Federal IT policy heads for bipartisan paralysis

Information technology policy has sunk into pre-budget and pre-election paralysis at government and opposition levels.

Communications and IT Minister Daryl Williams is refusing to guarantee any future funding for the National Office of the Information Economy (NOIE) — at exactly the same time as the opposition revealed plans to abolish NOIE altogether.

Shadow treasurer Simon Crean revealed this week that any future Labor government would axe NOIE as part of a A$1 billion (US$770 million) cost-cutting exercise to rein in any potential deficit in lieu of the sale of Telstra.

After predictable accusations that Labor was “abandoning the ICT sector,” a spokesperson for IT Minister Daryl Williams steadfastly refused to publicly embrace or comment on NOIE in any way.

Asked what future, if any, NOIE had, the spokesperson said it was “policy not to comment on any forthcoming budget outcomes”.

The spokesperson also flatly refused to confirm or deny if any of NOIE’s current initiatives would continue or be suspended within the context of ongoing government IT policy.

Apart from pushing through the Spam Act late last year, NOIE’s two biggest projects to date have been the highly-regarded government Chief Information Officer Committee (CIOC) and the OnSecure government IT security portal.

While the membership list of the little publicized CIOC remains out of the public domain, the committee is widely credited with the current move away from the wholesale government IT outsourcing towards a tailored mix of procurement solutions that enforces immense ‘whole of government’ bargaining power with vendors.

To date, such moves have included selective insourcing, migration to open source and better contract evaluation, management and negotiation and the retention of intellectual capital.

Defence, Centrelink and the Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs are all known to be members of the NOIE-facilitated CIOC that have successfully used resources to extract better prices, service and grudging respect from the vendor community.

Shadow IT minister Senator Kate Lundy conceded some faint hope for the CIOC, saying that there was “absolutely a role for that sort of (policy) coordination within government”. However, she immediately countered NOIE had inherited CIOC stewardship at the behest of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, who had itself borrowed the idea from a US government interoperability blueprint.

IT vendor lobby chief and Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) CEO Rob Durie said that, while the vendor community had no official position on NOIE’s fate, any absorption into the Department of Communication, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) should be based on keeping some of NOIE’s projects alive.

“If NOIE was folded back into DCITA, that would reunite NOIE with people who set policy for the IT industry. That’s a good thing. The way (NOIE) is structured itself, or whether or not it is abolished is not really what matters, but the programs it runs (do).

“An example of one of its key programs is the coordination of the strategic use of IT, and IT applications within government. In terms of other key functions, funding programs which form the take-up and use of IT within government, and the community — these are important programs,” Durie said.

Australian Computer Society president Edward Mandla said that whatever the budgetary fate of NOIE, its policy functions were important and likely to be retained, adding NOIE had been instrumental in moving many government products and services online and into e-commerce.

Mandla said many such moves came well prior to any mainstream support, were often greeted with skepticism, but had ultimately been vindicated.

Mandla added that the biggest policy challenge the government faced in ICT at the moment was getting the industry to create, rather than kill off jobs.

Sources close to OnSecure, the federal government IT security portal jointly run by NOIE and the Defence Signals Directorate, said no information had been provided by either the DCITA or NOIE regarding the future of project.

With the vultures circling, key NOIE staff will lead multilateral negotiations on fighting spam and showcase Australia’s new spam laws to the developed world at the invitation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD ) and the European Commission in Brussels at the beginning of February.

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