Let's follow Gershon finally, with education

Just over two years ago, British government efficiency expert Sir Peter Gershon delivered his report on the Australian Government's use of IT.

commentary Just over two years ago, British government efficiency expert Sir Peter Gershon delivered his report on the Australian Government's use of IT.

Gershon's finding was blunt — that the Australian Government had weak governance of IT. As a direct result of this weak governance, the Australian Government was inefficient in its use of IT, with what he called Business as Usual Expenditure (BAU) being too high and a poor record of success in using IT to transform and improve the machinery of government.

Gershon said that improvement would require a substantial and sustained change in culture, particularly at the top of the Australian Public Service.

While the Australian Government nominally accepted all of Gershon's recommendations, and went ahead aggressively to begin implementation, it was soon clear to an interested arm's length observer that the implementation would be focusing not on the full set of seven recommendations, and not on the cultural change, but on the more technically specific measures required to achieve a significant one-off reduction in BAU expenditure.

An opportunity for Infonomics to provide advice on governance to one government agency during late 2009 and early 2010 eliminated the arm's length restriction and delivered confirmation that there was little, if anything being done to advance either of the first two recommendations delivered by Gershon — to improve pan-government governance and to improve agency-level governance of IT.

Subsequently in August 2010, the government announced that the 50 per cent of BAU savings intended for reinvestment were now to be used in non-IT initiatives. The grapevine indicated that the calibre of reinvestment proposals was so weak and technology-focused that there was really no point saving the money for IT-enabling purposes.

Gershon recommended an independent review of progress and this task was duly assigned to Dr Ian Reinecke. Reinecke consulted industry and government personnel to form his view of the status of action on the Gershon Report. His report, dated June 2010, but only released during November, essentially says that implementation to date has focused principally on technology and expenditure issues, and has delivered no discernible improvement in the essential issues of top-level governance and leadership.

That's not a surprise, but it should be a matter of considerable concern. The gap identified by Gershon and now reconfirmed by Reinecke is one of vision, strategy and leadership. Without highly effective governance arrangements at the top to set the vision for the Australian Government's use of IT (as an enabler to the most effective, efficient and acceptable delivery of government services to the nation), there can be no expectation that either spending cuts are properly targeted and appropriate, or that the most appropriate mix of initiatives and the most appropriately structured IT-enabled capability development initiatives will be undertaken.

It's not hard to understand how the current situation has arisen. Truly effective pan-government governance of IT, with appropriate leadership at a ministerial level and a diligent translation of vision into strategy at the secretaries' level requires, as Gershon identified, a significant change in culture. It requires:

  • A major reorientation on responsibility for IT, with significant take-up of responsibility by government business leaders and an equal relinquishing of responsibility by government technical leaders;
  • A new approach to developing vision and strategy which goes beyond paving established paths with new tools, to radically redefine the machinery of government and in doing so change the boundaries of the traditional fiefdoms;
  • A new approach to structuring and conducting IT investment initiatives so that effort is focused on delivering the complete systemic change, rather than just on delivering the technology;
  • A new attitude to performance measurement for government use of IT, focused on achievement of transformational objectives for new use of IT and effective service delivery in the mainstream activity of the machinery of government;
  • A new approach to conformance, elevating the focus from low level detailed policy to higher level principles that guide strategic, tactical and operational decision making, and vastly improved use of standardisation tools such as reference architectures; and
  • Careful management of the change in culture, recognising that the human impact of such change can be significant and requires diverse, tailored support arrangements.

Underlying the change that is required is a clear and unequivocal need for education. Neither Reinecke nor Gershon specifically identified education as a requirement, but the need should be obvious. Education is a key enabler of change and both have identified that there is a considerable need for significant change in governance of IT.

What was confounding in the early wake of the Gershon Report was the absolute disdain for specific education on the ISO 38500 approach to governance of IT by both government and industry.

AGIMO expressed the view that it was already sufficiently familiar with the standard and needed no further insight. When the Australian Computer Society offered a one-day class on ISO 38500, there were zero registrations from Canberra personnel. And while the Australian Information Industry Association created a "governance focus group" as part of its "Gershon Task Force", the focus group never convened even in a distance-mode.

The lessons from Gershon and Reinecke may be addressed to the Australian Government. But they apply much more widely. Governments and businesses all over the world should recognise the value in directing and controlling their use of IT from the highest levels, ensuring that the strategic opportunity of IT is exploited as and when appropriate, and that inappropriate use of IT is avoided.

In Australia, as the Reinecke Report is digested, it's time for us to get serious and undertake the significant cultural and behavioural change that Gershon specified, and the first step in any change is education, for all players.

This article is by Mark Toomey, the founder and managing director of IT consultancy Infonomics. For more about Toomey and his book, "Waltzing with the Elephant: a comprehensive guide to directing and controlling information technology", visit his site. This article was part of the regular Infonomics Letter newsletter and is published here with Toomey's consent.