news Over the past month, the Queensland State Government has repeatedly declined to release the whole of government ICT audit it conducted last year. However, there are signs the state is making progress on plans to address wide-spread problems in ICT project and service delivery which have bedevilled many of its departments and agencies over the past half-decade.
In late May 2012, the new Liberal-National Party State Government in Queensland announced it would conduct a six month whole of government audit into ICT systems used across the state public sector, in a bid to identify potential savings and efficiencies ahead of projected rationalisation of its ICT assets and processes. The audit, announced by then-Queensland IT Minister Ros Bates, who has since resigned her post, was to cost $5.2 million, use 32 public servants to complete and report in October last year.
The announcement of the audit appeared to represent the potential for a fresh start for the state in terms of ICT project and service delivery. As with other states such as Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia, Queensland has been battered over the past half-decade by a series of failures in fundamental ICT project and service delivery that has led the state government’s IT workers reeling. Not least of these was the payroll systems overhaul at Queensland Health; a project which is more than a billion dollars over its initial budget and which is still malfunctioning. The project is currently the subject of an official Commission of Inquiry.
In mid-October last year, Bates publicised some of the facts which the then-IT Minister said were uncovered in the ICT audit, including the claim that it would cost Queensland between $3.7 billion and $6 billion replace the “mess of mismatched, miscellaneous and duplicated [ICT] systems” which the previous Labor administration had left the state with.
However, since that date Bates has declined to publicly release either the interim or full ICT audits which the Minister promised in May last year, leaving observers and Queensland’s ICT industry itself confused as to the current state of the State Government’s IT systems and processes, as well as its future plans to remediate the area.
In February Bates resigned, with Queensland Premier Campbell Newman in her place appointing Ian Walker as the state’s Minister for Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts. A 35-year veteran of law firm Norton Rose, Walker appears to have little background dealing with complex IT projects.
Since February, Delimiter has been seeking to access the internal and final ICT audit reports which Bates commissioned in May last year, using Queensland’s Right to Information legislation — the state’s equivalent of the Federal Government’s Freedom of Information scheme. According to a letter sent to Delimiter in late April, by Walker’s Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts, the interim report constitutes 76 pages of information, while the final report constitutes 982 pages of information.
However, the department declined to release the report publicly at the time, with the department’s Assistant Director-General of Shared Services, Mike Burnheim, noting at the time that both reports were prepared for the consideration of the Queensland Cabinet and are therefore exempt from being released under the Right to Information scheme.
Speaking with Delimiter last week, Walker declined to directly answer several questions about whether the ICT audit would eventually be released, or why the Queensland Government had consistently declined to publish the document. However, Walker did highlight the fact that Queensland had also committed last week to a number of initiatives to address its ongoing ICT project and service delivery woes.
In mid-2012, the new LNP administration in Queensland commissioned former Federal Treasurer Peter Costello, as well as several other high-ranking individuals, to produce an extensive report on the Queensland Government’s current and forecast financial position, and to make recommendations on strengthening Queensland’s economy, restoring its financial position, and ensuring value for money in the delivery of frontline services. The full report produced by the so-called “Commission of Audit” was released last week, along with the Queensland Government’s response to it.
In the document, Costello and his colleagues made a number of recommendations regarding Queensland’s ICT strategy going forward.
To start with, the report recommends that the Government adopt “an ‘ICT as a service’ strategy and source ICT services, especially commoditised services, from private providers in a contestable market where this is feasible and represents value for money”. This recommendation matches with recent moves in New South Wales and Victoria to place cloud computing at the centre of the states’ new ICT strategies, rather than continuing to focus on more traditional methods of ICT service delivery.
“The Government utilise as appropriate cloud based computing and other emerging technologies as enablers to complement its ‘ICT as a service’ strategy,” the document states.
Secondly, Costello and his colleagues recommended that the Government discontinue the role of IT shared services agency CITEC as a centralised provider of ICT services within government, and initiate a process to divest the CITEC business within two years. Similarly, the report recommends the Queensland Government “discontinue its role as an owner and manager of significant ICT assets and systems”, and that it “implement a program to divest ICT assets and systems, with required ICT services to be purchased under contractual arrangements with private providers”.
