Australia desperately needs a good technology policy think tank


global concept

opinion/analysis The past decade or so of failed technology policy in Australia sharply demonstrates the need for an independent think tank that would focus on developing viable, sustainable and popular technology policy and feeding it into the political process.

When I look back upon the past 15 years of technology-focused policy development and implementation in Australia, what arises is the keen edge of despair.

The last great successful piece of technology policy reform to be implemented in Australia occurred in 1997, when John Howard’s Coalition administration deregulated the telecommunications sector, allowing players other than Telstra and Optus into the market for the first time and setting the stage for the extraordinary explosion in choice of telephone carriers, not to mention the extremely diverse Internet access and eventually broadband markets.

Since that time, technology policy in Australia has been nothing short of a litany of disasters.

Following deregulation, the Coalition privatised Telstra. While the effort was a financial success for the Government, plowing billions into its coffers, in most other regards it was a catastrophe. The utter failure of Howard’s Cabinet to structurally separate Telstra into wholesale and retail divisions, as other countries did with their own incumbents, unleashed a monster on the telco market which leveraged its vertically integrated power to devastating effect.

You can still see the impact of this policy failure today. The competition regulator’s constant battle to rein in the big T notwithstanding, Telstra still dominates every field of telecommunications in Australia. In some areas, such as in broadband, its market share has been cut substantially, while in others, such as the business and mobile markets, it’s tightening the noose and moving back towards total control.

The Coalition also completely missed the boat on the need to upgrade Telstra’s copper network to fibre to cater for the next 50 years of broadband growth. It fumbled negotiations with Telstra over the issue in 2005 and 2006. By 2007, when Kevin Rudd’s Labor team came to power, the Coalition had lost the broadband plot completely and was enmeshed in a farcical plan to deploy WiMAX to rural Australia.

None of this is to say that Labor did any better.

Labor, too, completely failed to successfully negotiate with Telstra to upgrade its copper network. It took it 18 months — half its first term in office — to work out what many in the industry already knew, that the $4.7 billion National Broadband Network policy it took to the 2007 election was doomed to fail without Telstra’s direct support.

Nobody could accuse Labor under Rudd of having a lack of vision, and the enlarged, $43 billion NBN policy which the Government announced in April 2009 captured the public imagination, as well as having the potential to resolve the Coalition’s structural separation gaffe with Telstra. But four years down the track, Labor’s NBN has abjectly failed to deliver on its high-minded promises (subscription link), and the Coalition is yet again attempting to forge a radical new national telecommunications policy from the ashes of the old.

But it’s not just telecommunications; our policymakers have constantly failed us in other areas as well.

Who could forget Labor’s disastrous mandatory Internet filter policy, which the Coalition farcically resurrected in the dying days of the 2013 election campaign, proving it had learnt nothing from Labor’s failures? Or the universal political support for a mandatory data retention policy, which almost nobody except for the nation’s most fervent spooks and law enforcement officials supports? Or the secret Internet piracy talks which neglected to include consumer representatives and ended in abject failure?

There have been bright spots, such as the 2001 IT outsourcing push led by OASITO, the 2008 Gershon review of the Federal Government’s IT operations, the computers in schools program and the continuing push towards open data championed by backbenchers such as the tech-savvy Senate Kate Lundy.

But even when it comes to these areas, the Government has suffered a constant failure of policy vision. It has missed the boat on adopting almost every modern technology, from collecting and processing Australians’ data online to cloud computing to mobile and social platforms. State Governments have been even worse, underinvesting in their basic technology infrastructure to the tune of billions of dollars and suffering billions of dollars of IT project failures. And the dynamic IT startup sector has been neglected, with a lack of taxation and regulatory support hampering its natural growth and holding the level of venture capital investment to a minimum.

The consequences of this lack of good technology policy have been catastrophic in terms of the national interest.

Australia is widely acknowledged as a broadband backwater where telcos are afraid to invest due to the abject lack of regulatory certainty. The constant efforts by politicians to censor and monitor our Internet has seen us placed on Internet freedom ‘watch’ lists.

Most government departments and agencies are horribly inefficient when it comes to their technology operations, and IT project disasters are now the normal state of affairs in our state governments. Few IT professionals will easily forget Queensland Health’s payroll systems upgrade disaster, the record-keeping failure which led to the wrongful detention of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez (and took a $500 million IT project to rectify) and the infamous Integrated Cargo System nightmare at Customs, which led to cargo piling up in wharves around the nation during Christmas, 2005.

Meanwhile, Australian IT exports are virtually unknown, and up until recently our IT startup ecosystem hadn’t even made it out of the birth canal.

The extraordinary thing about this entire situation is that all of these problems could have been solved by the application of better public policy. Australia’s politicians have never lacked the will or ability to throw money, political capital or time at major problems such as broadband, government IT operations or the IT startup sector.

But almost universally, those resources have been invested poorly, in the wrong solutions at the wrong time. The results, to long-time industry commentators such as myself, have become entirely too predictable. Hell, I’ve personally taken to predicting IT disasters ahead of time. It’s altogether too easy to be right when you’ve seen politicians make the same mistakes repetitively over a period of a decade.

Solving the problem
In my strong opinion, the only way to change this cycle of technology catastrophes is to change the policy development process entirely. And that’s actually a very nice problem to have, because it’s been done before very successfully in other sectors.

