How dirty is Victoria Police's laundry?

When you really get down to it, former Victoria Police chief information officer Valda Berzins and her offsider John Brown aren't so different from many other IT managers in the public sector.
Written by Renai LeMay, Contributor

ZDNet.com.au news editor
Renai LeMay

(Credit: CBS Interactive)

commentary If there was a celebrity gossip magazine for chief information officers, right now disgraced former Victoria Police CIO Valda Berzins would be plastered all over the cover with a scandalous splash of red ink.

The headline would be something like: "REVEALED: The sordid tale of contract irregularities and vendor perks that brought down a high-flying police IT chief".

On page five the salacious details would start, paired with candid shots of Berzins escaping from the Melbourne headquarters of Victoria Police, briefcase held up before her face in an attempt to prevent the pursuing paparazzi from getting her image in print.

ZDNet.com.au's own version of the facts was somewhat more sedate, in keeping with our more sober look at the ins and outs of IT management in Australia.

However, there is no doubt that contained in the pages of the Victorian ombudsman's report into the mismanagement of Victoria Police's IT department — released publicly yesterday as a PDF — is a scandal that will keep Australian IT workers glued to its pages.

The gory details are all there, complete with splashes of glamour. For example, the ombudsman spared no trouble at finding out exactly what IBM and Tibco did to court the favour of Berzins and her lieutenant John Brown, as per the following table:


(Credit: Victorian Ombudsman)

The two IT chiefs also attended events by Fujitsu and Kaz. But they didn't always get what they wanted.

"I also note," wrote the ombudsman, "that on 26 November 2007, Fujitsu apologised to Mr Brown by email for not including two senior BITS staff on a river cruise. It was explained that places were limited and that the company had arranged for the two staff to be hosted at a cricketer's luncheon."

The details of the pair's mismanagement of massive IT contracts and migration planning is even more entertaining. In one case, wrote the ombudsman, Victoria Police's figures about a deal worth more than $27 million were "largely based on a handwritten note" handed in by Brown several months after he had resigned.

In another example (which features some fairly complicated horse trading between Victoria Police and the vendors), Berzins told Brown to "just do it" when he was asked where to find more than $16 million in a funding gap after the final value of a new contract emerged.

And, of course, there were the contracts that were not put out to tender but just given force by Berzins and her team, with some achieving exemptions from the normal government tendering processes, which were perhaps inappropriate.

However, while many might be thinking it, nobody has yet publicly made the point that Berzins and Brown's behaviour wasn't that unusual for their positions in government.

When you really get down to the nitty-gritty of the pair's administration of IT services to Victoria Police (and there is no doubt that the ombudsman's report goes into excruciating detail), it's apparent that the sort of practices they are vilified for (examined as individual cases) are more or less common in Australia's public sector.

Over the last five years, during my time as a full-time technology journalist, I've witnessed numerous cases where major government technology deals haven't been properly put out to tender or had their details hushed up.

It's also relatively normal for CIOs to play vendors off each other in an attempt to get the best deal possible.

There's a lot of "horse trading" that goes on between CIOs and vendors, and in the end nobody is under any illusions that it's all about "fair value" on paper from the formal tender process. To think so would be to be naive.

The same goes for the so-called "perks" that the Victoria Police staff received. I would challenge anyone to find a CIO who hasn't been taken out to lunch, to a special event like the Melbourne Cup or a football match several times by one of the big vendors.

Frankly, it's unlikely that these favours really do much to influence the whole procurement process, but are instead usually a fairly transparent way to loosen up a bit with potential business partners and work out if you can really trust them to hold to the letter and the spirit of any future contracts.

In the private sector, which often doesn't even bother at a pretence of adhering to "proper" tendering processes, all of these practices are considered fairly normal.

There is also much to be said for what appeared to be one of their main motivations behind their behaviour: trying to speed up the slow government procurement process by skipping some of its more onerous tasks.

Berzins and Brown just took the whole thing to extremes, and made the mistake of letting their incompetency get to such a ridiculous point where there was no choice but to take the honourable choice and resign.

None of this does anything to excuse what they did, and government CIOs should pay close attention to the stiff lesson that has been dealt to Victoria Police's IT department.

But it does go some way towards understanding that Berzins and Brown are hardly the devils everyone is currently making them out to be — not when their colleagues at other departments are hardly saints.

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