Customs CIO: When vendors say 'innovation', run

Australian Customs' CIO, Murray Harrison, says service level agreements (SLAs) don't work in outsourcing arrangements and when vendors use the term "innovation", their suggestions generally works against the interests of the customer.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Australian Customs Services CIO, Murray Harrison, says service level agreements (SLAs) don't work in outsourcing arrangements and that when vendors use the word "innovation", it rarely benefits the customer.

Speaking at the Gartner Symposium yesterday, Harrison reflected on the department's shift towards multi-sourcing following the conclusion of its 10-year single-supplier outsourcing arrangement with EDS.

"It has been a journey that has not been a short one," said Harrison.

Three years ago, when Customs entered crisis-mode, suppliers showed they were able to unite under the banner of their customer, said Harrison -- an attitude he wants to see consistently from suppliers.

"It didn't matter where they were from, but who had the skills to resolve the issue, regardless if they were from IBM or EDS ... The question is how to achieve that one team approach," he said.

"There are a number of providers and when they come in the door, you put on a Customs IT hat. I don't need to know where you're from," he added.

Like the South Australian Government, and the Australian Tax Office, Customs axed its single-supplier outsourcing arrangement with EDS, which had been in place since 1998.

Now EDS only has a stake in Customs' application development and support, which it shares with Telstra-owned IT services outfit, KAZ. Customs' LAN and desktop services have been retained in-house, while it awarded its mainframe and datacentre work to IBM, its internal voice infrastructure to Telstra, and Internet and secure gateway to Verizon Business.

Rather than rely on service level agreements (SLAs) to manage vendors, Customs' suppliers now face between 15 to 20 percent risk on work delivered, which is assessed against a scorecard every six months. If suppliers fail to achieve a score of 80 percent, twice in succession, penalties follow, said Harrison.

"SLAs don't work. SLAs are open to management discussion and don't affect people providing services at the front counter," he said.

Harrison also warned the audience that when vendors mention "innovation", it rarely benefits the customer.

"When I've heard the word 'innovation' used, and asked how we're going to achieve it, I've never seen it work. Innovation rarely comes from the vendor. Innovation tends to work against the interests of the customer," he said.

While Customs has improved its ability to manage its suppliers, Harrison said determining savings from outsourcing is still a challenge purely because the entire environment changes over time. "You can't measure the world you left," he said.

However if cost savings are the only goal behind outsourcing, that is not a solution, said Harrison. "You need business outcomes, improved service delivery and to deal with staff shortages."

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