Budget 2014: A technology road to nowhere

By leaving all the technology programs to next year, the Australian federal government is left dragging the chain on initiatives it should be undertaking.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

On a pure technology front, the report delivered by the Commission of Audit at the start of the end was decent and somewhat practical.

Among its 64 recommendations were calls for the government to move online at a faster rate, look at replacing aging departmental IT infrastructure, and to use big data to help the government be more efficient.

The only technology-related recommendation out of the Audit that the federal government looks to be moving towards over the next fiscal year is the recommendation to privatise the Royal Australian Mint, and ready NBN Co for its own private funding and sale. As part of its first federal budget, the Abbott government last night announced that it would not be providing any further equity injections for NBN Co after mid-2018, leaving the company responsible for the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) relying on private funding in 48 months time to complete the network.

As far as infrastructure was concerned on Tuesday night, the government produced a glossy 48-page booklet highlighting its tarmac and sleeper spending; investments in technology were limited to one supercomputer for the Bureau of Meteorology, and reaching the government's AU$29.5b NBN funding cap.

What emerges post-budget is a situation where the spendthrift Commission of Audit is more technically forward thinking than the government of the day.

In its report, the Commission called for the government to adopt a "cloud-first" strategy, which would lead to lower IT cost over the next three to five years. Given the trajectory and medium-term savings littered throughout its budget, this is exactly the sort of program that should be front and centre for modernising the public service and lowering costs.

"There is limited value in collecting electronic information from citizens to feed into manual processes in departments," the report said. "A reliance on bespoke, legacy systems, concerns about the security and privacy of placing public data in the cloud, and general risk aversion all impede progress."

Replying to the Commission's report last night, Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said that cloud computing would be "considered following the 2014-15 Budget".

On almost every front opened by the Commission, the government shut down any progress by deferring its decision until next year: Options for replacing the Department of Human Services' buckling payment system will be considered after the budget; changing the government's procurement strategies is deferred as well; reforms on how government utilises and analyses its data collections can wait for another day; e-Government is similarly on the back burner. One of the lucky recommendations from the Commission to make it into the budget was changing the government's corporate services and systems, initial reforms were made in this year's budget, with other changes left for another day.

To add icing to the government's IT spending cake, the budget made clear that in two years time, National ICT Australia (NICTA) would need to find its own funding arrangements, and the government's decision to axe Commerialisation Australia has gone down like a lead balloon with local industry.

While it's one thing to argue that NICTA should partner with the private sector to help fund itself, it's quite another to remove all public funding from what is meant to be a research agency. NICTA's new reality is that from mid-2016, every research path it heads down better lead to a pot of gold or corporate funding, otherwise, it's the end of the line.

Perhaps the affected folks at NICTA and the CSIRO should head into medical research. As a government that claims to be against picking winners, it's put AU$20b worth of eggs into the medical research basket, and damn any other research, especially research for research's sake.

It's a good thing that despite what the budget reveals, the Department of Finance is pushing on with cloud-based initiatives that will help the public service.

In a recent blog post, Australian government CTO, John Sheridan revealed that the government intends to find itself a service provider that will be responsible for its Government Content Management System (GovCMS), with the first GovCMS site slated to launch in September

"Our preference is for Software-as-a-Service on Public Cloud, using Open Source Drupal software," Sheridan wrote. "Many small agencies do not have the resources to ensure that Commonwealth website standards around security accreditation and accessibility obligations are maintained."

Thank goodness that despite the lack of movement at the top, and the recent dismantling of the Australian government's CIO position that would have presumably led the charge in bringing the government and its services into the 21st century, that there are still good, sensible, and cost-saving projects going in the bowels of Canberra.

We are heading into dark times for technology companies looking to get off the ground in this country. The federal government is focused on the infrastructure and businesses of last century, and the clear opportunities to bring the government and its interactions with citizens into the present day are not being seized.

May Sheridan and his lone project strike a rich vein of success, it appears to be the only modern project we've have for the next twelve months.

If only we could find a way to make cars travel on the internet, then Hockey and Cormann would be tripping over themselves to fund the project.

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