Ten minutes’ research on how long-term, viable government policy is developed in other sectors in Australia reveals that politicians and political parties have rather a lot of help in the matter. There’s a plethora of think tanks which contribute to the development of policy. Their main function is to aid in the transport of ideas between the academic and industry sectors and the political realm, taking concepts, testing them, focusing them, and making them politically and publicly appealing.

The reason think tanks exist is because politics needs ideas to function. Politicians sit at the heart of networks of people constantly screaming ideas at them from every angle. Interacting with them as I do, it’s obvious that they find it hard to cut through the constant din to find and focus on ideas which actually have genuine merit, rather than just self-serving advantages to their proponents. And so they have increasingly come to rely on groups such as think tanks to evaluate different alternatives for them.

Think tanks also help educate politicians. New Ministers don’t have time to attend courses on how to govern in their particular portfolios; they usually learn much of their required knowledge on the job. Initially much of that work is done by their department, but as they progress a little, there is a strong role for think tanks in helping them see past obvious pitfalls and mistakes, to take a more strategic vision with their remit.

Some think tanks have out and out political affiliations. Most readers will be familiar with the Institute of Public Affairs, which has close links with the Liberal Party and big business and helps develop free market and small government policies. But there are also think tanks who develop policies for Labor, such as the Chifley Research Centre, and others which are more loosely aligned, such as the progressive Centre for Policy Development and the Centre for Independent Studies. Each side of politics, and even the Greens, rely on these resources and help fund them.

There are also think tanks which handle very specific topics. The Brisbane Institute has a rather obvious remit, as does the Western Australian Policy Forum. The Committee for the Economic Development of Australia focuses on long-term structural issues related to the nation’s progress, while the Lowy Institute for International Policy focuses on international issues from an Australian perspective.

The Strategic and Defence Studies Centre focuses on defence and security, and there are others that focus on issues related to indigenous Australians, medicine and health, and energy and natural resources. In essence, there are many generalist Australian think tanks as well as many specific ones.

But in all my research, and despite the resources of the technology industry, as well as the importance of good technology policy to our governments, all of our industries and our society in general, I’ve yet to find an Australian think tank devoted to technology policy, or even a centre of technology policy development within an established think tank. The closest we seem to have is the Australian Information Industry Association, which engages strongly with the policy development process (sometimes a little too strongly for comfort), but it’s not a think tank. It’s an out and out industry lobby group trying very successfully to win better deals for its members.

The lack of a quality Australian technology policy think tank strikes one as a little absurd, unless you consider the fact that technologists in general have never been good at engaging with the political process. We usually prefer to deal with machines rather than human beings. They’re much more predictable.

The details
So what would a technology policy think tank look like? What would it do? How would it be funded? Who would run it?

Firstly, it is tremendously important that Australia’s first technology policy think tank be independent. There are plenty of other think tanks that cater to each of the various sides of politics. A technology policy think tank needs to be founded on the principle that it would advise and support the technology policy development process for all; not just one set of vested interests.

The reason this is important is that technology policies need to be long-term policies. Much of the problem with Australian telecommunications policy is that it tends to change every three years, throwing the entire industry into chaos every time it does. You can’t build a National Broadband Network on the basis that the NBN policy will change with every change in government. The same can be said for internal government IT policy, IT startup policy and so on. Major technology projects and industries usually take five to ten years to develop and need long-term bi-partisan support.

Of course, a technology policy think tank would develop policy in hot areas of demand, such as the NBN, Internet surveillance, governance of government IT projects, IT outsourcing, cloud computing, social media and so on. But it should provide that research to all parties equally, favouring none. Its view on issues must be consistent, no matter which side of the political spectrum it is dealing with.

This approach is consistent with the underlying nature of technology. Technology is fundamentally different from other areas of society such as economic or social policy. Opinions matter less and technical facts matter more. Usually, in the technology area, there is one clear “best” solution to policy problems. In other areas, there may be various solutions depending on each actor’s political persuasion.

This independence is also important because of the penchant which some think tanks have in Australia for pushing certain lines when it comes to technology. You only need to spend a few minutes browsing through the recent McKell Institute report on broadband (sponsored by Vodafone) to realise that Australia’s technology community can do better. The report’s findings may be valid (you can download it here in PDF format), but the appearance of close links to the agenda of its sponsor diminishes their impact.

It seems logical that this kind of technology policy think tank would be funded and operate in a very similar manner as existing think tanks. It would receive membership dues and charge fees to access its publications, hold fundraising events, take corporate and political donations and even accept funding from the Government and support from the academic sector. This is pretty much the standard model for such groups.

It would be a non-profit organisation run by an executive director and staffed by researchers and administration staff. It would be overseen by a board of directors. It would publish research papers and books, contribute to journals of thought leadership, promote ideas through mass market media organisations and hold talks with politicians, industry leaders and influential individuals. And so on. It would engage. It would not exist in isolation. It would be a part of the national conversation on technology policy.

Ultimately, its aim would be to help shape good technology policy in Australia; something that is currently sorely lacking. Along these lines, its ultimate goal would be to become a centre for excellence in the technology policy development process. If there is a technology policy issue, you would want the name of this think tank to be associated with it, front and centre. It would be the ‘go-to’ place for technology policy development, and it would especially seek to build relationships with policymakers inside the political parties.

