Victoria Police appoints CIO without IT background



news Victoria Police, which has one of the most troubled IT departments in Australia’s public sector, has appointed as its new chief information officer a senior police officer with a distinguished career but who appears to have no specific experience with IT operations, in an effort to pull itself out of the deep mire which has swallowed its technology capability in recent years.

Victoria Police’s IT department is notorious within Australia’s IT industry for a number of reasons.

Perhaps the most obvious problem faced by the division, known as Business Information Technology Services or BITS, is that there are severe doubts about its division to deliver major IT projects. A report published by the State Services Authority in Victoria in March 2012 found that the division had no ability to deliver such projects.

The most visible of these, known as LINK, was a long-running project which aimed to replace the force’s ancient 17-year-old criminal history and crime reporting database, LEAP — used by almost all of the force’s frontline police. The LINK project failed in March 2010 after half a decade of making very little progress, and the State Government announced it would suspend the project at the time. Another attempt to replace LEAP is currently underway, but its form has not yet become publicly clear.

However, there are also other reasons Victoria Police’s IT department is notorious. In November 2009 a report handed down by Victoria’s Ombudsman found that the department’s IT management had a “disregard for proper procurement and contract management” which led to a situation where some contracts never went to tender, and budgets were skyrocketing. The ombudsman also published an embarassing list of hospitality and entertainment from vendors like IBM accepted by Victoria Police’s IT management at the time.

In March 2009, when the Ombudsman, George Brouwer, kicked off his investigation into Victoria Police’s IT operations, he described its capabilities as “outdated information technologies that are unsuited to a 21st century approach to policing”.

Even when Victoria Police is able to carry out its duties, it is not always able to follow up. A separate report published by the state’s Ombudsman in August this year found that the poor-performing nature of a 15-year-old IT system operated by the State Government has been one of the main contributors to the state losing more than $1.2 billion of revenue from millions of uncollected legal infringement fines. A project to replace the system kicked off in 2007 has not yet delivered on its aims.

The report found that since 2005, about two million warrants worth $886 million had been written off as a result of the Sheriff’s office being unable to enforce them. At the moment, there is a pool of 3.5 million warrants worth more than $1.2 billion which remain uncollected; most of which will not be collected before they expire after five years.

The most recent officer to lead Victoria Police’s IT operations was Michael Vanderheide, who was appointed in late 2009 to be Victoria Police’s chief information officer. However, Vanderheide departed Victoria Police a little over a year later to run Victoria’s troubled IT shared services agency CenITex.

According to a media release issued by Victoria Police in September, the organisation has finally appointed a new chief information officer, 18 months after Vanderheide’s departure.

The appointee, Wendy Steendam, is an assistant commissioner with Victorian Police who appears to have a distinguished career with the organisation. Steendam’s LinkedIn profile lists her experience with Victoria Police as having lasted for over 29 years. The officer was awarded the Australian Police Medal in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

The APM is only given for distinguished service by a member of an Australian police force, and is only given in small numbers. The total number of APM awards for each police force in each state each year must not exceed one APM for every 1,000 sworn members of police forces.

According to Steendam’s LinkedIn profile, the officer has been most endorsed by her colleagues for skills and expertise along traditional policing lines, such as public safety, emergency services and management, criminal investigations and enforcement.

However, the officer’s LinkedIn profile does not include any direct experience in IT operations. iTNews, which first reported the news of Steendam’s appointment, reported that the officer had a background in frontline command and the sex crimes unit.

I want to signal firstly that we should all have a great deal of respect for Wendy Steendam. It certainly appears as though Steendam is a very senior officer who has accomplished a lot within Victoria Police over three decades. And this article is intended as no disrespect to the officer personally. In fact, I congratulate her on her accomplishments.

However, it is also incumbent upon me to question whether Victoria Police should appoint an officer who appears to have little direct experience with IT operations to remediate its extremely troubled IT department.

Those who have spent time in public sector IT will know that the key problem facing the sector is one of governance. Put flatly, projects and vendors are not being well-managed in public sector IT departments and are going catastrophically wrong, leading to service delivery failure, as we’ve seen in state governments all around Australia over the past five years.

Steendam may be very qualified as policing operations and very aware of how Victoria Police’s end users use technology at their workplace. And Steendam will have the authority of three decades of policing under her belt. These will be her key strengths in the CIO role. But managing complex IT projects, with all their tiny nuances and issues, is another kettle of fish entirely. It takes many years of experience to be able to manage these kinds of initiatives successfully, and while I have no doubt Steendam will be able to rely on internal and expertise in her role in the form of other officers with deep backgrounds in IT, ultimately the CIO will be the main decision-maker on these projects.

Then too, it’s not just IT projects that Victoria Police is engaged in.

In July, Victoria Police went to market for a large tranche of IT outsourcing services, in a deal which will reportedly be worth up to $340 million and see five separate outsourcing contracts consolidated into one substantial contract representing one of the largest such deals in Australia’s public sector this year. Setting aside the IT project issue — projects which have catastrophically failed before — Victoria Police is fundamentally revolutionising its ICT delivery model as a whole right now, outsourcing most of its work.

Will Steendam be able to keep all these balls in the air at the same time? If there is anyone who has the personal tenacity and drive to do it, it would definitely be a career police officer with three decades’ worth of crimefighting behind them.

We can take heart from the fact that the last time Victoria Police did hire an IT veteran, in the form of Michael Vanderheide, Vanderheide himself acknowledged that he spent quite a bit of time at the beginning of his tenure attempting to understand the operational challenges Victoria Police has been suffering in relation to its technology. Steendam won’t have to go through this process — the officer already knows the challenges. Her challenge will be translating these challenges into priorities for Victoria Police’s IT staff.

But I would not be an honest technology commentator if I didn’t acknowledge that something twinged inside my mind when I read the news that an officer without at least a decade of experience in IT management was being appointed to this role. Let’s hope Victoria Police can get its act into gear. Because failing to do so will continually lead to worse and worse policing operations on the ground in Victoria. And that’s not a good result for anyone.

Image credit: @CJNewsAu, used with permission