The report also recommends the state focus on implementing best practice governance arrangements, as well as pushing the newly rejuvenated Queensland Government office of the whole of government chief information officer to help ensure that agency CIOs have the skills and capacity to effectively manage the proposed ‘ICT as a service’ strategy, and that agency ICT staff in general have the skills and capacity to commission, manage and realise the benefits of ‘contestable’ ICT services — that is, where government ICT services work is put out to competitive tender.
In general, the Queensland Government has accepted the recommendations in the report (although it has been cautious about committing to a sale of CITEC), and Walker stressed that the state now had a “big picture” in place; that the Costello recommendations was not dissimilar to the direction it had been working towards in any case, and that internally, the Government was working on the so-far unpublished recommendations of the ICT audit.
“I can appreciate that you’re keen to have more detail at this time; I’m very aware of the urgency,” Walker said last week. “The mess that we were left with means we have to move carefully — properly and in a very informed way.”
Some of the Government’s next steps will look familiar to anyone who’s been following similar situations in NSW and Victoria — Walker noted that Queensland will be looking to publish a high-level ICT strategy document, as well as forming an ICT engagement group, to “bounce ideas off” as the state moves forward with its plans. The Minister’s own department is also working on a response to the Costello report.
The specific question of governance — perhaps Queensland’s most important question, given how many of its ICT projects have failed or run overtime and over budget in the past half-decade — is also on the state’s agenda, according to Walker, and will be dealt with as part of the government’s response to the various reports.
My opinion right now is that the new LNP administration in Queensland is not doing enough to address what are really systemic issues of ICT project and service delivery in the state.
The Queensland Health payroll debacle was high-profile and continues to garner attention, sure — and it may even have contributed to the fall of the previous Labor administration in the state. But I’ve reported on many other ICT projects over the past half-decade in Queensland that are also suffering major problems. The truth is that in Queensland, as in Victoria, that if the state government has a major ICT project of any kind, it’s likely failing, or at the very least running over-budget and over-schedule. The state is not facing a failure of individual projects here — it’s facing a systemic failure of ICT project and service delivery as a whole.
In this context, the Government’s response comes across as extremely anaemic. It’s been in power now for over a year. In that time it’s already lost one IT Minister, replaced that IT Minister with a lawyer with no experience in IT, and broken its promise to release the results of its comprehensive ICT Audit. God only knows what litany of disasters that unpublished document contains, but we’re betting it will be a horror story to end all horror stories.
Sure, the state is looking to develop an ICT strategy and set up an industry engagement group, but even this looks a little like “Back to the Future”. Those who’ve followed events in Queensland for a while will recall that its ‘new’ whole of government chief information officer, Peter Grant, actually already held that position from 2005 through 2008, and that it already had an industry engagement group, which it recently cut funding to.
And of course, we’ve also seen the state cut hundreds of ICT contractors from its employment ranks; never a recipe for stability and growth.
There are some positives to come out of initiatives such as the Costello report — such as the recommendation that the state sell off CITEC, which I highly approve of. We’ve seen in other states (such as Victoria with CenITex, as well as in Western Australia) that government-owned IT shared services agencies rarely do as good a job as private companies at providing basic IT services, and generally they’re pretty hopeless at delivering projects as well. In addition, the Costello report’s focus on a shift to ICT as a service and cloud computing is a necessary and welcome recommendation.
However, this kind of shift can only work across a state government if — as we’ve seen in NSW from Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner and Finance and Services Minister Greg Pearce (both of whom really “get” IT and are highly active in the portfolio and with industry) — it gets high-level ministerial buy-in to push change across the whole state government. You can’t get this kind of change from a whole of government CIO office alone — that kind of attempt has already failed in jurisdictions such as Queensland, Victoria and NSW.
You need Ministers — and not just IT Ministers, who are typically regarded as junior cabinet ministers — but premiers, deputy premiers, treasurers and finance ministers to get behind this kind of effort. Otherwise, the portfolio CIOs of agencies such as health, education, law enforcement and so on will just ignore any whole of government CIO efforts, rightfully reasoning that their own Department Secretary’s opinion is more important than the opinion of a whole of government CIO with no direct line of accountability.
What I’m trying to say here is that there is no indication in Queensland that Walker — or anyone else in the State Government at a ministerial level — really understands the gravity of the problem that it has when it comes to ICT project and service delivery. If you work in Queensland Government IT, you had better hold on to your hat. Because in my opinion, things are going to get worse before they get better — and when the current state of affairs is the Queensland Health payroll disaster, “worse” could look very bad indeed.