Something many readers may not be aware of is that all the major political parties have staff focused on developing policy. Who do you think wrote the Coalition’s rival NBN policy? Malcolm Turnbull had input, but at the end of the day the actual document was largely written behind the scenes by the MP’s staff, with input from the private sector, from analysts, from other stakeholders from within the Coalition, and so on. A key role of a technology policy think tank would be to get involved behind the scenes in this policy formation process and help influence it in positive directions. It would, of course, be important not to take sides; and to respect the confidentiality of the process. Integrity, in this kind of process, matters.

And, of course, you would name this think tank after a prominent Australian technologist; someone who had been influential and led Australia’s technology sector in their time. We already have the ‘Chifley’ Research Centre, the ‘H. R. Nicholls’ Society, the ‘McKell’ Institute, the ‘Menzies’ Research Centre and so on. It would be fitting for a prominent Australian technologist to have their name on this one.

When it comes to this issue, Australia’s technology community is sitting on something of a perfect storm. It has all the resources it needs to create an independent Australian technology policy think tank, both in terms of personal membership and corporate support. It has friends in high places — executives, bureaucrats, analysts and influential commentators, as well as quite a few very solid advocates in the various Parliaments. And it has a level of organisation which few other vertical communities can boast. We, after all, are the people who invented all the tools which everyone else uses to get their jobs done.

And most importantly, it has the need.

If Australia had had a good technology policy think tank agitating for the right policies, the Howard administration might have separated Telstra while privatising it. Kevin Rudd’s Labor team might have successfully negotiated for the upgrade of Telstra’s copper network, back in 2007. The Internet filter and data retention projects might never have gotten out of the party rooms, and disasters such as Queensland Health’s payroll systems upgrade could have been foreseen and curtailed.

Hell, Apple’s iPhone might have even been approved for official Government use one or two years after it was first introduced, and not half a decade later.

There is also no real alternative to this path. If Australia does not radically overhaul its technology policy development process over the next several years, we’re facing another decade just like the last one; with poorly educated politicians grappling with technical concepts they don’t understand, and making bad decisions that affect all of our lives. Our industries will suffer, our economy will suffer, and we will suffer.

Interested in the concept? Post your thoughts below this article or drop me a private line using our contact form. When it comes to technology policy development in Australia, I strongly believe it’s time we all cast our thoughts to addressing the challenges ahead. Because If we don’t start to do something about this issue, I strongly believe it will come back to bite us repetitively until we do.


    • I believe that NICTA is geared more as a research institution, rather than a think tank (their website states that they are “Australia’s Information Communications Technology Research Centre of Excellence and the nation’s largest organisation dedicated to ICT research”). I can’t see any reason why NICTA couldn’t branch out and also become a think tank as well. They seem to be large enough that they could have some influence over government officials (that’s my opinion anyway).

    • Cheers Matt! It has certainly stimulated some interesting discussions both privately and publicly.

      I don’t view this as part of NICTA’s role. They more do ICT research. What I’m talking about is public policy development with an IT focus. That doesn’t require technology researchers — it requires politico/media/economic researchers with a tech understanding. Plus … NICTA doesn’t really seem to have been good at much in general over its lifetime. I don’t see it as being able to be good at this area ;) Not a huge fan.

  1. An excellent and thoughtful post Ranai.

    The problems you articulate will only get worse as the pace of both technological change and globalisation quicken. Australian governments are perpetually on the back foot on both counts – failing to adapt to new technologies locally and also failing to to grasp their impact on Australia’s industries.

    The key thing to consider is that we haven’t seen anything yet in terms of the impact of digital technologies. The pace of change will accelerate dramatically in an interconnected digital economy where one generation of digital technologies is used to design and implement the next.

    As a simple example:!

    If our approach to technology policy has fallen behind in the past decade how well will to serve us in the next decade? Not well enough …

    One thought that often occurs to me when I look at technology strategy in governments is that we just need to be more prepared to wave the surrender flag on strategies that have just been abysmal failures. The patient keeps dying but the medicine is still good? I don’t think so.

    If this is the best we have been able to achieve over a decade when (relatively) we had plenty of money and technology change was slow then we will need to change our approach to cope with the coming decade when money will be tighter and technology change will accelerate beyond comprehension.

    • Cheers Steve!

      I completely agree, the pace of change is only going to accelerate. We need to get more organised just to keep up, let alone to get ahead of things.

      “One thought that often occurs to me when I look at technology strategy in governments is that we just need to be more prepared to wave the surrender flag on strategies that have just been abysmal failures. The patient keeps dying but the medicine is still good? I don’t think so.”

      This is actually more or less what I view as the most fundamental immediate task of any tech policy think tank in Australia: Stopping politicians from doing “more of the same”.

      We have so many lessons from so many spheres, and yet so often the political response to technology is so similar. “Throw up some free Wi-Fi networks in the CBD.” Which never worked. “Implement another massive ERP consolidation program.” Which rarely works. “Get the ACCC to regulate Telstra.” Which only works to a limited extent.

      The reason policy makers come up with these solutions is that they haven’t been around long enough to see the lessons the IT industry has gone through over the past 20 years. They think they’re trying new approaches, when in fact they’re trying the old, failed ones. A policy think tank would, initially, merely seek to provide some history to politicians as to what they’re actually dealing with.

      Context and insight, in any endeavour, are king.

  2. Wonderful proposal Renai. The problem would be creating a think tank that satisfies both sides of politics. Maybe you could approach the Science Minister with the idea and… Oh, never mind.

    Complex area though, and it goes beyond just technology. How do you balance short, medium, and long term goals? Just from a technology perspective? How about industry or business needs? Social needs, community and education needs, etc etc. Mobile needs versus fixed line.

