Working the Top End

Working the Top End

Optimism pervades the Northern Territory IT industry following the outcome of the territory's ITC Industry and Government Forum. This month it announced the advent of a number of government initiatives designed to foster sustained growth in the local IT economy.

Held on September 4-5, the forum was chaired by Les Hodgson, newly appointed executive director of the Department of Corporate and Information and Services (DCIS). Participants were split into six working groups, each of which comprised a mixture of government and private sector representatives. The groups addressed a range of issues, from broadband and skills development to government and export initiatives. Each group effectively came up with a range of actions that subsequently had both government and private sector executives appointed to drive them.

One of the most contentious issues addressed at the forum was the NT government's outsourcing policy, in particular its desktop and panel outsourcing contracts. Some of the concerns expressed by the industry were that outsourcing had reduced competition and decreased the local skill base; the high-end sector had all but disappeared since outsourcing; R&D had halted and innovation had turned into a liability; outsourcing had brought little benefit to the local industry; and business had been handed to non-NT-owned businesses without a full consideration of the ramifications.

"The outsourcing issue was certainly in the background during the forum," says Bruce Diggens, managing director of Darwin integrator Asset Management Systems. However, while government outsourcing was an underlying theme, the forum primarily focused its attention on how both government and industry officials could collaborate to create new opportunities. A number of new initiatives that had been drafted by the NT government were discussed at the symposium.

"They're being forced to [address whether to outsource or not] because, for example, we've got strategically important technology to develop in the Northern Territory that you can't marry with outsourcing companies," says Diggens. "Asset Management Systems does things like R&D and we're not a candidate for outsourcing. So it was decided at the forum that they'd better get some commercialisation policies and do a rethink about what the market really is and what the technological future is."

According to Andrew Hodges of the NT Information Industry Association: "The general focus for the industry is to look at collaborating with government to secure other markets, to work on specific initiatives where we as an industry think we can add some value." Hodges cites the proposed Desert Knowledge Project as one such government initiative that could provide significant IT industry opportunities in remote areas in conjunction with the creation of a new industry for the territory.

Centred in Alice Springs, the Desert Knowledge Project involves the creation of a Centre of Excellence that would serve as a research and education facility as well as a repository for information supporting the sustainable use of arid zones around the world. This information would be commercialised and shared with other centres around the globe and would therefore be heavily dependent on the use of ICT.

"I don't believe there is anywhere else in the world that has focused on building an industry around the sustainable use of arid zones," says Hodges. "Given the world population crisis, the viability of such an initiative is self-evident."

While the forum addressed some of the industry's concerns relating to government outsourcing policy, it did not substantiate local rumours about the possible termination of some government agencies' existing outsourcing contracts. According to Hodges, there were five government outsourcing contracts that went out. "The two contentious ones have been the panel contract and the desktop and LAN services contract. However, the Optus advanced communications, the mail and messaging contract, and the non-mainframe applications contract are delivering on their service-level agreements as I understand it.

"As an industry association we were very focused on working with the government and the agenda on that forum to deal with the issues of outsourcing as quickly as possible and move on. You can look in the rear vision mirror as much as you like, but it doesn't get you going forward. We really wanted to put down a strategic plan for the future."

According to Hodges, a range of companies in both Alice Springs and Darwin had benefited from the outsourcing policy. Connected Solutions Group, Computer Support and Maintenance, and a number of other companies had re-engineered the direction of their businesses in line with the current outsourcing model. Therefore, he argues that dismantling the government's existing outsourcing policy would cause even greater damage. "What we need to do is look at ways we can grow the pie, find alternate markets and change the focus."

At the forum, the DCIS claimed that the establishment of Optus in the Northern Territory as a result of its government contract has provided both the government and the company with the opportunity to participate in remote communications projects such as EOP (Electronic Outback Project), LATIS (Learning and Technology in Schools) and a new interactive distance learning project with the Department of Employment, Education and Training that will in turn provide opportunities for the local IT sector.

"As part of the forum's broadband working group, Optus, ODN and Telstra discussed ways they could collaborate to provide services to remote areas," Hodges says. "Supplying communications to remote communities is a very expensive exercise. It is not one that companies could or should compete on, as there are benefits [for them and the industry] in working together. It's also about developing initiatives that use the infrastructure as well. We're looking at a LATIS project to establish some excellent satellite infrastructure in remote communities. That needs to be expanded upon to deliver other services into those communities."

DCIS Minister Peter Toyne announced at the forum that the government wanted quarterly reports issued to the industry detailing the rollout of the initiatives.

"Toyne made a commitment to get back to the industry on a quarterly basis to keep the momentum going," Hodges says. "It would be pointless for us to sit down and set aside initiatives and fail to deliver on them. I don't think there's any chance that these initiatives won't be delivered on.

"I've attended a range of meetings subsequent to our discussions at the forum in relation to getting these initiatives going."

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