Australian government’s CIO promises more reforms

Australia’s federal government CIO, Ann Steward, has used her first public speech to make all the right political noises and warn government CIOs and IT managers they must clean up their own backyards and learn to share infrastructure with their peers without quarreling.

Addressing a Canberra conference, Steward spelled out an “urgent need for more consistency and interoperation across systems, agencies, sectors and jurisdictions,” rather than standalone IT shops. Steward said she intends to foster an “integrated approach” to government IT strategy and preclude “unnecessary duplication in ICT infrastructure, thus improving the return on the Australian government’s investment in technology.”

Previously in charge of Centrelink’s A$300 million IT refresh program, Steward was appointed to the federal CIO post in late June 2005 as part of a stated government push to simplify and improve the delivery of government services to the community.

Steward said she intended to pursue “ongoing reform of government back-office operations and organizational structures” as a major priority, going so far as to call it “perhaps the greatest challenge for all governments.”

The reform approach from Steward sends a clear signal that both the prime minister and key ministers — particularly Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews, Human Services Minister Joe Hockey and Health Minister Tony Abbott — are growing increasingly anxious that major policy initiatives they have coming down the line are not hamstrung by siloed IT infrastructure.

In April, Hockey effectively sacked the boards of both Centrelink and the Health Insurance Commission to take direct control of the massive bureaucracies, vowing to punish and remove public servants who bungle IT projects after a joint development between Centrelink and the Department of Family and Community Services, known as the Edge, blew out by A$64 million.

Similarly, Steward’s boss, Special Minister of State Eric Abetz, has also sent strong signals that he expects to see lucrative IT vendor contracts with lopsided scope-change charges renegotiated in a way that will deliver cost-effective results rather than blowouts back to the public.

Steward said she intends to address the chronic problem of inter-agency warfare on large projects through the creation of another best-practice document from the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) to effectively shame non-believers into compliance.

“(AGIMO’s) current activities in this area include developing a comprehensive methodology for mapping government business processes, intended to assist departments in reengineering and simplifying the operation of multi-agency projects,” Steward said.

However, whether the document will be as warmly received as AGIMO’s previous guides to Open Source software and procurement models such as insourcing, remains to be seen: not least because the Prime Minister is yet to prove he can persuade his ministers to cooperate with each other, let alone the bureaucrats that serve them.