    Popular line of argument I’ve used lately is to think back to 1999 (or 2005, roughly when we went from ADSL to ADSL2) and ask the same question, knowing what we know now. Dialup world, how do you set up a think tank that could have solved the “issues” that have developed since.

    Broadband black spots, downloading (legal [netflix, Hulu] and illegal [torrents, Napster]), online shopping, etc etc. Could something have been set up with prior technologies, to anticipate or react to such issues faster?

    I’m not sure it could, or would have had any impact one way or another.

    • Cheers for your kind words!

      I think the first priority is emergency triage. Look at which areas are currently disastrous and start providing politicians tools to help them get out of the mess. State Government IT is a disaster right now, for example, the IT startup sector desperately needs tax relief regulatory reform. You’d pick a hot button, solvable issue in a few fields such as govt IT, telco and startups, and then solve small problems. Once you got a reputation for solving small problems, you’d start to get the opportunity (and funding) to start solving larger ones.

      You need easy wins, and then you tackle harder projects.

      • Triage would be a nifty starting point. I know there has been a push over the past few years for federal departments to consolidate their procurement processes to streamline things, perhaps build from that basis.

        Start with the Public Service, who are trying to do that, and build some sort of department around it. Would be neutral and still trying to meet the GOTD’s goals.

        Or start lower and try and find a common solution to state level issues that appear every other month. It shouldnt take 10 years and 3 goes to get something right…

  3. Hi Renai–great points–I agree wholeheartedly—policies are needed urgently
    not simply to encourage the efficient diffusion of and exploitation of technology but also to encourage innovation and growth in the knowledge base of our economy.

  4. The policy development platform is well established & happens as part of the political party branch structure (well at least in the lib party Labor party members tell me labor don’t listen to branch members) if you want to influence policy join a party that embraces your input and don’t just talk about it attend branch meetings formulate the policy and present it at the appropriate forum for introducing policy changes.

    • Hey Gaz, there is a real problem, however, with policy becoming entirely political isn’t there? We end with these polarized debates on political party lines with the policy baby being thrown out with the political bathwater each time there is a change of government. Perhaps I am being naive but there seems to be a place for a strong non-party-aligned source of rigorous policy debate.

      Nuts … perhaps I am just being naive … [goes off and sulks …]

      • Of course the real issue is politics. How do you set up a think tank that is apolitical to “sell” ideas to a very partisan political system. To think that politicians do things for the country’s good is rather naive, they do things that will get them elected next time around. So a think tank pushing a long term solution to a problem will get short shrift, because it lies outside the usual election cycle (be it NBN related, tax incentives for IT startups etc). A think tank proffering ideas contrary to the vested interests of the party political would get even less of a hearing.

        • You’ve tapped into the difference between a think tank and academia.

          Academics come up with ideas which are generally separate from the political process. They might be the ‘right’ ideas, especially in the long-term, but they may not mesh well with politicians’ priorities.

          Think tanks are much more closely engaged with the political process. The ideas which come out of such organisations usually meet two criteria: Firstly, they are the ‘right’ ideas in terms of whatever stakeholder needs need to be satisfied. For example, a foreign policy thinktank would produce ideas aimed at advancing Australia’s interests abroad. If the ideas won’t work, there is no point to producing them.

          But secondly, these ideas also need to be politically useful. This usually means they will be popular with the electorate and will not contradict mass party platforms. For example, I would not expect to see a foreign policy institute pitch a foreign aid policy to a government which has indicated it has zero interest in foreign aid. The politicians are going to reject it.

          Independent think tanks walk a balanced line where they develop ideas which can be useful by all parties — they are universally useful and also popular with the general population. An example from the tech sector, circa 2001, would have been the separation of Telstra’s wholesale and retail arms.

          This is the beauty and the opportunity of think tanks. They sit in between the education sector and the political sector, providing an interface between each other. They are providing useful tools to politicians. Enticing them with good ideas that are also politically useful.

          • Bravo! It is all just a battle for ideas really … the world is increasingly awash with ideas to the point where they become white noise … particularly when they are just ‘marketing’ biased by commercial or political interest groups. Apart from bias, the problem with this is that the ideas come and go whimsically based on the rise and fall of the actors … the NBN is a classic case in point. George Orwell captured this dynamic perfectly in his book 1984 … who are we at war with now?

            I can see the value of a think tank which has longitudinal continuity in terms of its advocacy for technology policy from the perspectives of evidence and a sustained interest in a set of common sense objectives that relate to technology as a driver of national competitiveness and productivity.

            The art of this, as you say, it to avoid being too much to the left (academic) or the right (the politics of the day). Academics have the long term moral high ground in terms of the direction that ideas should flow in … but usually a weak voice because they can’t be too sullied by practical matters of implementation. Political parties have a loud voice … but are forced to adopt such polarised positions that they create a tide that flows back and forth as they come and go from government.

            What we need is a pragmatic focus on informing useful policy debates and maintaining a scorecard of empirical truths so that we can keep the river of ideas actually moving along in a sensible direction – notwithstanding that it may meander to the left and right a bit over time.

            I heard one of Mark Twain’s quotes from Huckleberry Fin referred to last week, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so” The role of Think Tanks is to keep the intellectual debate honest by advocating from a body of data and practical experience that is independent from the short termism and trench warfare of politics … and can thus both suggest good ideas and challenge assertions that “just ain’t so”.

