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OPINION: A long road ahead yet for new Government’s ICT Policy

by Judy Hurditch •
Free resource

Following the strong showing of the Liberal National Coalition at the polls in election 2013, the Prime Minister-elect, Tony Abbott, will now be most keen to finalise the shape of his Government and obtain endorsement to form the new Government from the Governor General.

Not likely to be finalised before he does so is the detail of who will have responsibility for the implementation of ICT in the new Government, but one thing does seem apparent – that the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) has had its role reaffirmed and potentially strengthened.

The Policy for E-Government and the Digital Economy (the Policy) released last week by Malcolm Turnbull and Andrew Robb outlined the Coalition’s blueprint for government use of ICT, as well as its broader ICT industry and digital economy policy.

Ministerial Responsibilities

The Abbott Government’s appointment of Ministers to its ICT-heavy portfolios is almost certain to remain unchanged from those in its previous shadow ministry, with Malcolm Turnbull and Andrew Robb responsible for the Communications and Finance portfolios, respectively.

Given the span of the Policy, there will be a number of key stakeholders in ICT Policy decisions - Turnbull as Minister responsible for Communications, Robb as Minister responsible for Finance and the broader government as comprised of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet who when it comes down to it, will be the ultimate decision making point for whole-of-government ICT issues. 

The Policy puts it plainly that “authority for effective whole-of-government ICT decisions and reforms ultimately must derive from the decisions and priorities of the Prime Minister and Cabinet”.   

Some industry press have interpreted this statement as meaning that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet will take on new functions under the Policy, but Intermedium does not see that the Policy can be interpreted this way. 

Rather it would appear to be a re-articulation of an option already available to Government – that key policy issues are considered by the Cabinet, rather than one Minister in isolation. It seems to be a matter of emphasis – it is likely that few ICT policy issues were making it to Cabinet under the Labor Government, post Lindsay Tanner and the era of the Gershon review.

Malcolm Turnbull is likely to be made responsible for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (or its renamed equivalent) portfolio. In his capacity as Minister, Turnbull will oversee the implementation of the digital and in particular National Broadband Network (NBN) -related elements of the ICT Policy as well as a range of other telecommunication and ICT policies impacting the community at large. It is not clear whether he will have any responsibility for the E-Government aspects of the Policy, separate to his role as a member of Cabinet.

However, a strong indication that Turnbull will have a comprehensive say across the entire ICT Policy came at the Policy launch with Robb saying that “if we get the privilege of government on the weekend, Finance does have a role, but the principal role in an Abbott Government in this area [ICT] will be led by the Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull”.

 Andrew Robb is likely to receive the Finance portfolio (which has had a different name under the last two administrations and may well do so again - with the inclusion of Debt Reduction in the title). 

His responsibilities in the government ICT arena are not yet clear, especially given his comment at the Policy launch.  However, the Policy tacitly implies AGIMO remains in Finance, despite the heightened emphasis on its advisory role to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

A key question as to Robb’s role is whether or not there will be a Special Minister of State (SMOS) role in the new government and if so, will it be responsible for ICT as was the case in the previous Labor government.

Retention of the SMOS role might allow Robb to take a lower key role over ICT, just as his predecessor Penny Wong did when the SMOS was created at the time that she took over the Finance portfolio from the highly ICT-active Lindsay Tanner.  

Although both Wong and Gary Gray (as SMOS) kept a low ICT profile, it seems quite unlikely that Robb would be able to do so, given the importance the new Government is attaching to public sector use of ICT and in particular the achievement of E-Government by 2017 - unless as Robb suggests, Turnbull has the principal role.

Bronwyn Bishop covered the SMOS role in opposition, but there has been recent speculation about her potential appointment as Speaker of the House and, even if she were to retain the SMOS role, it is difficult to see her embracing ICT responsibilities with any enthusiasm.

Structuring ICT Policy implementation and governance

In both the Howard Coalition and Rudd/ Gillard/ Rudd Labor Governments, prime responsibility for policy development of government use of ICT, including procurement issues, fell to AGIMO within Finance, with guidance from the Secretaries’ ICT Governance Board (SIGB). 

There is a trend to incubate at the policy heart of government those projects which do not have a natural ‘home’ in the existing portfolio line up. This has specifically happened in NSW in relation to its E-government initiative, ServiceNSW, which has been formed as an Office in the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet.

The role articulated for the Prime Minister and theCabinet in ultimately taking the key whole-of-government decisions is presumably to ensure that a central feature of the policy – E-Government by 2017 - is achieved. 

The Policy is as yet unclear on if, who, or what area of PM&C will take on any coordination function related to the emphasis put on whole-of-government ICT responsibility, but presumably this will rest with the Cabinet Office, in line with the current procedures that apply to any policy which is to be subject to Cabinet consideration and decision. 

AGIMO seems set for a heightened role under the Policy. The Secretariat function for SIGB currently sits with AGIMO, and the Policy obliquely suggests that “AGIMO’s capabilities will be increased if it also serves as the support agency for an Australian Government ICT Advisory Board”.

There is little doubt that procurement policy, which is a fundamental element of the finance function will remain with the Finance department. The Policy clearly acknowledges a Finance responsibility for centralised ICT procurement and states that these Finance functions should remain separate to AGIMO but is silent on whether the Chief Technology Officer role should be responsible for both ICT and non-ICT procurement policy, as was the arrangement under the Labor Government.

When do we get down to business?

Despite the industry’s keen interest in the resolution of these matters, they are not first order of magnitude issues for Abbott as he frames up his Ministry.

It is likely to be some weeks before the new government clarifies the administrative arrangements pertaining to the creation and administration of ICT policy and agencies are not likely to act on significant ICT matters until the final structure of this evolving framework becomes clearer, particularly in regard to which matters will be required to go to Cabinet for decision.

Related Articles:

What would a Coalition bureaucracy look like?

Coalition’s ICT Policy outlines major changes for agencies

Election promises reveal ICT policies

For more information, please contact the Editor (02) 9955 9896.

  • Federal
  • Policy
  • Andrew Robb
  • Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO)
  • Bronwyn Bishop
  • Coalition's Policy for E-Government and the Digital Economy
  • Department of Finance and Deregulation
  • Gary Gray
  • John Howard
  • Julia Gillard
  • Kevin Rudd
  • Liberal National Coalition
  • malcolm turnbull
  • Penny Wong
  • Secretaries' ICT Governance Board (SIGB)
  • Special Minister of State
  • tony abbott