Not many CIOs would have 23 million stakeholders, nor would they be working for an organisation that has been around for more than a century, has an organisation-wide budget of $4.6 billion, and an involvement in some of the most controversial and sensitive social issues in the history of the country.
Only recently in the position, Joann Corcoran is acting CIO of the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, an institution that she says has “a focus on client engagement and developing collaborative working arrangements. Engaging early and often is a driver for our staff.”
Engagement, she says, is critical in the delivery of an effective, efficient and fit-for-purpose ICT system, which means adding value by connecting people with information.
“That is our primary purpose. Most of the department’s staff neither wish to nor need to know what goes on behind the scenes, but they do need access to the information they require, when they need it, in a secure environment and in a format which works for them. That is fundamentally our role – to make that process as efficient as possible.”
The Attorney-General’s Department supports the foundations of Australia’s fair and equitable justice system and promotes the maintenance of a safe and secure society. This involves a complex set of disparate tasks, Corcoran says, “that interconnect to support our way of life”.
“We assist the government to uphold the rule of law and provide support to the Australian government to maintain and improve our systems for law and justice, national security, emergency management, and natural disaster relief.”
With these pressures, client-facing becomes a key attribute and requirement of her role, she says.
“The CIO role within the Attorney-General’s Department has a very significant outward focus as it works with the many portfolio agencies and the national security community to provide services and direction. This is an element of the role that provides both challenges and rewards, as we build a community of users across many spheres of government.
“I’ve been fortunate to have had exposure to a wide range of managerial positions across my career spanning ICT, financial management, business and project management and integration or change management responsibilities. A sound understanding of the government environment does help me in working with the other executives within the agency as I am to understand both their perspective, as well as my own.”
In fact, like many other CIOs, Corcoran’s initial academic qualifications reflect a different focus than IT. She is a graduate of the CPA program, supplemented by a Bachelor of Commerce degree (admittedly with a major in accounting and management information systems). She is currently working on an MBA in e-commerce.
Business issues are thus a major part of her professional makeup. She has held various roles, including project manager, business integration manager, business analyst and change manager.
“I think some of the most important lessons I have learnt during my career have come from my time a project manager. It was in these roles that I built the foundations of my CIO skills set which continue to serve me well today - the ability to anticipate issues, predict and manage risk, see the big picture and report at the right level to the right people.”
Within the Attorney-General’s Department, the executive report to various committees which represent the internal governance framework for the agency.
“As CIO, the reporting arrangements for myself do not differ compared to the other executive” she says.
“However, the CIO role does take a stronger leadership posture with the Investment Review Board, which plays an important role in setting and monitoring the investment strategy and decisions of this agency. As a diverse agency, the department’s ICT needs have a corresponding level of diversity and complexity, and setting the forward agenda for ongoing ICT support, development and innovation are a key focus for the Information Division.”
Managing that diversity means spreading the IT skills around. Corcoran says her focus is on embedding ICT staff in the process of ‘problem articulation’ and ‘solution development’, and not just being involved at the stage of delivering a pre-defined technology solution.
“The earlier the involvement of ICT professionals in this process, the greater the overall organisational fit for the solutions developed.
“A key challenge for us internally is to shift the paradigm from ICT being just a support service and create an acceptance of ICT as a strategic partner within our organisation. ICT is more than an enabler. Creating an environment where the full benefit of the services we offer is captured remains an ongoing priority for us.”
As might be expected, she says the department operates within a changing political and operational environment. “While new initiatives or machinery of government changes do impact on us, our aim is to continue to meet these challenges as they arise. Positively embracing these challenges now only increases our capacity to tackle new challenges in the future.”
So, with the future in mind, what does it take to be a future-state CIO? “You must be an equal partner in the business, fully engaged in strategy development as well as delivery. Every CIO faces unique challenges. How they respond to them will be influenced by their environment, their own past experiences and the support of those around them.
“In my own experience, I think you need to display personal resilience, take opportunities to capture innovation, demonstrate value in unexpected places and engage, engage, engage!”