In April, the Federal Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Lindsay Tanner, announced the appointment of UK efficiency expert, Sir Peter Gershon, to lead an independent review of the Australian Government's use and management of ICT. The terms of reference of the review are far reaching and of critical importance to our local industry (available here). However given that it is an initiative of the Minister of Finance, its major thrust is cost-effective investment with an emphasis on consolidation.
Is this review something special or just more of the same? It's not the first such review after all. But there is evidence to say that this one could have a wider impact.
Firstly, Sir Peter Gershon is an interesting choice to lead the review. His CV is very impressive with long term and deep experience in the public and private sectors and in leading a number of similar reviews for the UK Government since 1999. He was knighted in 2004 for his work on public procurement. He has also rejected being paid for his work, asking the government to make a payment in lieu to a charity - an admirable approach.
As an outsider with a very specific timeframe in which to deliver the report and currently no ongoing responsibility to implement any recommendations, it's reasonable to expect Gershon won't seek any favours. The Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) has made a comprehensive submission and a number of our members had the opportunity to meet with Gershon recently to discuss our submission. They also explored other aspects of government ICT such as its linkage to industry development and 'green' procurement - key items not included in the terms of reference. We are confident the review will be facts-based and are hopeful that his experience will play into a set of well considered and balanced recommendations.
Secondly, there is no doubt the review has focused attention both inside and outside government, particularly given it is in the context of the broader 'cost-cutting' role given to minister Tanner. The immediate concern within government is that it will result in reduced ICT budgets and loss of individual agency independence through consolidation. Outside of government, industry concerns include project and expenditure delays, consolidation of projects to the 'big' guys and an increase in focus on cost rather than value. These are pretty typical reactions but nonetheless a compelling event that optimists see as a potential turning point.
Thirdly, Sir Peter has demonstrated a clear understanding of the value of close engagement with the ICT industry, having hampioned the development of an IT Supplier Code of Best Practice (www.intellectuk.org/content/view/449/47/) with the UK industry association, Intellect. In his forward to the code he said: "The public sector is a complex environment with a chequered history of delivering successful IT-based programs to cost and time. This code gets to the heart of some of the key issues which have inhibited success... and offers real potential to drive up the success rates to the benefit of both taxpayers and suppliers". In a procurement environment which still remains largely one of distrust, this understanding offers a breath of fresh air.
Proof in the pudding
But as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating! Sir Peter's review will be tabled in late September and will no doubt leave a series of challenging and optimistic recommendations in a beautifully bound and presented report. But what then?
The sceptics among us who have been around a bit remember the many 'ground breaking' reports that now grace the dusty shelves of ex-ministers' offices. These previous recommendations have never been debated at length or optimised and have vaporised in the hallways of an unstructured public service that hasn't been held accountable long term for implementing change. So what's going to be different here? There is the imperative to reduce the costs within government with ICT as a target. Conceptually this is simple to affect - just decrease budgets and let departmental heads worry about the rest. However if this is to be the one and only driver, we will have lost the chance for real innovation through change, for achieving real outcomes and for engaging with an industry that can really make a difference. The benefit realisation aspect of ICT should be of equally critical importance and this is the challenge for Tanner. He has the unenviable challenge to balance cost and benefit.
I have said before and will continue to say that ICT is transformational and needs to be seen as such by those that make decisions. Yes it is a cost, but it can also be the shrewdest investment.
The AIIA has entered the debate formed by the review openly, fully and with an enthusiasm that this can be a focal point for greater understanding, engagement and cooperation between government and the industry and the opportunity for a joint focus on transformational outcomes. Continued prosperity and our nation's future role in the international community depends on Australia's ability to innovate and transform - and driving successful transformation in Australia means recognising ICT as the fuel and the information industry as the engine of that transformation.
John Grant is the managing director of Data#3 and national chair of the Australian Information Industry Association. firstname.lastname@example.org