​Taskforce launched to open Commonwealth IT contracts to startups

The Australian government is calling on feedback from the tech industry on how to make government IT contracts more accessible to 'small innovators'.

The Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has established an ICT Procurement Taskforce in a bid to make government IT contracts more accessible to "small innovators", such as startups.

Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation Angus Taylor has called on technology companies, startups, and providers with a digital focus to provide feedback on how to best remove the barriers for startups and SMEs to win government work -- worth an annual value of AU$5 billion.

"We've got to let the outside in; government needs to be porous. We need to open up our IT contracts to smaller players to solve government problems," Taylor said.

"How we work, how we buy goods and services, how we communicate, is being transformed by digital technology. Government is committed to improving the lives of all Australians through more effective digital services -- the opportunity is too great to ignore."

The minister said procurement is the main gateway for the technology sector to provide solutions to government, noting that it also allows government to capitalise on emerging technology.

"This gateway needs to be open and streamlined so that new technologies can be deployed quickly to improve public services," he added.

The taskforce builds on the government's Digital Marketplace initiative, announced under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda.

The Digital Marketplace was launched in April, and aims to give startups the opportunity to access an online catalogue of services, people, and technology that could assist the government with service transformation.

"We're keen to open this up to smaller and newly established businesses who have traditionally found it too big a burden to prove their credentials to government. There have been too many hoops to jump through, so they simply haven't bothered to apply for government ICT work," former Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne said previously.

"That's a lost opportunity, because we know lots of businesses are on the cutting edge of digital innovation and can provide exciting solutions for governments to deliver better services at a lower cost."

The newly formed Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) is now responsible for the Digital Marketplace, having scooped up the initiative after swallowing the Digital Transformation Office (DTO), which was established early last year to unify government agencies and services online.

Of key importance to the DTA is the focus on one of four principles outlined in Turnbull's innovation agenda, which is the government leading as an exemplar when it comes to innovation, in particular, its procurement practices.

Within seven months of the 2015-16 financial year, the Australian government publicly tendered for cloud services to the tune of AU$27 million, surpassing the entire 2014-15 spend of AU$25 million.

In a bid to make it easier for government departments and agencies to procure a cloud-based solutions provider, the government established a Cloud Services Panel as part of a whole-of-government digital strategy, initially led by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. This was after it was revealed that despite the government spending over AU$5 billion per year on IT, the total procurement of cloud services by federal agencies since mid-2010 came to just AU$4.7 million.

"The panel aims to offer agencies scalable and flexible cloud services via industry offerings, and do so in a way that reduces the burden on industry," the government's chief technology officer John Sheridan said previously.

To date, the cloud services panel has signed up around 100 preferred vendors, with the likes of Microsoft, Datacom, IBM, and Macquarie Telecom among the first to get on board.

"We'd signed 55 up in the first two weeks, because we had shared with them the contractual arrangements previously and were able to very quickly get them into offering services," Sheridan said in February. "So far in 2015-16, we've had AU$2.6 million of purchasing off this panel.

"It's not mandatory and people don't have to use it; it's just aimed at making things easier."

It was announced in August that Australia would be adopting an internationally aligned standard for IT accessibility in government, requiring vendors at the procurement stage to offer accessible website, software, and digital device services.

The standard, Accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services, is a Direct Text Adoption of European Standard EN 301 549 and establishes a minimum standard to ensure that all Australians can access information and use services electronically by public authorities and other public sector agencies.

The government expects the new standard will be used by all levels of government when determining technical specifications for the procurement of accessible IT products and services, including computer software and hardware, telecommunications, and office equipment such as printers, photocopiers, and scanners.

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