The Australian Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Lindsay Tanner, has been on the front foot about the efficiency, or rather lack of efficiency, of federal government ICT. In April, Tanner invited Sir Peter Gershon to lead an independent review of the Government’s management of ICT. Sir Peter was the architect of the UK Government’s 2004 Spending Review “Releasing Resources to the Frontline”. It identified cash and funding redeployment savings in excess of 20 billion pounds, triggering a major rethink of ICT management and procurement in the UK.
The ‘Gershon Down-Under’ review has similar aims — to identify ways the Government can strengthen whole-of-government management of ICT and boost efficiency and services, with a report due in September.
This marks a significant turning point for public sector ICT in Australia. The managerial-bias switch of the federal government has been set firmly to ‘decentralisation’ and ‘agency autonomy’ for the past decade. The Government CIO, Ann Steward, and her team at the Australian Government Information Management Office have been ‘clapping with one hand’ to try and push a central coordination agenda that has to date received only scant support.
How times have changed. Steward now has the wind in her sails and a Government that appears to understand the opportunity of better coordinated ICT as an enabler of both more connected government and more efficient management of ICT.
Stormy seas ahead
These centralisation strategies, however, can be vexing things in government, with the pendulum tending to swing destructively back and forth between decentralisation and centralisation. Public value tends to be destroyed at each apogee.
What should Gershon, Steward and the review team have in mind as they plan the review. I managed a number of these sorts of reviews in Victoria and would suggest the following principles:
Stop the bleeding
The number-one goal should be to look to future intentions rather than to try and retrofit the past. This means putting in place mechanisms to make better ICT investment decisions from an enterprise perspective via practical, light-touch, review processes within each agency and at Cabinet level. The first priority should be to catalogue in-flight procurement intentions and bring them under pragmatic, central air traffic control.
It is much easier, and quite frankly more fun, to have constructive win-win discussions at budget time around how to deploy discretionary funds for the best whole-of-government effect; than it is to engage in win-lose arm wrestling with agencies about deciding who will steal who’s data centre.
Do no harm — avoid being blinded by spreadsheets
The business of government is not the consumption of inputs such as ICT — they are simply a means to deliver outputs and outcomes. It is easy for review projects to become blinded by their own science. This is a particular issue when review teams are dominated by consultants with little practical experience of the public sector. Conventional corporate efficiency review logic does not necessarily play out successfully in government.
Risk weight the benefits
The review will identify ‘theoretical’ benefits, but not all opportunities will be equally ‘doable’. Some will, in fact, be impractical even if the benefits appear compelling.
Someone with a wise and pragmatic head needs to provide guidance on the risk weighting of benefits and the prioritisation of the opportunities identified. A major risk factor — one that agencies are well aware of — is the scarcity of executives with the experience needed to successfully deliver complex, high risk, multi-agency or whole-of-government projects.
Implementing strategies that involve organisational change, consolidation and rationalisation of teams, applications or infrastructure across agencies are tough, tough, work. They cut across the grain of the output-focused managerial regime and much prized autonomy of agency secretaries and CEOs. The political support, planning, funding and programme management of implementation, needs to be taken very seriously to avoid project failure and creation of white elephants.
Agencies have plenty of pressures to deal with as it is, without also having to cope with risky central initiatives that may or may not deliver any value to them. Careful thought needs to be given to an agency-by-agency, as well as a whole-of-government, view of the business case and the incentives for agencies to participate. Agencies have time-honoured mechanisms of avoiding being obliged to force-march in a direction that they don’t want to go.
The review will no doubt identify compelling opportunities. The challenge will be to tackle the right ones in the right way.
Dr Steve Hodgkinson is research director, public sector for Ovum in Melbourne.
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