Since my first column on Gershon (ARN, July 23), Sir Peter has departed our fair shores and left a series of challenging and optimistic recommendations in a report laid down (presumably) with some gusto on Minister Lindsay Tanner’s table. Last week, Tanner stated the recommendations would be adopted completely in full.
In my time with the AIIA, we have been banging on about most of the issues such as skills, procurement, intellectual property, contractual frameworks, innovation, governance, standards and value continuously, but doing so in silos framed by the federated model of agency autonomy. The difference with the Gershon Review is that it brings them together as a whole-of-government agenda founded on a stated intent to change by the political leaders. This is potentially powerful stuff.
The report has seven key findings and seven recommendations. At the top, it found business as usual (BAU) ICT funding in agencies is not subject to sufficient challenge and scrutiny. The objective is to shift expenditure from BAU to creation of new capability. While it’s difficult to disagree with this, Gershon’s recommendations to achieve this feature is the first of what could be called a ‘blunt’ instrument. He has proposed to cut ICT budgets by 15 per cent for larger agencies and 7.5 per cent for smaller ones, saving $400 million in a full year.
There are two mitigating aspects to the ‘bluntness’ of this recommendation. Firstly, the report proposes ICT review teams be created to help agencies achieve or exceed the reductions without impairing service delivery to citizens and business – a necessary but idealistic and Herculean task. Secondly, Gershon proposed 50 per cent of the savings be transferred to a central fund to reinvest in projects to improve efficiency and effectiveness of ICT BAU activities – admirable, if that’s what actually happens.
The report also identified a disconnect between the stated importance of ICT and actions in relation to ICT skills and recommended a two-pronged solution. The fi rst and strategically sharpest prong proposed creation of a whole-of-government Australian Public Service (APS) ICT career structure, including training and development programs for ICT professionals in key skills and a strategic ICT workforce plan. This is no small task and one which the whole industry has yet to crack. The second and ‘blunt’ prong was a recommendation to reduce ICT contractors in use across agencies by 50 per cent and increase APS ICT staff – presumably as former contractors turned to full-time employment.
While we all appreciate that increasing technology skills in government may require reassessing the current reliance on contractors, randomly reducing numbers by 50 per cent is crude. Agencies with proven ICT workforce capabilities should be permitted to engage contractors without such restrictions, allowing them to source specialist skills and manage workload peaks as necessary.