I had some thought before I posted this. As a public servant myself, I am involved in some of the things I'm talking about. There's a sense of danger in sticking one's head up and talking critically about your "employer". But on the other hand, I'm also a voter, and a professional in the ICT industry. I have the right to an opinion, and I've made a deliberate effort to sustain an ethical approach by not talking about anything that isn't public knowledge or easily ascertained.
As background, the 2008 Gershon review makes for some interesting reading, if you have the time. A number of the recommendations made had merit, but in this case we'll focus on a couple of key outcomes that have had ramifications for NSW Government as an example. It would come as no surprise to anyone that even good Government-commissioned reviews are often misused and poorly handled in implementation.
I am, first and foremost, supportive of the idea that ICT can drive cost reductions and efficiency. I've delivered projects that prove it. I manage budgets that I'll happily and proactively reduce whenever opportunity presents. It's also a truism that as a result of the success of project delivery, our business actually grows my budget to achieve even bigger and better results. In other words, I work in an agency that recognises the value of investing in ICT and technology to deliver genuine business benefits. If the business is effective and efficient through technology, we can directly and positively infuence the quality of front-line services.
However when I see Treasury-led initiatives to reduce ICT expenditure by a rigid and static figure (based on a baseline from a past financial year), and a separate (but obviously related) initiative to consolidate Government ICT into shared services with static headcounts, it's clear that things are headed in the wrong direction.
I can certainly agree that there are areas of government ICT which are hopelessly inefficient and ineffective (including at least one existing shared services provider). But making across-the-board mandates for the sake of saving money is a path doomed to failure. When it's made clear that savings targets are lifted directly from the higher targets in the Gershon review - which, I have been reliably informed, was an arbitrary figure pulled out of thin air in the first instance - and the headcount figures for shared services are equally made up, there is cause for concern.
Should typical bureaucrats have a place in making ICT policy? I don't think so. Nor do I think it should be a political issue, subject to the ever-present popularity contest. Bureacrats at a sufficiently high level have their pay increments directly linked to "efficiency" targets - whcih means saving money. If you like, they save money to fund their payrises first and foremost.
Politicians can vote their own payrises (which is ridiculous in itself). But their interest is in votes. They will primarily focus on what will get them the most popular support, with the rest being often ignored and neglected.
As a public servant, the payrises I get aren't determined by "efficiency" targets. They're done by negotiation between union and Government, CPI adjustments, etc - in other words, not too far different from private sector for the most part. I have no vested interest in saving money, leaving me free to do so as a result of doing my job well and delivering results that improve the business and its front-line services. We become an asset to the business, and one which they view as worth investing in.
I view with some amusement the notion of consolidating all of NSW Government into a couple of data centers. I recently took great pleasure in commenting that I look forward to the day that the machinery of government can be ground to a halt by a simple failure. I was amused by the responses and attitude to my comment, along the lines of "that won't happen" and "it's our job to prevent that". Really? Because I've seen plenty of unexpected failures that "shouldn't have happened" in even the most rigorous and well planned enterprises. Can you ensure that every vendor won't have an unexpected bug or failure that happens in spite of redundancy and good design? No, of course you can't. The fundamental of risk management is that the unexpected happens.
I think review and audit of ICT in government is important. I think a well-designed and objective review would be a great thing. But when government head into a review with saving targets already decided, and initiatives like shared services already nominating a head count, that's not a review. That's a political agenda designed around scoring points and building little empires.
Ironically, on the shared services front, the Gershon review is rather clear: "shared services between agencies should only be undertaken on a very carefully selected and controlled basis". Now, I can say that there are definitely opportunities for shared services I'd love to explore, but that in many cases it's in my agency or cluster's interest to maintain services locally. Like with cloud computing, the risk of disruption through failure of infrastructure is a key risk that must be included in any decision.
Now, I've played nicely through the review process - we're not included in the shared services discussion - and contributed our savings. In fact the first stage savings were ones we'd have done regardless. Second stage is somewhat more onerous, and obviously has timeframes that are based around political agendas. But we will work through them.
There's no real space for criticism in the process, or for suggestion of alternate approaches. They really don't care if one agency is doing things better - in fact the comparison has been between agencies that spend more or less, without any consideration of whether they have a similar ICT structure or requirements.
For myself, I'd prefer to see the discussion that NSW needs to have. Investing in ICT and technology. Pushing the state forward in that regard. Actually spending money as a way to increase employment and encouage economic growth. Putting the NSW public sector at the forefront with technology rather than trying to push it down to a lowest common denominator - which will ultimately hurt front line services and deliver poor outcomes.
But this isn't a unique problem for NSW. All Australian government is bad at this, from my observation. Recently we've even seen the establishment of ICT Ministers in other states made into political issues for elections - don't get me wrong, I support the idea of an ICT Minister, and it's something NSW should have. But it's not a political platform.
On the Federal front, we have the much maligned Senator Stephen Conroy. Much has been written of his misguided filter initiative, and the National Broadband Network. You might - possibly - say that at least there is an example of thought in government about the importance of technology. Perhaps. But so far all I've seen is kneejerk responses and poorly thought out initiatives; as an example, given that the real bottleneck for broadband is our international links, why are we aiming for fibre connectivity throughout the country? The bulk of content and information we access is located overseas, and if we don't dramatically increase capacity, all these connected homes will derive no real benefit from the speed. Not to mention that we will continue to pay a premium for internet access, a real and obvious hurdle to the uptake of Internet in this country. This, too, is a reason that cloud computing has a poor outlook in Australia - it'd cost too damn much to sustain ongoing connectivity.
Overall, I see very little that can be said in support of our various governments. In fact, I am rather vocal in my thoughts about saving money by substantially trimming the number of bureaucrats, and especially the economists and spin doctors that seem to be running the show. I'm fed up of hearing about the "clever" country and the "lucky" country when we do so little to encourage this. ICT and technology could be a major part of our economy going forward, if they let it. But they won't. It doesn't get the votes, or build their empires!
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