commentary It's taken a few months, but the public
sector in Canberra has finally roused from its long slumber and is
buzzing like a hive of angry bees as it debates what the practical
implications of Sir Peter Gershon's review will be.
The British efficiency expert was hand-picked by freshly
appointed Finance and Deregulation Minister Lindsay Tanner in April
2008 to run a ruler over Federal Government technology spending and
usage, with the aim of cutting the fat which John Howard's team
had presumably left lying around.
There's just one problem with all of this commotion: it's
simply a flashy bit of window dressing disguising what most public
servants and vendors know to be a fact: the long-term net impact of
Gershon's idealistic review will realistically be negligible at
The long-term net impact of Gershon's idealistic review will realistically be negligible at best.
At worst, it will prove to be a distraction for years to
Of course, many of the recommendations Gershon laid out in his review make sense and bear serious consideration. For example, one of the most concrete proposals — to unify government use of datacentres — follows similar moves by NSW. Bringing whole of government weight to bear on pricey vendors is never a bad thing. And ITIL = good.
The overall problem, though, stems from the British expert's blinkered approach
to analysing federal government agencies (and who could blame him,
given the little time he spent on the ground in Canberra).
Gershon's central finding, that the Federal Government suffers
from weak governance of ICT at a whole-of-government level, due to
very high levels of agency autonomy, simply reflects the reality
that ICT functions necessarily remain focused on serving the needs
of their own departments (and particularly the demands of
department chief executives).
For example, answering to Centrelink's CEO Finn Pratt, it's obvious that chief information officer John Wadeson, who operates an IT operation the size of a bank, will maintain his primary focus on keeping those systems functional at any cost.
Each agency has very specific requirements. For example,
although Defence CIO Greg Farr has described Gershon's
recommendations as "perfectly sensible", the ATO veteran has also
pointed out there are limits to how far Defence can go.
"While interoperability amongst government agencies is
important to us, interoperability with our allies is perhaps even
more important," he said in December, referring to his
department's counterpart forces in the US, UK and so on.
To expect these huge agencies (or even much smaller ones) to
substantially change their approach to IT issues to meet onerous
new requirements stemming from what AGIMO appears to be positioning
as its new, superhero-style expanded powers is simply
Broadly speaking, attempts by Australian states such as NSW,
Victoria, Queensland and South Australia to control government
spending through the use of whole-of-government chief information
officers have achieved limited success.
One of the reasons the contractors were brought in, in the first place was to remedy poor performance on the part of public sector IT workers.
Then there's Gershon's call to cut vast numbers of ICT
contractors and replace them with permanent public servants.
As many people have noted, one of the reasons the contractors
were brought in, in the first place was to remedy poor performance
on the part of public sector IT workers.
Queries have shown most agencies have no plans to
follow Department of Immigration and Citizenship CIO Bob Correll's move to replace as many as
60 contractors with APS staff, and even that initiative looks like a
token effort when compared to the thousands of IT contractors DIAC
But while AGIMO, the vendors and Tanner try to make as much
political capital out of the Gershon football as they can until the
issue goes away, this writer's suggestion to federal government IT
workers, contractors and managers is to keep their heads down and
get on with the job.