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Government

Gershon pumpkin will vanish at midnight

The long-term net impact of Gershon's idealistic review will realistically be negligible at best and at worst will prove to be a distraction for years to come.
Written by Renai LeMay, Contributor
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ZDNet.com.au
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Renai LeMay

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.

After conducting much of his review remotely from the United Kingdom, Gershon handed in the report in late August, which was released to the public in mid-October. In late November, Tanner announced that the Cabinet would back the report's recommendations in full.

In other words, after 10 months of debate and analysis, we're now getting to the pointy end of the initiative. Such is the speed of change in Australia's public sector.

The queen bee in the debate is the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO), the agency most obviously tasked with implementing the recommendations stemming from Gershon's opus, but Tanner himself, as well as IT contractors' organisations and vendor representatives like the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) are all having their say.

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 best.

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 come.

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 unrealistic.

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.

As analyst group Longhaus recently noted about the Queensland public sector, despite these moves, the ICT power-brokers in government remain the agency CIOs ... after all, they're the ones that actually spend money.

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 employs annually.

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.

But then, isn't that what they always do?

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