Friday’s announcement that the Government has signed a telepresence contract with Cisco and Telstra, worth $13.8m, will have profound impacts beyond cost-cutting.
According to Intermedium’s Head of Consulting, Kevin Noonan, the announcement is “a clear and unambiguous indication that there is serious intent to embrace the use of high end technology to improve efficiency and effectiveness in government”.
A press release from the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Lindsay Tanner says the system will be used “for inter-jurisdictional meetings, including Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and Ministerial Council meetings” and that “the implementation plan will see Telepresence facilities rolled out to more than twenty government locations across Australia”.
While the telepresence announcement represents a significant development, it is by no means the government’s first use of high end video conferencing. Intermedium’s analysis indicates telepresence is the tip of a fast growing market.
Large agencies such as Centrelink have been successfully using video conferencing nationally for many years. Indeed, Centrelink has clearly demonstrated the value of this type of facility, not only as an efficiency measure to assist coordination of a large and dispersed organisation, but also as an effectiveness measure in boosting management capability.
But what makes this technology different from other high end technologies that have ended up being consigned to that dark corner where many executive toys finish their lives?
Firstly, there appears to be a management requirement at the senior end of government for this technology. While recent commentary has centred on the potential for travel savings, telepresence is well placed to deliver even greater savings by providing new avenues for contemporary policy development. It can speed up the logistics of timely consultations, and provides a medium for government officials to consult widely when developing policy. Official meetings are often limited by the sheer capacity to get everybody together, a common frustration for forums such as COAG, when common ground needs to be found across layers of government.
Telepresence offers the potential for shorter, more regular meetings for Ministers and officials, to enable them to efficiently deal with difficult issues, without sacrificing the subtle nuances that only a face to face meeting can deliver.
The benefits of telepresence do not accrue by simply installing the boxes. Officials need to be able to concentrate on the content of the meeting at hand, without concerning themselves with the underlying technology. Lifelike meetings can only be achieved through close attention to technology, but the technical considerations must happen transparently.
Video conferencing, along with its high end relative, telepresence, has been making inroads into government agencies for some time, and often with very little fanfare. This latest announcement presents a new step in its evolution.