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.
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.