          • I think you’ve summed it up perfectly, Steve :)

            I especially like your mention of evidence ad empirical data. All too often, technology decisions are made on the basis of ideology. But history shows that this tends to lead to policy failure. People get excited about an idea and believe they can innovate and push the paradigm. What they don’t realise is that technology is governed by the ‘hype’ cycle, and that the rapid pace of technological development means many technologies which may look fantastic now may only be a short time away from obsolescence.

            A perfect example of this type of policy failure would be the Rudd administration’s Computers for Schools program. Many in the industry believed that the netbook phenomenon was just a fad and would shortly be superceded. Laptops at that time were also on a 2-3 year replacement cycle, and evidence from pretty much every corporate laptop fleet rollout showed that much of the main costs in deploying such fleets was in the administration and maintenance — not the raw hardware.

            So the project went ahead. Within a very short time, Apple had introduced the iPad and the netbook became obsolete. Schools and students would eventually start switching to the much more effective tablet model. Meanwhile, the administration of the laptops themselves became a massive headache for schools.

            Many of these problems could have been predicted — in fact, were predicted — based on past evidence. And yet the Government signed up to an ideal, rather than to a pragmatic plan.

            I’m not saying in this example that the Computers for Schools program had the wrong overall aim. But there are a thousand ways it could have modified it to be more effective and nuanced, to deal with the obvious issues that were always going to pop up. Without this context and insight, the project turned out rather badly. With it, it would have had a much better outcome.

    • “The policy development platform is well established & happens as part of the political party branch structure”

      hey mate,

      I’ve seen that policy development process happen in all the major parties, and I can assure you high-level tech policy is not set at the branch level. And when it is, it is generally terrible.


  5. Not much will ever happen because telecommunications are privatised and deregulated..

    Even the NBN was a fail policy from the start…. No consultation with the public.. One day it was FTTN, next thing the trumpets sounded and it is FTTP, but only to a small geographical part of Australia, but it bedazzled most…

    Didn’t matter if you were a house or a hospital or a school, all were treated equal in need… (some health clinics and schools were never going to see fibre, so much for fibre being needed eh)

    Of course the fan boys will scream and shout and pound their keyboards, but it is simply the facts..

    So many players now in the telecommunications game some sort of solution would be near impossible to achieve… All we will see is quick term short sighted solutions (which the NBN was (and still are) doing to a certain extent by deploying two satellites that are unable to offer basic PSTN services we are accustomed to) and easy politically motivated solutions…

    You will not get any sort of proper Australian wide network until nationalism steps in, which will never happen… This is not the 1970’s any more…

    • And the “anti’s” will make up crap to suit their own agenda…and the wheel goes around and around…Will a think tank be able to short circuit such biased FUD based arguments? I think not because, for the most part the arguments are espoused by people with political rather than technological agendas.

    • I agree with a lot of what you say there, but sorry, how was 93% of the population a “small geographical part of Australia”? And what are the “facts” as you see them?

      Sorry, but the evidence out there says different. I’d be interested to know how you came to such conclusions.

    • Your post comes across as all rather confused. 93% isn’t a small geographical minority. The NBN was a forward-looking investment. Why would you want PSTN on a satellite?

      But I think I agree with what (I think) is the main thrust of your argument. Short of nationalisation, we’re screwed, and nationalisation is less and less likely to occur as corporate lobby organisations and think tanks (see, relevance!) like the IPA push their agenda.

    • My favourite part of this clearly joke post is the PSTN on satellite part.
      Because everyone wants to talk to their neighbor down the road with a geostationary satellite worth of latency.

    • “Not much will ever happen because telecommunications are privatised and deregulated..”

      Such a defeatist attitude on the part of the general population is why politicians get away with the amount that they do.

  6. Once-upon-a-time we had an independent Pubic Service which provided this function.

    Now days it’s strictly a battle between “what is best for the shareholders” v/s “what is best for Australia”.
    Unfortunately the former always wins.

    A truly independent think-tank will never happen, the ruling class would never allow it..

    • Realistically the public service was never going to be able to provide this function long-term. Firstly, it’s not independent — it’s suboordinate to the politicians. Secondly, have you ever worked in the public service? It’s not good at coming up with innovative ideas. Lastly … it’s part of the Government. Think tanks need to exist in between the private, public and education sectors to be useful.

  7. Great article Renai. Independence with grunt is crucial – a balanced view rather than sectional interests and a voice for experts who have no ambition other than to improve the nation’s performance…

    The challenge is f course to make it happen – but the ball is rolling now – well done!

  8. As a relative youngun in the world of IT (and in the world in general), I may not be ideally placed to offer any sort of big stick to this sort of venture, but every organisation needs its admins. I’ve spent a few years managing IT projects in public and private sector, in Australia and UK, and would be genuinely interested in contributing to this sort of initiative.

  9. Perfect.
    As a person who has worked with both state and federal government on technology direction and strategy, and as one who has worked in the ISP space, I see where such a think tank would have been of supreme use.

    I would go as far as stating that anyone living in this country who would disagree with the premise of Renai’s op-ed should be considered for immediate deportation.

  10. Hi Renai,

    I understand *why* you are proposing a technology think-tank, but ultimately I think it’s an incorrect proposition.

    Technology shapes society, not the other way around. You are essentially proposing that we have a think-tank to “pick technology winners”. Why are IT project failures so common? Because the starting point is the technology, not the systems problem which can be solved using that technology.

