Focus on costs held back online services: Australian govt CIO

The Australian government CIO says the Gershon Review reinforced a culture that sees IT as a cost to be minimised, rather than a source of productivity and higher-quality services. That's a culture he says he's working to change.
Written by Tim Lohman, Contributor

Australian government CIO Glenn Archer has questioned the wisdom of the Gershon Review of government IT spending, suggesting that its focus on driving down government IT spending has come at a cost.

Speaking to ZDNet, Archer said the implementation of the cost-cutting recommendations of the Gershon Review resulted in an on-average 10 percent reduction in IT spend across federal government agencies.

However, the focus on reducing IT costs had come at a price, particularly around agencies' ability to meet growing demand among Australians for online government services in particular, Archer said.

"The [review recommendation] that attracted most people's attention was the cuts that were applied to IT budgets within agencies," he said. "There is no doubt that that returned significant savings to the budget.

"[But] the Gershon Review essentially created an emphasis or a focus, as it were, on ICT as a cost centre — not ICT as a deliverer of productivity gains or efficiencies in delivering service.

"Potentially, that compromised the ability of agencies to build and deploy new online services and capabilities because they faced the situation where their otherwise discretionary budgets were reduced."

Despite the pronounced fiscal conservativeness of the current government, Archer said he is working with the new administration to help change perceptions of IT spending and investment.

"There has to be a sense that we need to shift the emphasis on ICT as a cost centre to ICT as a source of productivity," he said.

"There is absolutely no doubt that there will continue to be a need to focus on costs, but the challenge for me, and for agencies, is to craft business cases that are brought forward to government that clearly identify what the benefits will be derived from making clever investments in ICT.

"That has always been the challenge, but the challenge is probably heightened. What I would like to think is that there is a shift in emphasis with the new [government IT] policy to focus on productivity."

Archer's comments follow a keynote speech given at the Gov.Innovate conference in Canberra this week where he argued the case for significant policy changes and practical improvements in the Australian Government's use of ICT.

AGIMO to review past IT projects

Archer said that AGIMO has also been asked by the Coalition government to begin reviewing IT investments made under the past Labor government in an effort to better realise the original benefits of technology projects, as well as avoid mistakes with any future investments.

"[AGIMO] will investigate the investments made over the last three years," he said. "There is a specific action for us to work with other areas of finance to try and delve into major ICT investments over the last three years, and better identify the benefits which were originally foreshadowed and see if they have been achieved."

Archer said the reviewing role is not something AGIMO has undertaken in the past. However, it would be an important function for the agency.

"It will allow us to identify where there is either a shortcoming in the business plan, and to reflect on other proposals coming forward," he said. "[AGIMO] will look to work with agencies to see whether we can recover, as it were, either some of that investment, or better still, achieve the original aim.

Archer said that the request to assess past IT projects is not an audit per se, but rather an informal reviewing process aimed at improving the value of past investments.

"The word audit has been used, but an audit is a bit too formal of a word," he said. "We are trying to really identify whether the original business objectives have been achieved, and the gains realised. If they haven't, then work out how we can address that."

Commenting on the announcement that the government would create an IT advisory panel to provide private sector advice on IT, Archer said the initiative is an acknowledgement that the public sector is not the "source of all wisdom" on technology.

"We recognise that, particularly in relation to areas of innovation and emerging technologies, that it is often commercial parties or the new players that are most able to help guide our thinking about how we can utilise new technologies, and avoid having existing plans compromised by emerging technology," he said.

Editorial standards