In the public eye

In the public eye

The veteran who has commanded the ATO's IT transformation is about to be parachuted into the Department of Defence

For a man who has stuck with the same employer for the past 35 years, Greg Farr has embraced a lot of change - and most of it has touched every Australian household in one way or another. As the second commissioner of taxation since 2002, Farr has been responsible for straightening out the operations of Australia's largest revenue agency whose job it is to fill the coffers of government so that it can in turn fund the activities of the states and the commonwealth.

It's been no mean feat either.

Since 2004, the Australian Taxation Office has been implementing a massive five-year business and technology re-engineering project that has sought to transform the bureaucracy so that it delivers a vastly more efficient and user-friendly service for one of the world's most complex revenue collection systems.

Costed at $700 million and rather simplistically dubbed the Change Program, it's a project that has fundamentally redefined how the federal government uses technology to engage with the public as it attempts to move away from paper-intensive processes and forms such as the notorious tax pack.

Fill in a tax return online today and the web application can automatically insert the correct amounts of income from investments, dividends, managed funds, welfare rebates and assorted other family payments and allowances.

It has paid dividends of another sort for an organisation that for years has been trying to improve its standing within the community from which it levies wages and profits.

Those dividends come through the certainty of simple, straightforward processes that will not later come back to bite taxpayers with an unexpected bill when they try to do the right thing.

"Data matching is not just about catching people," Farr says. "We're using it upfront to pre-populate information that people fill in on their tax returns. We're saying upfront what it is that we know. [It's] not coming back in six months and saying we've done some data matching [and there's a change or a bill]."

What is less conspicuous is the indirect influence Farr has held over reforming how much of the public service not only harnesses technology, but procures it and engages with industry.

Many in Canberra directly credit Farr and his deputy Bill Gibson with spearheading procurement reforms that ripped up the failed policy of whole-of-government outsourcing and replaced it with a far more pragmatic regime that codified responsibility for vendors.

One key measure is that big suppliers who fail to live up to their contractual expectations not only don't get paid, they can be made liable for the cost of disruptions to the business.

Others include ongoing risk management, milestone-based payments and multisourcing to maintain competitive tension within contracts.

It's an approach that has percolated up through a number of high-level committees, including the federal Chief Information Officers Committee and codified the Australian Government Information Management Office's guidelines for procurement best practice.

Put simply, this allows other agencies to refer to the guidelines when they seek to make their own reforms, helping avoid bungles and blowouts that some suppliers are notorious for milking to their financial advantage.

Farr says the next round of the ATO's IT sourcing, estimated to be worth about $1 billion, will be different. EDS's present infrastructure contract is widely tipped to be broken into three chunks.

The next round of contracts will be far more focused on business outcomes, a move that will require the ATO to give suppliers more access to its operations to learn first-hand how they work.

"This is a different way of going about it and the vendor community has to respond to that," Farr says.

Those who have both participated in and watched his work, credit him with an uncanny ability to cut through complexity and go to the very heart of a matter. The ATO's IT division has delivered excellence despite having had to handle government changes mid-project.

These have included legislative reforms to superannuation laws that came unexpectedly and had to be added into the Change Program, something that required a rebuild of the core superannuation IT system at short notice.

After some financial and delivery adjustments to accommodate the new demands, Farr says the Change Program remains on budget to within 0.1 percentage points of 1 per cent.

It's this level of discipline and flexibility that many say is the reason Farr has been picked to take over IT at the Department of Defence, which has churned through four CIOs in as many years.

Some Canberra insiders liken Farr's Defence appointment to a move made by public service chief Peter Shergold that precipitated former tax commissioner Michael Carmody into Customs to institute reforms.

While to many in private enterprise the move did not appear to be a promotion, it reflected the public service credo that the most able person is sent to tackle the most challenging problem.

"It's a big complex job and I don't expect it's going to be easy," Farr says of his new appointment. "If I was not confident that I could add value, I wouldn't have taken it."

One feature of his new job is that the incumbent of the CIO role has been promoted from the civilian equivalent rank of a two-star general to a three-star general.

Farr says that although he relishes the challenge, it's still the desire to make a difference that drives him.

"These sorts of jobs don't come along everyday [and] I've been in the tax office from 1973 ... I'm a stayer," he says. "One of the attractions of being a second commissioner is that you're working for the community as well as the organisation.

"It's the same with Defence. You're working for a greater purpose."

Career highlights

* Joined Australian Tax Office in 1973.

* Rose through the ranks to become second commissioner in 2002.

* Piloted $700 million change program at the ATO.

* Hired as new CIO at Department of Defence in late 2007.

© Fairfax Business Media

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