Aussie government CIO bares secrets to vendor relations

Senior public servants rarely shed tears in public, yet several had trouble concealing their emotions when Australian Department of Immigration, Multiculturism and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) outgoing chief information officer Cheryl Hannah took the stage at a government IT conference in Canberra last week.

Gagged by protocol and hamstrung by her new bosses, a dignified and stoic Hannah took to the stage to present what should have been a relatively routine CIO perspective on how to rehabilitate a relationship with an outsourcer.

In this case it was CSC and Hannah didn’t deviate from the script.

Yet in two weeks Hannah will no longer be CIO of DIMIA. A new regime is moving in to pour concrete over any potential IT skeletons lurking in the DIMIA log files which could shed further light on the Howard government’s admission of wrongly detaining and deporting Australian citizens.

To underscore the changes afoot at DIMIA, a public request for tender calling for a full-scale review of the IT systems, and their management at DIMIA in the wake of the now infamous Palmer Inquiry, was also made public by the department the very morning Hannah speaks.

Hannah tells around 30 captivated individuals that, while she will remain in charge of business information management, her current title of CIO will soon reside within a newly-created position of deputy secretary to be filled by Bob Correl – the man who brought the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations Job Network project to heel.

At the same time, another person will be brought in at the same level as Hannah to take over technical control of DIMIA’s IT systems.

Seemingly undaunted by the public bloodletting surrounding her, Hannah recants some of the lessons learnt in her job, not least that adversarial relations with outsourcers serve neither party well. She reveals one relationship hotfix she applied to a once-faltering relationship with CSC was to not only redefine the terms of mutual engagement, but to ram them home by issuing fridge magnets to all involved with the “relationship principles” written on them as an inescapable quick reference.

“Well, you’ve got these cheap and nasty fridge magnets – so what difference does it make? It makes a huge difference,” Hannah says, noting the satisfaction that the IT team felt when visiting CSC senior managers were seen sneaking a magnet or two into their pockets to export back to the US.

Later, CSC revealed to DIMIA that when times got tough and negotiations bogged down they found themselves “pulling out relationship magnets and putting them on the table” to work out where things were “falling down.”

Just where CSC’s relationship with DIMIA will stand when Correl takes up his CIO post in a fortnight remains to be seen, with Hannah frankly conceding her new superior may have a way of working with outsourcers that’s different to her own. CSC is not commenting on the matter.

However, it is Hannah’s parting advice that unnerves those in the room the most. She warns CIOs that “just because you’ve been given a tick by Gartner, and you’ve been given another tick by someone else” it doesn’t mean you can feel safe.

DIMIA’s IT, she says, did all of that and still the Palmer report brought the entire department, including IT, unstuck. Hannah firmly urges those who have not read the Palmer report into DIMIA’s ills to do so.

“Politics can have a big role in the way things go … it’s a bit like a hostile takeover,” she said.

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