    A flagship case in point: the proposal for personally controlled electronic health records (PCEHR). Why is there a functioning system which no one wants to use? Because the technology didn’t solve the systems constraints inhibiting the technology’s use.

    Now, if you proposed a think-tank that understood how to apply complex systems thinking at all levels of Australian society, and which used technology as a *component* of recommendations to influence how those systems worked, then you would have me 100% onside.

    • + totally agree. with Stephen Bounds. Much of the debate on this site re program and project failure comes to the issue of leadership and learning (and taking the bad politics out of decision making). These are not necessarily technology issues. As a strategist who has worked on ehealth and large complex systems for over a decade including on those that are now held up as text book failures its a lack of leadership and courage that I find the most common connection to failure. This is due to self interest winning over common sense and a sense of common good.

      NEHTA’s core starting point was a Concept of Operations Document! what does this tell you about what they thought the solution and problem was. ehealth was a classic technology project – defined in terms of it being a software problem and solution.

      Many voices (including my own) were shut out/cut off and many that should have been heard were not. Because in the end it was about technology and money. No surprises there.

      Fundamentally the traditional IT model of specification design, build etc. does not work with large complex social problems. Soon we realise this the better. Fundamentally the IT industry failed the health sector and continues to do so. And the health sector failed to make the IT industry accountable. both are at fault.

      The problem is we all then pay in some form or other – this is most evident in Queensland where QH Payroll was used as reason for then cutting massively.

    • Stephen Bounds you are right on the mark – other than that I think this is what Renai is proposing too. A technology think tank has to look at both sides of the supply/demand equation. On the supply side we need it to look at whether and how to build a sustainable technology sector in the economy. On the demand side we need it to look at how we use technology to solve problems and build capability. The latter is a challenge of complex systems thinking where the technology is an enabler but not the entire story.

      Dare I mention the NBN? Why is it that all the discussion focuses on the least relevant question – the connection speed? What’s really important with the NBN is what we are going to do with it! There are whole industries to build on the backbone of the NBN – and what better place to think about those industries than in a technology think tank.

      Also agree with ex-gov. Leadership, particularly “business” leadership of business change is a screaming gap in the way many Australian organisations deal with technology-enabled change. The same issue you reference in NEHTA was also evident to a well-informed external observer with HealthSmart in Victoria… the initiative was framed from a technology idealist perspective with no clear comprehension of the realities of diversity, let alone any other issues, in health services. A think tank needs to go beyond painting the future landscape of technology supply and demand – it also has to teach Australian leaders how to lead in the digital era.

      • Personally I think the core issue is one of confusion between corporate (executive) management and corporate governance or another words the distinction between IT Governance vs Corporate governance of IT. Why do IT people confuse management and governance? By this I mean why do we in IT project land describe basic functions and activities of effective management as governance. (Other disciplines don’t)!

        Furthermore, the more one uses the words governance the less there really is in my experience.

        • Once again I agree with you ex-gov. If you don’t know my credentials, click the link on my name. I’ve tried for almost 9 long years now to educate both sides of the IT puzzle about proper corporate governance of IT. It’s an incredible irony that Australia created the international standard for governance of IT, yet the only Australian government to so far nominally adopt it is only giving it lip service, and most of the rest demonstrate that they have no idea.

          Part of the problem is an IT industry that is too heavily influenced by its own rhetoric and at the same time too prepared to “look after everything” on behalf of its customers. A certain US based organisation focused on IT professionals also has a great deal to answer for, as it is one of the principle sources for rebranding of management activities as governance and confusing others who should be actually governing the use of IT.

          But these aspects are really side issues. A well-developed think tank, with credible leadership, will do a great deal to establish clarity in this regard.

    • hey Stephen,

      “Why are IT project failures so common? Because the starting point is the technology, not the systems problem which can be solved using that technology.”

      Precisely. I agree with you 100 percent. The starting point for all discussions of technology projects needs to be, explicitly, not technology for technology’s sake, but what are the actual needs of the project. Only after that is defined, can you start to look at how the project might proceed. This might, in many cases, involve both business change and technology change — not just ‘wacking in a new IT system to solve the problems’.

      You can see a perfect example of this wrong thinking in the Qld Health payroll systems disaster. Instead of looking to update their business processes and simplify thousands of awards, they tried to customise an IT syste to deal with that.

      I would argue that a technology think tank, given that it is aware of the past history of many such projects, would be able to help steer politicians away from these kinds of mistakes made in the past.

      In short, I think we’re 100 percent in agreement :)


  11. As with many on this forum, I think this is great idea. We need more intelligent and not so self interested people in politics, preferably leading our political parties.

    What we really need in this country is a political party that has a level of common sense and will listen to not just what experts have to say but also what the public wants. Political parties are all too happy to have “experts” give them ideas, as long as they fit their agenda. The problem is the agenda is often hidden from view, our just plain out of synch with what people want. When was the last time we heard about our government backing its own people ahead of foreign interests?

    • I’m not sure that political party is ever going to exist … by the time they become large enough to have an impact, they have already started compromising too far.

