Farr the reformer talks Defence

Summary:A year from taking on perhaps the toughest IT job in the country, Defence chief information officer Greg Farr is staring down the barrel of a massive ICT reform agenda for 2009 that will reveal whether Defence got the "expert CIO" they needed.

More than a year into taking on perhaps the toughest IT job in the country, Defence chief information officer Greg Farr is staring down the barrel of a massive ICT reform agenda for 2009 that will reveal whether Defence got the "expert CIO" they needed.


Defence CIO: Greg Farr
(Credit: Australian Defence)

Farr finds it easy to recall the day he took up his Defence post: 19 November 2007. "I always remember that day. It's my daughter's birthday," he tells ZDNet.com.au four days before Christmas.

"I can't believe it's been 12 months. I'm not sure where it all went, but it's been fascinating," he says of his first year as Defence's technology chief.

When accepting the Defence role, Farr left a long-standing position as the Australian Taxation Office's second commissioner, where he had overseen the now $724 million Change Agenda (previously the Change Program), which in 2005 — due to its scale and complexity — became his sole focus. Farr had also led the overhaul of the agency's $1.8 billion in outsourcing contracts tied up under a 10-year agency-wide deal with Texan giant EDS.

The gig was one of the most prestigious in the country. And while the move to Defence was perhaps a natural progression in Farr's career, given his commitment to public service, it has not surprisingly proven a wildly different beast to wrangle. Besides overseeing the needs of 110,000 users within Defence — as opposed to 26,000 at the ATO — and Defence's history of troubled technology projects, Farr says there was a more basic hurdle to overcome: language.

"I have started to learn the Defence acronyms, which means I can at least have a sensible conversation and understand what people say to me," he says of his greatest achievements since joining.

His other great achievement though, gets to the heart of why he was hired. "I think, when I came into the job, there was recognition for the need for reform. In the past 12 months we have been able to plot out a viable way forward," he says.

At the outset, Farr knew what he wanted to fix: Defence's HR system, IT project management and procurement processes, and the lack of an overall IT architecture strategy. The question remained how would Defence go about it.

Much of Farr's work had in fact been laid out months prior to his appointment when the then Defence Minister Brendan Nielson released the Defence Management Review in mid-2007. It roundly thumped Defence's handling of IT over the past years.

The review was the catalyst that led to Farr's eventual appointment. By the time it came out, Farr's predecessor, two-star ranked Air Vice Marshal John Monaghan, had resigned, with acting CIO Peter Lambert temporarily filling his shoes.

The review recommended Defence urgently hire an "expert CIO" and that the candidate be given a three-star rank, putting them one notch below chief of the Defence Force and on par with the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

In the past 12 months we have been able to plot out a viable way forward

Defence CIO Greg Farr

Despite the prestige of the role, however, the international search which spanned the public and private sectors proved difficult, especially within the latter sphere. Not only did Defence want someone who had successfully steered mammoth and risky IT projects, but someone willing to forgo private sector salaries.

And it's not hard to see why, when Farr's few-hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year salary is compared to the multi-million dollar packages offered to technology chiefs in the banking and retail sectors. CommBank's CIO, Michael Harte, for example, was remunerated $2.7 million last year.

But fortunately for Defence, Farr, a veteran of the public sector who had been with the ATO for 23 years, didn't see the pay as an obstacle.

"Look, you make your choices as a public servant", says Farr pragmatically. "Clearly I would like to be paid five times the amount, but I am not going to get that here. I'm really happy with what there is and what we can achieve here, so I'm very satisfied."

While his wage is far from paltry, if you saw the CIO in a shop reaching for a bottle of wine, which along with motorbikes is one of his top pleasures in life, it probably wouldn't be Grange.

"I'm rather partial to red wine, and we've been drinking a bit of the Wolf Blass Grey Label (around $40 per bottle) recently... Because it's been on special," he jokes.

Farr also brushes aside any argument that taking on Defence was crazy. To the contrary, he says he would have been "crazy not to".

"Truly, from an IT perspective, I can't think of a more interesting, challenging but rewarding job. You're genuinely working for the public interest in an area that is very complex and that is very reliant on IT," he says. "I reckon it is as good as it gets."

2008: A year of self-examination
If Farr loves the taste of complexity then this year is set to be sumptuous for the technology chief, thanks to a series of reviews over the past year that will set the agenda for major ICT reform within Defence.

"We have had a lot of reviews," says Farr of 2008.

Four major reviews were thrust upon Defence's CIO Group last year. Besides the Mortimer Review of the Defence Material Organisation (DMO), which interrogated Defence's use of technology in a military context, there was also the Gershon review of federal agencies' $6 billion spend on ICT.

Farr says he had a number of discussions with Sir Peter Gershon and reckons his recommendations seem "perfectly sensible". Defence has also been critical to the early stages of Gershon's strategy: positioning Defence as the lead agency to negotiate pricing for Microsoft licences across the public sector produced an early win that, on the surface, suggested a new paradigm had been ushered in by Gershon.

Truly, from an IT perspective, I can't think of a more interesting, challenging but rewarding job

Defence CIO Greg Farr

Questions remain, however, about how Defence would be able to participate in interoperability efforts recommended by Gershon. There are limits, according to Farr. Any question over Defence's involvement needs to be weighed against demands for interoperability between other international defence agencies.

"While interoperability amongst government agencies is important to us, interoperability with our allies is perhaps even more important," he says.

"Interoperability is clearly high on the agenda. We are seldom in the theatre of war when we don't have allies of some description in the same theatre with us. Our ability to operate with them is very important."

Other reviews still on Defence's menu for 2009 are the Pappas Defence budget audit, and by April 2009 the Rudd Government is expected to deliver its first Defence Whitepaper outlining its strategic imperatives until 2030. It will be a landmark whitepaper for CIO Group, says Farr: for the first time it will cover support systems and information technology.

"All those things have come together in the last year. And they will come together into what I think will be a fairly major reform agenda for Defence ICT next year," he says.

Next page: 2009 — the year ahead.

Topics: CXO, Government, Government : AU


Liam Tung is an Australian business technology journalist living a few too many Swedish miles north of Stockholm for his liking. He gained a bachelors degree in economics and arts (cultural studies) at Sydney's Macquarie University, but hacked (without Norse or malicious code for that matter) his way into a career as an enterprise tech, s... Full Bio

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