David Ramli (DR): When it comes to ICT procurement issues, do you look after it or is it split between yourself and Finance Minister, Senator Penny Wong?
Special Minister of State, Gary Gray (GG): In general terms, because of the role played by AGIMO, it is reasonable to see a substantial responsibility to fall at my end. But having said that, what AGIMO does is provide advice across the Australian Public Service. And so individual departments and entities are responsible for what they do but what we try to do is provide leadership and guidance.
DR: So let’s say the industry or a company in the tech industry wishes to talk to the Government about procurement. Would they specifically contact you?
GG: They should talk to AGIMO.
DR: But would you be the Minister responsible for most issues there?
GG: I’m the minister responsible for AGIMO, but AGIMO would engage in that conversation with the required Government department.
DR: I ask that question because your predecessor, Minister Lindsay Tanner, took a very hands-on approach and was relatively accessible to the industry. Does that mean you’ll be taking less of a hands-on approach and allowing the department to deal with things itself?
GG: When you’re the Finance Minister, you have the operational capacity to reach into every single Government department. That’s not a capacity you have because you’re the Minister responsible for AGIMO, it’s a capacity you have because you’re the Finance Minister. It’s the only Government department that has the capacity to reach across the detail of the management and the running of every Government department.
DR: Does that mean the industry might have a slightly more difficult time accessing the department of finance? Or will it be just as accessible under Minister Wong?
GG: My view is it’ll be even more accessible because there’s clearer agenda for AGIMO to do its work rather than having that work dependent on the capacity of the Minister to deal with it.
DR: One piece of feedback we’re getting from the tech industry is that many people there are unfamiliar with you. Are you doing anything to dispel that? Are you reaching out to the industry more? Or is it less your job to liaise and more your job to get on with it?
GG: You can spend a massive amount of time in the political industry talking to people. But the truth of it is the more time you spend talking the less spent doing things.
I know full well that you’ve got to get that balance right, but when you come into this portfolio you have to spend time getting to terms with it. When you get a new minister the new minister needs to be brought up to speed.
The work that I have done has been in following up the report of Ian Reinecke and the work AGIMO has done itself on how it will configure AGIMO in the future. The work they’ve done with a number of industry associations isn’t work that I need to publicise.
I have a different way of operating to the way in which Lindsay operated and I’ve got frankly a range of work that I need to do as a consequence.
I mentioned Reinecke’s report and that was commissioned quite a few months ago. It needs to be made public and the deliberations around it need to be publicly ventilated. My personal view is that that’s a more valuable contribution than me talking to a whole range of people
I also have a fundamental view that when the Government produces a substantial piece of work with insights into how we do what we do you can only get value out of making them available to the public. That’s why Ian’s report will be released.
DR: Does that mean we won’t see you around at industry events doing speeches as Minister Tanner did during his time?
GG: Minister Tanner had the remarkable advantage of not having to sit on an airplane for 10-12 hours per week. He also had the remarkable advantage of living in technology central, which is Melbourne. I live in Perth and as a consequence I have a lot more time to read and consider things and a lot less time on the ground in Melbourne and in Sydney. My work is done effectively between Canberra and Perth.
DR: So you see Government spending on IT going up or down over the next few years?
GG: I can only presume that spending on IT platforms across the board increases as a general statement but in some specifics it’ll come down. What we know as a general rule is spending will increase, productivity will increase and service delivery will increase. If you ask me in what areas, I can’t answer that.
DR: Would you accept there was some industry confusion, if not anger, when the Business as Usual fund money was redirected to election promises even though the industry thought it’d be spent on IT?
GG: When Lindsay did that it was as a consenting Finance Minister dealing with those issues as best he could. I’m not about to be critical of Lindsay for doing it. I do understand the distress it caused but as Finance Minister he had to make tough calls on occasions and they were made by him while wearing his practical and pragmatic hat.
DR: So under you could any of those changes be reversed? Or is it set in stone?
GG: I think by the time Lindsay had finished with them they were completely set in stone…I don’t think there’s any room left in the decision making for those decisions to be reversed.
DR: Would you redirect funding from any other areas to fill the gap?
GG: We haven’t met, this is our first conversation and I applaud your journalistic ferret like capacity to hunt me down on things that have relevance to the Federal Budget but I can’t make observations about it the shape or the content of it. But I thank you for the opportunity to hang myself.
DR: Do you expect to see things speeding up in whole-of-government procurement plans and strategies? Or will it slow down as you get your bearings?
GG: There never was an intention for whole-of-government procurement to be directed by a Minister. People might have gotten that impression but there never was an intention to deliver a process of whole-of-government IT procurement via the edicts of a single minister.
DR: But the industry’s impression was that Minister Tanner was essentially the minister in charge of whole-of-government procurement strategies. Are you saying that was an unfair assumption?
GG: It was absolutely reasonable that people had a look at the task of IT procurement and, more importantly, strategic direction. That was done first under Gershon and then Gershon has been reconsidered by Reinecke with a range of observations.
When you look at the reality that comes though Gershon and the granular consideration that comes through Reinecke then you see that the Government needs to operate in a pragmatic and practical way that doesn’t mean you’ll have a controller of IT procurement and delivery for the Australian Government.
It would be massively inefficient and inflexible and would not have the required degree of flexibility and insight to deal with the opportunities that exist in some of the areas and not in others.
DR: In terms of Gershon review results, the tech industry’s impression was that the savings it generated would lead to higher spending - essentially that it’d be reinvested in IT and tech products. Is that something you’d agree with?
GG: I think it’s reasonable to say that Lindsay dealt with those savings in the previous Government and that he dealt with Gershon using his knowledge of both where he wanted to drive industry and the IT sector in the context of the Government.
Lindsay used Gershon to obtain a range of up-front savings for Government and I will deal with the ICT agenda across the Government in a way that helps us deal with the strategic requirements of the Government in the context of service delivery, customer focus and practical and pragmatic rollout of technology to suits our needs and purse.
DR: What do you see as the biggest single thing you’re facing in your portfolio?
GG: If I had to name one thing it’s the necessity to ensure that NBN rollout and the way in which NBN works for a whole-of-government service delivery customer focus – that’s incredibly important for the successful delivery of modern government and governance for Australia. I really think the revolutionary capacity of the NBN will shape how Government is structured and delivered to regional Australia and our broad customer base.
DR: But surely that’s a few years off. Do you have a more near- or mid-term issue that you’re working on?
GG: If you don’t think about those things now, you will not be ready for it when it starts to occur. That has been one of the great insights that came out of Lindsay’s leadership – that a Government can’t be focussed purely on IT purchases without focussing on the strategic capacity that IT has to value-add to processes and delivery.
If we don’t think about these things now, we’ll have to think about it when it’s upon us and that’s difficult indeed. That has been a problem for Australian Governments through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.