  12. Hi Renai,
    Many thanks for stimulating the debate – and I both agree and disagree.
    I get frustrated that the conversation is so much about telco/broadband and not sufficiently about technology-led innovation and productivity.
    Our rates of multifactor productivity and industry/research collaboration are awful.
    And we do have elements of a think tank in various quarters – such as the Grattan Institute.
    What is missing is a cohesive innovation policy, ala Howard’s Backing Australia’s Ability which alas, Kevin Rudd disbanded, giving us pipedreams like the 2020 Summit instead, and with Terry Cutler’s excellent review into Innovation falling on deaf ears and ending up in the rubbish bin.
    Whilst all of this depressing stuff was going on, the Pearcey Foundation DID propose a think tank – DEESI – a Digital Economy Economics Studies Instittute – a well thought out proposal that neither the government or their departments wanted – what – an influencial independent voice? How dangerous would that be!! No chance of that happening.
    See here for more on DEESI

  13. As someone who worked in both the realm of politics as well as the technological, it has always bugged me just how out of touch with one another the two are. For me, the biggest problem is the conversation (or discourse) around technology. For example, politicians point to some of these govt IT disasters as the incompetence of previous administrations and offer a solution of competency to fix the problem and that becomes the discourse which dominates the discussion, and so any actual discussion into why it really failed is lost.

    Sean talked about our partisan political system and the election cycles but it in my experience overstates just how ideological politicians are. Many are still pragmatic enough to put aside ideological convictions when it is needed. The IPA is very closely aligned ideologically with the Liberal party yet the reality is that many of its classical liberal/libertarian policy suggestions will never make it into Liberal party policy. Another example is the coalition state governments taking on a coalition federal government over Gonski. Even if it is still difficult to sway the politicians, finally having an entity providing a voice to sound technological policy is important in terms of discourse amongst the general public. The IPA for example also targets the public in it’s discussion on Big/Small government and shifting the discourse on certain issues amongst the public to be about the nanny state and excessive government intervention and why should taxpayers fund x,y,z when the free market exists, and they push this through regular contribution in the media.

    That and as was mentioned earlier, there needs to also be a shift in discussion to other important areas of technology policy instead of everything being about broadband and filters.

  14. waterytowers wrote
    “What we really need in this country is a political party that has a level of common sense and will listen to not just what experts have to say but also what the public wants. Political parties are all too happy to have “experts” give them ideas, as long as they fit their agenda.”
    Didn’t the last labor government do that. They started with FTTN then went to FTTH after realising the difficulties with FTTN and talking to the experts.

    • “Didn’t the last labor government do that. They started with FTTN then went to FTTH after realising the difficulties with FTTN and talking to the experts.”

      Correct Bruce and unfortunately the politically motivate FttP opponents lambasted them for doing so, in relation to going to the election with one option and then listening and bettering… yes, makes you wonder doesn’t it :/

  15. Good points Renai and I totally agree with you about the dismal situation in both the IT and communications sector that Australia finds itself in.

    The question I ask though is “what difference would a think tank make?”

    Basically Australia’s political and business leaders simply don’t care. They have no vision for the country’s position in the Twenty-First Century beyond being the entire land mass being foreign owned mine with some negatively geared retirement units clinging to the nice bits at the edge.

    For the politicians it’s the ‘he said, she said’ game where two near identical gangs of clueless apparatchiks fight over who gets the keys to the ministerial dunnies. That in itself is the reason why state IT departments and Federal policies are such a debacle.

    In the commercial sector, most Australian corporations long ago gave up the pretense of competing internationally and now satisfy themselves with extracting maximum rent out of the countless duopolies that control business in this country. The dribblingly incompetent performance of the NBN contractors is a good example of just how poor management in many of these duopolies is today.

    A whole host of intelligent, talented people could put together compelling cases for reform and improvement but I doubt you would get much, if any, support from the business community and – unless you could get Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehart and James Packer to support you – the politicians would simply ignore you.

    To be fair to our business and political leaders, their attitudes only reflect that of Australia’s population. Last week an employee of one US tech firm told me how it was the “great Australian shrug” that drove her to despair while she was based in Australia. She preferred New Zealand as the Kiwis still have a ‘can do’ attitude.

    While the idea is a good one Renai, the problem is far bigger than just the tech sector. Let’s pray our luck lasts.

  16. Hi Renai – this is a great thought-provoking article. With my prior history including being a CEO and Board Member of AIIA, and the Chair of the previous Government’s IT Industry Innovation Council, I can strongly support both the intent of your article and the comments from key industry thinkers like Mark Twoomey, CharlesL and Paul Wallbank..

    I think that the only way to get serious traction with this issue is to frame it in the broader context of the nation’s priorities. It is not, and should not be in any sense pigeon-holed as, an IT industry debate. This is a much broader discussion about the productivity improvement and survival of much of our economy to ensure the current standards of living we already have being maintained.

    Over 75 percent of Australia’s economy is made up of the services industries. Contrary to many public and Govt views, it is not old economy sectors like Mining, Manufacturing and Agriculture that provide the wealth and jobs in this country. Collectively those 3 industries are less than 25 percent of our economy.

    And the BIG problem with the 75 percent of our economy that is made up by the services sectors is that it is rapidly and increasingly trade exposed. With the rise of the global Internet economy domestic services that used to be solely provided within Australia are now easily being superseded by lower cost providers elsewhere in the world – if you want an example to support this then Freelancer’s whole business model is built around this transformation and trust me, it really is only the narrow end of the wedge.

    The only practical way to mitigate this trade exposure is for our local service industry providers to move up the value chain and offer a value proposition which is more attractive than the alternative low cost providers in other countries.

    And the single most critical key to creating that higher value proposition locally is by much more innovative use of technology.

