Gershon slams govt technocrats

Gershon slams govt technocrats

Summary: British efficiency expert Sir Peter Gershon has suggested agency budget cuts totalling $540 million, castigating the federal public sector for poor governance mechanisms on technology projects and an ICT spending model which gave individual departments and agencies too much autonomy.


British efficiency expert Sir Peter Gershon has suggested agency budget cuts totalling $540 million, castigating the federal public sector for poor governance mechanisms on technology projects and an ICT spending model which gave individual departments and agencies too much autonomy.

In a landmark report closely examining the Federal Government's use of technology, delivered late yesterday, Gershon wrote the current model came close to treating many agencies "as though they were independent private sector entities".

The efficiency specialist, who was appointed by finance and deregulation minister Lindsay Tanner to review the sector in April this year, said this led to "sub-optimal outcomes in the context of prevailing external trends, financial returns, and the objectives of the current government".

Razor: Gershon and Tanner

Sir Peter Gershon and Lindsay Tanner.
(Credit: Brian Hartigan)

Despite the existence of the Australian Government Information Management Office led by federal CIO Ann Steward, which aims to coordinate agencies' use of IT, Gershon concluded there was weak governance of pan-government issues relating to IT.

Agencies, he wrote, not only had weak governance mechanisms in terms of their ability to manage ICT-enabled projects, but also did not subject their business-as-usual IT support funding to sufficient scrutiny.

One urgent issue was the lack of a whole-of-government strategic plan for the use of datacentres; Gershon wrote that the absence of such a plan meant the government as a whole would be forced into a series of ad-hoc investments over the next 15 years that could cost taxpayers more than $1 billion more than it should.

Other issues included the fact that the government marketplace for buying goods and services was "neither efficient nor effective", and that there was a "significant disconnect between the government's overall sustainability agenda and its ability to understand and manage energy costs and the carbon footprint of its ICT estate".

The solution
In the report, Gershon recommended what he described as "a major program of both administrative reform and cultural change" to fix the problems.

For starters, the expert said agencies covered by the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 should reduce their use of contractors by 50 per cent over a two-year period and increase in-house staff numbers, saving $100 million; create a ICT career structure; develop a whole of government ICT workforce plan, and develop a 10-15-year datacentre plan.

Such agencies that had business-as-usual ICT budgets north of $20 million should also have those budgets cut by 15 per cent over two years, along with a shift to spend more money on projects. Those with budgets between $2 million and $20 million could have their budgets sliced by 7.5 per cent over the same period. This could save a total of $540 million, with the money to be transferred to a central fund for reinvestment in projects to improve business-as-usual activities.

At the strategic level, Gershon recommended a ministerial committee on ICT be established to support whole of government initiatives, as well as a secretaries' ICT governance board, and a common methodology created to assess agency capability to manage ICT-enabled projects. A sustainability plan would also be created.

All of this, according to Gershon, would not come easy. "Based on my experience of creating sustainable change in the UK public sector there are two critical requirements which will determine the success of proposed program," he wrote, citing drive from ministers and top public servants, as well as the availability of proper funding and skills resources as the critical factors.

Tanner said in a statement that without pre-empting the report's impact in Cabinet, it formed "an excellent basis" for implementing a series of changes for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of government technology use.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Topics: Government, Government AU

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  • It's NO surprise!

    Why should anyone be surprised with the outcome of yet another waste of public money, for a report whose contents are self evident!

    Politicians invariably need the conviction of an external consultant before they will act to save huge sums.

    Bureaucracies will not save money...ever! It diminishes their feeling of self importance.

    Professor Parkinson's laws come to mind. See the list here..

    The behaviour of government bureaucracies also invokes the vision of the well known television series...."Yes Minister". Our current crop of politicians may be to young to remember it.

    Will the minister do anything constructive with this report ?

    I doubt it!
  • Commitment to Open Source & Open Standards a Start

    A very good starting point would be a SERIOUS commitment across all govt for departments to have a minimum of 30% of their workstations on Open Source by end of 2010. Also Open Office should be the standard office configuration by the same time. Then the target should be >60% by 2012. From that date on, departments should get end-of-life exemptions from the CIO's office to keep older legacy systems on proprietary OS.

    Separately, all depts should be required to accept (as first preference) ISO-format documents (ie Open Document format rather than M$ Word) for submissions, and those posted on web-sites as available for downloading by the public, by end of 2010. That will get a huge multiplier effect happening, where all the public-sector hang-on industries also start to migrate from proprietary to open standards. PDF should remain an option, for when documents do not need further editing (even though PDF is technically 'proprietary', it has a far lesser impact on software licence fees sent overseas, and far less 'lock-in', compared to proprietary word processing formats).

    With that sort of commitment, we'd get the departments shelving plans for Vista, and starting to concentrate on how they can have simple Linux workstations with just the right set of pre-installed applications, use Open Office, and generally make significant savings in both licensing and total support costs.
  • Accountability key

    "Gershon slams govt Technocrats" is inaccurate. If Gershon is saying that Commonwealth IT is poorly managed (which may or may not be true, depending on agency, but the isolated examples he gives do not make a case), he should be sheeting home some accountability to those who have been given the responsibility. In traditional bureaucratic fashion, rather than "name and shame" or replace the non-performers, he proposes across the board bureaucratic controls and costs upon the good and bad performers alike.

    Can anyone seriously propose that ATO, Centrelink or Defence suffer because of lack of whole-of-government economies of scale? It is more the case that their very size presents management challenges. We have been down the central planning road before, without outstanding success
  • Governance versus acountablity

    Accountability is not governance. Governance is end-to-end and is strategic, accountability is stove-piped and operational. This debate is required so that a demarkation between strategic and operational management can be more understood and derive better organisational structures and operational workflows.

    The following article from the world bank highlights this emerging argument and is one of the first to extract the essence of governance versus accountability.

    AS for the organisation's you have quoted, only the ATO has improved it services to Australians through better use of technology and re-using information.

    Defence and Centrelink are hardly effective orgnisations with a series of multi million projects going down the gurgler, like EDGE in Centrelink and the Defence document management and data ware housing projects.

    In fact Defence and Centrelink's lack of transparency (they'll put a lid on it if they can get away with it approach) provide great examples for why there was a Gershon report.

    Yes, I am an auditor by trade and have seen the smoke and mirrors.