Grantly Mailes, South Australia's chief information officer, said since taking the position in July he had found that the state's recently-expired whole-of-government outsourcing contract with EDS had left the state's public sector "deskilled" in information technology.
"The biggest issue in the public sector, certainly in South Australia, in IT, is that in the last 10 years we have allowed ourselves to become materially deskilled," he told Gartner's regional IT Symposium in Sydney this week.
"We outsourced our entire infrastructure provision 10 years ago and really haven't done much about generating that skill back in-house.
"I suspect we are at the mercy of the market. I think industry is a little underskilled. I'm not sure that anyone, private or public, is investing enough in skilling of people in IT".
The South Australian government is in the midst of its AU$250million infrastructure procurement program, called FutureICT, to replace its outsourced resources. The break-up of Australia's first whole-of-government outsourcing contract has already seen some hotly-contested tenders issued as part of the program.
While many FutureICT tenders are still to be issued, Mailes said this was not his office's greatest challenge.
"Infrastructure procurement is the least of our problems. [After] the nine or so years we had with EDS, our infrastructure's reasonably standardised quite well, working, [and] somewhat integrated.
"The biggest problem we've got is what sits on top of that. The AU$400 million a year we spend on business applications is our achilles heel. We have revenue collection programs that are 25 years old written in COBOL."
The ageing talent pool for COBOL programmers meant the government had to readdress its systems and skill requirements, according to Mailes.
"At the moment, COBOL operators are sort of 40 and 50 [years old]; we don't want to be raiding nursing homes looking for programmers in the next 10 years or so," he said.
South Australia will migrate from these old systems, but is still working out how to do so.
"We're looking at some of these 15-25 year old systems, just figuring out how we can get them in a safe platform. So how do we wrap something around them to protect their immediate longetivity?" said Mailes.
"But the biggest problem we have in an economy like South Australia is we just don't have any money. So the transformation will have to come from within. That is the biggest challenge. There is clearly the need to do it, just the transformational risk is immense."