news Queensland ICT Minister Ian Walker has defended the Government’s minimalistic response to the grave implications contained in the state’s recent ICT Audit, arguing that an ICT Strategy document published today of only a dozen pages with sparse detail was “not brochureware” and in fact represented a “solid” first step for the state.
In early June, the state’s long-awaited comprehensive audit of its ICT systems and processes found that ninety percent of the Queensland Government’s ICT systems were outdated and would require replacement within five years at a total cost of $7.4 billion, as Queensland continues to grapple with the catastrophic outcome of years of “chronic underfunding” into its dilapidated ICT infrastructure.
The ICT Audit also found that a number of key IT systems urgently needed replacing in order “to avoid rendering key parts of government inoperable”, which the document noted constituted what it described as “systemic business risk” to Queensland’s ability to function. When it comes to its fundamental IT infrastructure, Queensland is also far behind much of the rest of the Australian public sector.
Coupled with the disastrous payroll systems upgrade at Queensland Health, which ballooned out in cost to over $1.25 billion, resulted in thousands of health staff not being paid or being paid incorrectly, contributed to the ousting of the previous Labor administration in Queensland and still doesn’t function with a high degree of manual intervention by staff, the state is facing the worst situation of any government across Australia’s public sector in terms of its ICT systems and processes; with a substantial risk that further failures will mean it will not be able to maintain its delivery of some key services to residents and businesses in the state.
The Audit also emphasised that action must be taken very quickly if the state is to move forward from the mess: “Debating subtle nuances of the approach will waste precious time that the government simply does not have.” If it is to maintain its ability to deliver key services to the community, the Audit notes that a number of key initiatives must start immediately and in parallel.
In response to the ICT Audit, this afternoon Queensland ICT Minister Ian Walker released what was described as an ICT Strategy to take the state forward in the years from 2013 to 2017. However, the document as a whole is only 16 pages long, of which six pages constitute cover sheets, blank pages, content pages and a glossary.
The document does not go into any detail about how Queensland plans to meet its unprecedented level of challenges with respect to its ICT processes and systems; instead it contains only a series of what could be described as ‘motherhood’ statements about the state’s principles about dealing with technology.
For example, the state notes that it wants its departments and agencies to move from a model where they “have some understanding of their costs and source most [ICT] services internally” to a model where “agencies apply competitive thinking and use strategic sourcing to obtain the best value for Queenslanders”. However, under this item, the document lists only four bullet points, with no concrete strategy for transforming the state’s ICT procurement practices, no dates by which this approach will be accomplished, and no benchmarks to judge its success by.
This approach is taken throughout the ICT Strategy document.
“In future, the government’s service delivery priorities will determine ICT investment priorities – not technical issues,” Minister Walker writes in his foreword to the document. “ICT investments will help the Government deliver improved services to all Queenslanders – whether they live in Brisbane, on our coasts or in regional areas.” However, the Minister does not specify any concrete actions in the document which will be taken to meet these aims — offering only top-level principles and approaches.
In an interview with Walker this afternoon, Delimiter asked the Minister to respond to the idea that the document might be best described as “brochureware”, and that it could have been generated by just one ministerial staffer in a time period as short as one day. “I think it is a high level document setting out the key decisions that we have made,” Walker responded. “I certainly don’t think it’s brochureware … I don’t agree with your statement that an advisor could have put it together.”
Walker said there were a number of contentious issues which had to be discussed before the Government took a position which it could include in the ICT Strategy. For example, he said the ICT governance model which it contains had been “the subject of vigorous debate and discussion across government”.
The document outlines a high-level governance model which centres on Walker’s own role, with a Ministerial ICT Engagement Group, Assistant Minister for e-Government and the Director-General of Walker’s department reporting directly to him, and the council of director-generals across the various departments taking advice on major ICT projects from departmental and agency chief information officers and passing that advice up to Walker’s Director-General.
The document also notes: “There is ample evidence to suggest that well-publicised failures of major ICT projects in Queensland have been the direct result of ineffective governance and poor program and project management. This strategy will provide a way of addressing those shortcomings by requiring agencies to implement and consistently apply a best practice model of portfolio, program and project management. Greater attention will also be paid to change management.”
However, the ICT Strategy does not make clear how this model differs from existing governance structures that have abjectly failed the Queensland Government in the past when it comes to major ICT projects, or how, with most responsibility for ICT governance still residing in individual departments and particularly departmental CIOs, Walker will be able to ensure that major ICT projects don’t go off the rail to the tune of a billion dollars above initially estimated project costs, as occurred in the Queensland Health payroll systems upgrade.
Walker said the Queensland Government was “very much” aware of the graveness of the situation which it is currently facing. “We have not swept anything under the carpet,” he said. “We’ve done the audit — the biggest audit in ICT by any government. We’ve in no way shirked the issue. I think our reaction is appropriately high level.”
The Minister added that Queensland Premier Campbell Newman had “an intense interest” in the ICT area. “My job is to make sure the system gets back on track,” he said.
While today’s ICT Strategy release contains few details of the Government’s plans, Queensland is also planning to release (by the end of August) an implementation plan which is expected to lay out its planned approach in much more detail. And Queensland is already taking action on some of the fronts urgently flagged by the ICT Audit. For example, in mid-June Walker flagged plans to adopt two of the most radical measures implemented by then-US Government chief information officer Vivek Kundra in the Obama administration’s first term.
The first of those — an IT dashboard, will see information publicly released about “all significant government projects”, including their costs and current status. In addition, Queensland plans to take a “cloud-first” approach to procuring ICT services.