    Technology led innovation has to be the services sector saviour and this has to become a Govt priority sometime soon otherwise the 80 percent of the workforce that work in service industry roles will increasingly be out of work and a burden on our economy. I think there is more chance of getting change through this kind of approach than isolating a technology think tank to focus on pure-play tech issues.

    We need a think tank to get its mind seriously around fundamental fast-changing global economic issues such as this one to really drive the kind of technology leadership change focus we need.

  17. Rather than naming the foundation after a “prominent Australian technologist, how about a prominent Australian technology – CSIRAC?

    Though the name (“CSIRAC foundation”?) may be obscure outside the tech arena, it would at least hint at our capabilities and potential.

  18. Ian, whilst I agree largely with your analysis, with respect it is about time people with an IT focus stop labelling manufacturing as an ‘old economy’ industry. As a case in point, IT Tsar Bill Gates has recently recommended that we all take account of the views expressed in this posting!

    With the advent of additive manufacturing (inc 3D printing) and the likely explosion of devices resulting from the ‘Internet of Things’ revolution, manufacturing and IT are inextricably linked. Also modern manufacturing can best be described as ‘bundled manufactures and manufacture related services’.

    You may also recall that in the post dotcom era, the AIIA, AEEMA and other enlightedindustry associations worked hard and collaboratively to promote the use of the term ‘ICT’ that better described the industry mix. So it was with utter amazement to see the then incoming Labor Government in 2007 revert to establishing an ‘IT Innovation Council’ and the move away from the concept of ICT. I also believe that during the years of the Labor Government, the ‘IT’ industry leaders ‘dropped the ball’ with the result that ICT industry policy simply floundered and lost focus!

    Rather than establishing a ‘think tank’, I have argued consistently that what Australia desperately needs is an economic development board comprising government and industry leaders to map out high level strategies for Australia’s future development. Currently none of the central agencies or portfolios in Canberra are charged with this responsibility, and yet throughout North Asia (and Singapore), the ‘go ahead’ economies excel with this type of governance in place.

  19. There are some really great ideas here in the article and comments.

    A problem is always going to be how you get any form of consensus. The Grattan Institute was mentioned on at least one occasion above. While I’m sure they do a great job in some areas, I also object strongly to some points they make. I’m sure others have similar experiences (for perhaps non-overlapping sets of points).

    Partly this problem seems to be ‘solved’ by paying careful attention to the membership of any think tank group. Here there are many pitfalls. A large one is often the need to have “big name” people often translates to a lot of dead wood. I took an interest in the Prime Minister’s Science Council many years ago and read many of the published presentations made by members of this group to the forum. In several cases it was clear that there was a lot of trumpet blowing going on, but not much to indicate any substantive thought processes.

    I believe that the nation lacks fora where issues can be discussed in wider settings in an efficient manner. All too often we see a huge amount of “white noise”. Various media entities latch on to some of the opportunities this presents, and we have groups such as CommsDay and many others doing a great job of attempting to provide a sensible ‘signal’ sifted out of the noise. However, the success here is limited to the expertise and motivation of the various people involved and things get patchy and disjointed.

    “The Conversation” attempts to cover a broad swathe, but it again suffers from limitations of particular editors and the small pool of “academics” that are allowed to submit stories in some fields. In technology related areas there is a very small pool of people from the academic side of the table that can contribute meaningfully. Eliminating industry and other experts from participating in the conversation means that there is little promise of much of value coming out of that forum on technology matters. The issue is perhaps not that editors aren’t aware that the overall reach of their product could be extended, but where they draw the line, and how they paint the picture to the university sector that funds them.

    I know that some people are now starting to look at how technology can help deliver progress on broad discussion of contentious or difficult topics. I don’t know if a magic bullet is going to appear any time soon, but we might be pleasantly surprised to see some improvements on the basic blog model emerge over the next few years. The interest in this area might be expected to increase as the gloss of facebook and other basic systems diminishes.

    Until something dramatic happens there, perhaps a think-tank model is the best option. Funding is obviously an issue, and I think others have already made relevant comments there.

    With my pessimist’s hat on I can state that I attend enough events where problems are identified that obviously require many extant groups to work together closely to drive toward solutions. Yet it is rare for this to ever happen. Most groups have their own agendas and we don’t seem to have quite enough cooperative spirit at times in thinking about the common good.

    With the optimist’s hat on I see lots of people genuinely concerned about the future of the nation/world and willing to put in an effort to improve matters. Let’s do it!

  20. In my view, Australia has enough ‘think tanks’ per se, but we do need institutions such as The Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering which have the track record to undertake major project work in the areas of new industry development and technology diffusion.

    What we also need is a commitment by a grouping of technology-focused SME leaders to commit both time and resources (i.e. real money) to work together collaboratively on these industry-led ‘industrialisation’ projects. If industry leaders can be identified to undertake this task, and to convince governments of their commitment, it is more than likely that program funding could be made available to match industry investments.

    We also need to convince governments to fund ‘product realisation centres’ to benefit collaborating SMEs as a parallel program to the existing CRC arrangements which are focused on assisting R&D institutions such as the Universities and CSIRO etc

    It is time for action and industry-led commitment!


  21. Fantastic proposal! would very much like to see this get off the ground. would a policy group such as this also research and discuss the ethical and social impact of private, government and defense technologies including the public perception of them such as the use of UAV?, or the introduction of automated vehicles and their impact on employment in the transport industry or would it only look at their physical integration and economic benefit?

Comments are closed.