blog It’s been a fascinating decade or so in Australian Government in terms of centralised ICT strategy. If we were to go back a decade or so, centralised whole of government chief information officers were all the rage. New South Wales had one, Victoria had one, South Australia had one Queensland was setting up one, and while the other states and territories weren’t quite as formal, they did have centralised IT shared services divisions which fulfilled much of the same function.
Fast forward five to seven years and all of this has changed. Victoria dumped its whole of government CIO office and replaced it, years later, with a “chief technology advocate”. New South Wales dumped its independent whole of government CIO role and merged it (on paper) with the role of one of its departmental director-generals. Queensland has just asked its whole of government CIO to step down. The Federal Government has broken up its IT strategy agency AGIMO and integrated it further into the Department of Finance and Deregulation. And across the country, IT shared services initiatives are being wound back.
According to Ovum research director Steve Hodgkinson (director of the firm’s government practice in Australia and New Zealand, and a former deputy CIO of the Victorian Government), there are lessons to be learnt from this situation. Hodgkinson notes in a recent blog post (we recommend you click here for the full article):
“The decentralized organizational dynamics of most public sectors, however, have largely frustrated WoG ICT strategies; there are few successes to report amid a growing list of wasteful failures and disappointing projects. Many jurisdictions have discovered that their consolidation, rationalization, and standardization strategies have saddled agencies with outdated, inflexible, and costly ICT capabilities – the opposite of what was intended.”
The next logical step following on from the difficulties suffered by whole of government ICT strategies, according to Hodgkinson, is to pursue a “just enough” whole of government ICT strategy, focused around key areas, while enabling innovation with the new cluster of mobile, social media and cloud computing technologies which are now readily available. The analyst writes:
“This is a much easier and less risky path to take than attempting to achieve the same outcome via mandated strategies that effectively seek to create closed, under-invested, “socialist” ICT economies within a jurisdiction. Mobile apps and cloud services work because they operate in an open capitalist economy in which customers choose services that are better, faster, less expensive, and less risky to implement and operate. History has shown that capitalism, for all its faults, always triumphs over socialism, because it stimulates the energy of customer choice and the vendor accountability necessary to drive innovation.”
I wholly agree with Hodgkinson. What we’re seeing increasingly on the ground in governments right around Australia is that there are certain aspects of government ICT operations that make sense to be delivered centrally. A good example would be the creation of procurement panels for common use areas such as Microsoft licences and telecommunciations, which everyone needs, and for which there are only a limited number of suppliers. Concentrating on these areas allows governments to cut costs through centralised procurement; but these kinds of efforts do not constrain individual departments and agencies into solutions which they don’t want.
Then, in turn, what we’ve seen in a number of government arenas in Australia is that when individual departments and agencies are freed up and encouraged to pursue innovation, learnings from that innovation tend to percolate through the rest of their sister agencies. In Victoria, we’ve seen how the Department of Business and Innovation is pushing the envelope and attracting notice through its new IaaS tender, following on from a successful Salesforce.com implementation. And in NSW, the Department of Trade and Investment is breaking new ground and setting the example with respect to its cloud-based SAP ERP project.
Hodgkinson’s right — the power resides in the agencies, so they should be encouraged to experiment, learn and share those learnings, rather than mandated them into solutions that may not fit.
Of course, much of the concept Hodgkinson is writing about here is positive, looking forward. However, personally, one of the key roles which I would also very much like to see centralised government IT strategy groups play is in becoming advocates for good project governance. Right now, project management and project governance is a key issue across Australia’s public sector, with most major ICT projects going off the rails and off budget to some extent. In some cases, such as in Queensland Health, projects have gone catastrophically off the rails.
I’d like to see whole of government CIOs act, not so much as watchdogs, but as advocates and educators in terms of good project governance — perhaps having staff seconded onto major ICT projects in individual departments, in order to both keep an eye on the situation, while also helping to establish and train project offices. This already happens to a certain extent, but I’d like to see more of a formal emphasis placed on it. That way, when innovative projects come up in government, there is more in the way of structures and frameworks to help them deliver. And having more such staff around might also help the lessons learnt to percolate between departments.