In addition, the Minister revealed that the state had already appointed an executive named Glenn Walker to the position of ICT renewal executive director. Glenn Walker will be tasked with “putting into effect” the responses which Queensland is currently publishing — of which the ICT Strategy is one example — to major audits such as the ICT Audit and the wider-reaching Costello Commission of Audit.
The state is also planning to retain its whole of government chief information officer role, from which it recently asked two-time incumbent Peter Grant to step down, but the role is to be “refined”. iTNews has quoted Walker as saying the role will evolve to primarily exist in an advisory capacity to the director of Walker’s Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts, and the council of directors-general.
In addition, the state is also taking other steps. The Department of Community Safety is planning to upgrade its payroll system, which is based on the same LATTICE technology which the previous Queensland Health payroll system had been. Walker noted that the system had been repaired. And the state has also consulted with industry and taken submissions on its strategy, collecting about 500 responses and conducting a half-day briefing session with 100 members of the local IT industry.
Walker said in general that the LNP administration in Queensland should be credited for putting “it all out there as it is” with respect to the ICT Audit, “and not trying to hide it in any way”. “I think our commitments are going to continue that transparency,” the Minister said. “The IT dashboard, another commitment, which will show all of those projects, where they are — the Government ca hardly be more transparent than that. It’s a serious issue – I think the audit could hardly have been more revealing in what it said.”
I’m in two minds about the Queensland Government’s approach to its ICT woes at the moment.
On the one hand, Walker’s right: The LNP administration in the state has been quite transparent on this issue, releasing the full ICT Audit, consulting with industry and speaking with journalists. Contrary to my initial expectations, Walker clearly understands the graveness of the problem facing Queensland, and the fact that it will require years of sustained effort even to keep its head above water. The Minister is familiar with technology industry trends, such as the shift to cloud computing, and he’s even comfortable discussing government IT initiatives such as Kundra’s IT dashboard.
It appears that Walker has quickly parlayed his long experience leading the Brisbane office of law firm Norton Rose into a solid understanding of the dynamics of a ministerial position in state government. While I don’t believe the Minister “gets ICT” to the same extent as we’re seeing in NSW from NSW Finance Minister Greg Pearce and Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner, who are spearheading the state’s own ICT rejuvenation, Walker is still definitely competent and pushing in all the right directions. He is on ball with these issues — which is a lot more than we can say for previous ministers in the portfolio in Queensland. Walker is a quality operator.
On the other hand, there are still some disturbing signs here. Despite the Minister’s protestations, the ICT Strategy released today is, flatly, a joke. It’s the briefest, least-detailed, highest-level document of its kind that I’ve ever seen, and barely deserves its own title. I am not exaggerating when I say that I personally could have constructed a rough version of it from scratch in less than a day.
What we need to see now from Queensland — as we saw in Victoria when that state produced its own fluffy ICT strategy — is a concrete implementation plan to match its ICT Strategy. The state needs to flesh out its principles and goals with actual action points, dates to match them, and benchmarks by which it will judge its progress. It needs to detail urgently how it will train its staff and set in place strict governance controls to ensure it doesn’t suffer another repeat performance with a payroll upgrade like Queensland Health. It needs to actually go ahead with that IT dashboard it’s contemplating and make sure it has names and titles included, so that there are people accountable when things start going off the tracks with its major IT projects. It needs to issue a series of internal commandments through its Director-General’s Council that will ensure that each departmental CIO immediately changes their procurement and project management approaches.
I’m really not exaggerating when I say that the scale of the issue facing Queensland right now is really quite frightening. Its most immediate problem is that it has a number of high-risk IT systems which are slowly dying and which have the potential to take down key areas of service delivery with them. This alone would be a massive issue, given the state’s demonstrated abysmal ability to upgrade and replace key IT systems.
But it’s also true that virtually every other area of Queensland’s ICT systems and processes are also right on the brink of disaster. It doesn’t have much in the way of centralised ICT procurement, so it’s constantly burning money it shouldn’t be when it buys basic things such as desktop PCs and telecommunications. Most of its underlying infrastructure is out of date and needs replacing; but it’s not clear that Queensland can afford to replace it. And when you get beyond the urgent IT systems which need to be replaced right now, there are also clusters of almost-urgent systems which are also reaching end of life. There’s also that pesky issue that its out of date IT systems are riddled with security issues, including the fact that some of its departments are hosting botnets.
Walker will be hoping that the radical measures represented by the IT dashboard and the ‘cloud-first’ policy will have the effect of short-circuiting some of these problems, and I have no doubt that they will be somewhat successful. But even getting these initiatives in place will require substantial years of effort and pushing by the Minister and his staff inside the Government. Deeper change will take a lot longer; the issue is that, as the ICT Audit highlighted, time really is an issue right now.
I would say that what is happening in Queensland right now is akin to emergency triage. The state is going to have to take a ruthless approach to what problems it can fix — mercilessly chopping gangrenous limbs off without painkiller and focusing on those patients which it can save. If it doesn’t take this emergency approach, then it will lose what momentum for change that it has. We’ve seen that Walker has the gumption to follow this approach; the implementation of the IT dashboard (every CIO’s worst nightmare) and the cloud-first approach (previously thought anathema within the public sector) is evidence of this, as is the ruthless demotion of two-time whole of government CIO Peter Grant. Let’s hope the Minister and those advising him can continue to push hard in this manner. Because I suspect that it will most of their efforts merely to stop things getting worse; let alone trying to improve the situation.
Image credit: Office of Ian Walker