Turnbull's agile struggle is all glitz and no grunt

Malcolm Turnbull planned to launch Australia into a continuous innovation boom. Instead, a string of IT disasters have shown, yet again, that you can't skip the fundamentals.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

"Welcome to the ideas boom. There's never been a more exciting time to be Australian. Agile. Nimble. Innovation." Remember those words from a little over a year ago, when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull launched Australia's National Innovation and Science Agenda?

Are we still excited? Actually, were we even excited to begin with?

When the agenda was launched in December 2015, I thought it wasn't so much a grand vision as a grab-bag of random ideas. Apart from some business law reform, the rest of the agenda seemed to be a collection of small-ticket items, camouflaged by some impressive-sounding but largely pre-existing ideas, or some obvious no-brainers.

A year later, it seems like the government has steadily worked through the plan. Slowly. The innovation minister's press release from last week is titled National Innovation and Science Agenda is having a significant impact one year on. But so far it all seems to be about process, about bureaucracy, not any actual impact or achievement that can be measured.

The AU$200 million innovation fund, for example. Should it really have taken a year to appoint a chief executive officer? That doesn't seem very agile.

It's also taken a year to dish out AU$3.9 million for Women in STEM, and a year to appoint managers of the Biomedical Translation Fund.

At least the tax incentives have been squeezed through the government's constipated legislative pipeline, but to say they've had "impact" is somewhat premature.

Take a look at the list of media releases on the agenda's website. All these announcements clustered in December? One gets the distinct impression that there was a rush to get some announceables out for the first anniversary, and before the Christmas break.

There's nothing nimble here, just the same-old same-old plodding pace of bureaucracy.

The one flickering light in all this is the cybersecurity strategy, launched in April. The pace since then has also been ... steady, shall we say, but there are signs that things will speed up in the new year.

The international connections being made at September's SINET61 cyber innovation conference illustrated some of the potential for developing Australia's cybersecurity industry.

Appointing former Atlassian security chief Craig Davies to head up the new Cyber Security Growth Centre is being seen as a good move, as is the appointment of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Tobias Feakin as cyber ambassador. But these are recent appointments, so we won't see any results for a while.

The first of several Joint Cyber Threat Centres is due to be opened in Brisbane in December. No sign of it yet, but there's still two weeks to go.

Meanwhile, as these "initiatives" have snail-raced ahead, key government functions have fallen in a heap.

The 2016 Census disaster should never have happened. And followed so soon by the collapse of IT at the Australian Taxation Office, which still hasn't been sorted out? You have to wonder how many other core systems are on the verge of collapse.

Do I even need to mention the National Broadband Network?

I reckon the message here is simple. Before you race ahead with your shiny new ideas, you really do need to make sure you're building on solid foundations. That includes the machinery of legislation and of government bureaucracy, not just the IT that supports them. The grunt before the glitz.

Turnbull has never really been good at that, and Australia seems to be suffering because of that flaw. Still, at least it's not as bad as Yahoo.


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