey and chatting cordially, while all around them the building is burning down, flames curling around the teapots and smoke pouring out of gaps in the floorboards.

I laughed out loud this morning when I read Victorian Technology Minister Gordon Rich-Phillips’ claim that the Victorian Government was in “a strong position to make the most of a changing ICT landscape”. I’d go further than saying that that is a highly optimistic statement. Given the string of Ombudsman’s and audit reports which have catalogued the exact opposite situation in Victoria over the past several years, I would characterise Rich-Phillips’ “strong position” claim as basically a flat out attempt to mislead the public.

Victoria has a very long road to go in this area – a road that will require a decade of sustained effort to walk down with any success. And it needs a first step – a gathering point, a planning point. This document represents that point. But be prepared to be severely disappointed when you read it, if you bother to read it. There are very few hard truths contained in its pages. And right now, hard truths are what the Victorian Government’s technology function needs most.

Image credit: Jonathan LaRocca, Creative Commons


  1. The top end just seem too mesmerised by technology and the latest vibes. Throw an iPhone into the solution and you get maximum points – it doesn’t even matter if they are suitable for the “front line staff” to use. However if your product focus is on solid backend infrastructure and good data entry processes then you will get no credit. These CIOs like their toys to show off to the other states.

    It’ll be interesting to see how Victoria goes. Lets hope it is not another pile of money burnt off.

  2. The same people in charge are going to some how make better decisions than they have in the past – why does this sound extremely unlikely?

  3. How come people / companies / contractors are not accountable for being fucking stupid?

    “Ohhh Gee Wiz! You will transform our IT Dept from a shit box 1986 – DX486, to a new mini super computer, with multiple raid arrays and new worked to the moon and – Ooooo it’s all marvelous, and for only $50 million dollars too! – and in 6 months Even bigger WOW!”

    9 months later….

    “Ummmm due to cost over runs it’s now $100 million – so we want more money and it should be done within the year.”

    1 year later…

    “Ummmm due to feasability scaling studies, it’s now $150 million – so we want more money and it should be done within 15 months.”

    1 year and 3 months later…..

    And the fucking bullshit just goes on and on and on and on and on ……

    As Jospeh Stalin used to say: “Comrade – you have failed us, I wish to avoid the paper work, here take this loaded hand gun and stick it in your mouth and shoot yourself – or we will shoot you and all of the members of your family in front of the firing squad.”

    So much for fucking idiots and their fucking cost over runs.

  4. This “soft touch” will not change anything in my view. Any Whole of Government IT governance group must have “teeth” to ensure that the Departments are made accountable for their actions and decisions. CenITex was not as successful as it should have been because no-one in the Department of Treasury and Finance (DTF) would stand up to the Departments. DTF should set standards for projects, sign off the Business Cases, oversee progress and make sure benefits are realised. Some of the people on VICTAC are the same people who stood in the way of CenITex fulfilling its potential. So, in my view, this approach is a total waste of time. It is simply reshaping what was already there (and it did not work).

    • “Any Whole of Government IT governance group must have “teeth” to ensure that the Departments are made accountable for their actions and decisions.”


      This is the same problem which bedevils AGIMO in the Federal Government.

    • Tom and Renai, the idea that a central agency like DTF, or even DPC, should have “teeth” and be able to deliver ‘tough love’ ICT parenting to departments and agencies is entirely impractical … for better or worse … even though it seems like a decisive way forward. Everyone loves the idea of that central agencies should have a ‘strong mandate’ …

      Our system of government is based on the managerial autonomy of Secretaries and agency CEOs. DTF sets output targets and allocates funding … then Ministers work with individual Secretaries and CEOs to develop and deliver policy initiatives and operational services. The best way to think of it is to describe the VPS as like a corporation with a board but no head office. The Premier is like a chairman and the Ministers like directors, but there is no WoVG ‘CEO’, no ‘COO’, no ‘CIO’, barely even a ‘CFO’ … and certainly no ‘head office’ with executive powers over Secretaries and agency CEOs. This is the governance reality in all matters … including ICT.

      There are two problems with the idea of a ‘strong centre’ with regard to ICT. (1) There is no non-ICT foundation for it, so it ‘swims against the tide’ of the organisational dynamics of the way the VPS operates … and is hence hardwork and inherently unsustainable. You are welcome to try it if you like, but the autonomy of secretaries and agency CEO will always win in the end. (2) There is no practical way to attract and retain the talent that one would need to have in the central agency to actually to a credible job of managing ICT on a WoVG basis … it is complex and difficult to juggle … so you would need really smart and capable executives … but this is seldom the case, and never the case sustainably over time.

