Three lessons that Malcolm Turnbull, the Minister for Communications has listed as his ‘take-aways’ from his meeting last week with Liam Maxwell, the UK Government’s Chief Technology Officer, will have wide sweeping impacts on Federal Government ICT procurement if adopted as policy. The Minister made the comments in an opinion piece in the Guardian Australia on Friday 20 June 2014.
Australia has a long tradition of looking to the UK for guidance on ICT. Notable examples are the adoption of:
- Whole of government ICT Strategies following the launch of the inaugural UK ICT Strategy in 2010;
- Sir Peter Gershon’s review of ICT; and
- Gateway reviews and the ITIL process.
Turnbull is highly supportive of Maxwell’s role in his Guardian opinion piece. According to Turnbull, Maxwell's role is “to equip government departments with the right technology to deliver great digital services and to cut IT spending. But it’s more accurate to say his real mission is closer to reimagining the role of government and its daily relationship with citizens.”
Turnbull’s observations may provide the strongest indicator yet of the nature of the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) role as recommended by the National Commission of Audit (NCoA).
Abul Rizvi, in his address to the Intermedium/AIIA briefing on 12 June 2014, indicated that the nature of the role was still under consideration, but affirmed that UK precedents were of significant interest to the Government.
It could well be that Maxwell’s visit to Australia (the reasons for which do not appear to be in the public domain), was to assist the Government with its deliberations on the CDO job specification. If so, we might expect to see movement on this in the near future as it would make sense for the Government to have finalised its CDO appointment prior to any announcements it makes on the NCoA recommendations that pertain to Government use of ICT which it has not yet addressed.
Equally significant is the fact that Turnbull introduces views on procurement that are likely important pointers to the procurement policy discussion either occurring or about to occur in both the Department of Finance and the Department of Communications.
Turnbull’s piece makes five clear points.
1. Government engagement with Citizens must be digital
Turnbull reiterates a key tenet of the government’s pre-election ICT policy position succinctly: “Australia has ambitious targets to improve the relationship between citizens and the government: all correspondence will be able to be conducted online by 2017.”
2. The UK Government is getting it right with regard to ICT efficiency and procurement reform
Minister Turnbull observes that the UK Government’s Efficiency and Reform Group, headed by Maxwell, is a model that has had results. The Group can halt, or provide direction to IT projects valued over £5.0 million ($AUD 9.09 million) in order to equip “government departments with the right technology to deliver services and to cut IT spending.”
The references to the success of the Efficiency and Reform Group point to a possible reason for locating the two Australian Government Information Office (AGIMO) branches within the Efficiency, Assurance and Digital Government Division of the Department of Finance.
In his Guardian comment piece, Turnbull then goes on to cite the clear lessons he has taken from Maxwell with regard to the UK’s ICT reform experience, specifically on how our government can “do better in the way it uses the internet better to engage with its citizens.”
He lists three lessons. As noted above, if these are translated into ICT procurement policy, they will have fundamental impacts on both Canberra’s ICT buyers (agencies) and suppliers alike.
3. ICT procurement of software and hardware is ‘screaming out for reform’ (Lesson 1)
Turnbull observes that two thirds of ICT spending is “on ongoing operating expenses, like maintaining old IT infrastructure. This is much less scrutinised than new spending decisions, so potential savings are very large.”
What Turnbull does not acknowledge here is the impact of Sir Peter Gershon’s review of ICT, which resulted in the establishment of Whole-of-Government (WofG) panels for major categories of hardware and telecommunications services, both of which have been widely claimed by Finance to have significantly reduced the cost of these goods and services.
What he does focus on is the manner in which Maxwell’s unit scrutinises and comments on proposed projects. By implication, he is suggesting that mooted ICT projects could go through more scrutiny to ensure that they need to progress in the manner proposed by the sponsoring agency.
While increased governance and scrutiny of projects was established following the Gershon review, Turnbull does not acknowledge this in his comment piece. It is tempting therefore to assume that the gateway reviews and two pass processes currently in place may not measure up as sufficient for the Coalition government, which is keen to establish a governance model that includes an industry based advisory board.
4. Reduce the complexity of the software and processes used to deliver services (Lesson 2).
In stating that Australia must “reduce the complexity of the software and processes used to deliver services", Turnbull emerges as a strong advocate for open source software.
“There is a reason why open source software has triumphed around the world – it drastically cuts down development costs and makes it easier to share lessons learnt in making platforms more efficient,” he says.
In the past, many government CIOs have been nay-sayers for the use of open source by government. However, the current Finance procurement process for a WofG Drupal Content Management System is the strongest example yet of a move towards open-source where it is deemed ‘safe’ to do so.
Turnbull is also advocating the reuse of platforms that deliver common functions, such as booking systems, and in so doing puts his support behind the 'reuse' ICT sentiment being widely expressed in various jurisdictions (reuse, before buy, before build).
Business case funding provided to Finance in the 2013-14 budget to assess the potential for a shared ERP platform for ‘light use’ agencies and to the Department of Social Services in the 2014-15 budget for a WofG Grants Management platform are early manifestations of the move towards ICT reuse by agencies.
However Turnbull qualifies this by saying that ‘the real value is not just in how much money is saved by the government – it’s in making government services more accessible and easier to use’.
5. Look at who you are awarding contracts to (Lesson 3)
In an articulation of a view that will resonate strongly with local small to medium enterprises (SMEs), Turnbull observes that in the UK, the government has set a target that 25% of its technology spend goes to small and medium sized enterprises.
He exampled that the UK government had achieved significant reductions in the cost of hosting (from $7.2m to $108,000) by moving to a much smaller firm.
Further he said that ‘choosing smaller firms also tends to be great for employment’. This view will resonate with SMEs frustrated at their inability to win business against more established or larger suppliers, who tend to be favoured due to better performance on risk assessments in the procurement process.
Turnbull put the view that the big suppliers should be competing on the quality of their services and software rather than because of the government’s risk aversion and complexity of procurement rules.