      The solution, in my view, has to be found by empowering and enabling departments and agencies to be individually capable. This requires a focus on leadership behaviours from the central agencies rather than controlling behaviours … and a commitment to developing organisational ICT capability over time rather than “bull in a china shop” quick fix strategies that are neither sustainable nor affordable. We need stronger and more effective leadership at both WoVG and department/agency levels to fix this … oversight/transparency of performance is part of the solution … but only part.

      • The falacy that many believe is that you can mandate the use of systems and legislate change across government. time and time again we find that doesnt work – but that doesnt stop global consulting houses and many others making money from those that believe they can. See ehealth in uk and here in australia as a classic example. Same goes for whole of government initiatives.

  5. Thanks Steve, yes I know how it works because I worked in Vic Government for around 5 years. I do understand that Secretaries and agency CEOs need to set agendas and priorities on what they want to achieve and the individual Departments need to make these things happen. The problem with the “make these things happen” in an ICT sense is that each Department is “re-inventing the wheel” and making the same mistakes in many cases. This new Committee (VICTAC) will do nothing to change this behaviour in my view. It is even less effective than what was their previously (and that also did not work). I have seen the terms of reference for this Committee and they are very “soft”. I am yet to see the Governance model. This Committee will do nothing to change things. Projects will still overrun, there will be resistance to cost reduction through Shared Services and Outsourcing, and the Departmental notion that “we can do it better ourselves” will still prevail. I respect your views but I do not agree with them. Some sort of centralised ICT Governance regime needs to be put in place to ensure that public money is not wasted due to duplication, poor project governance and the inability to achieve economies of scale through WoVG initiatives. I also know that past efforts to implement something like I am describing failed (the WoVG CIO and CTO). I am sure that I know the reasons why this happened as I have had the experience first-hand.

    • Hmmm … hey Tom … yes … you are right that there is a problem that needs to be addressed and that the current ICT Strategy thinking hasn’t yet proposed anything that really looks like it gets to the bottom of the issues in a meaningful way. Still just “shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic” … but the strategy is still a work in progress so there is still hope.

      I also have some hands-on experience of ICT management in the VPS. My view, however, is that this is a problem that needs to be addressed by the department secretaries and agency CEO’s directly … rather than delegating it to some poor hapless soul in a central agency to ‘fix’ via instruments of oversight and control. There have been many attempts at business case and major project oversight processes over the past decade … and DTF currently runs Investment Management and High Value High Risk oversight and reporting processes that are about all that one could do … and these (while actually quite good) have not cured the VPS of its ICT illnesses.

      The history of failed projects, wasted activity and lack of support for CenITex is ample evidence that the problems are caused by the decision making behaviours of senior executives throughout the VPS. They need to be held accountable for their behaviour … and they need to change it.

      The thing is that ICT is such an integral part of any policy or service program in government that a failure to successfully manage ICT-enabled business projects is actually a failure to effectively manage a department or agency … full stop. This has gone way beyond being anything to do with “ICT” really. It is now a crisis of confidence in the ability of VPS executives to do their jobs.

      If secretaries and agency CEOs “don’t care”, “aren’t able” or “choose not to” manage ICT-enabled business projects well then there is actually nothing that a central agency can do to fix the problem quickly … if at all. Silence is the sound of one hand clapping …

      Of course there is a need for a new and heroic Office of the CIO that provides good advice on ICT matters to the government, develops a vision for how ICT can add better public value, improves the transparency and coordination of department and agency ICT planning, sets some essential policy directions, aggregates procurement of commodity-like ICT stuff and promotes “good” ideas and practices while discouraging “bad” ideas and practices … oh and celebrates success by showcasing great ICT projects and achievements. This will be worth doing, but won’t solve the underlying problems unless department secretaries and agency CEOs enable and support it. The practices of “white anting” a centrally imposed and unwelcome strategy are well developed in the VPS.

      The focus has to be on strong and effective LEADERSHIP … not to be confused with its somewhat dim witted and ineffective cousin ‘governance’. The test of the new ICT Strategy will be three fold. (1) Does it create a compelling vision for how ICT will be used and managed in departments and agencies to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of policy and service delivery? (2) Does it contain initiatives that actually address the key issues and risks facing ICT sustainability in the VPS [as enumerated rather explicitly by the SSA, Ombudsman and VAGO et al]? (3) Is it explicitly endorsed by each of the Inner Budget department secretaries and agencies CEOs as a strategy that they support and will be held accountable for delivering?

      1 and 2 will achieve little without 3.

      Now this would, perhaps, make a difference!

  6. Steve, I think we are on the same page. I wish there was some sensible way to get involved, but sadly I think the window of opportunity is gone for now.

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