Steward of Change

Steward of Change

The role that any whole-of-government CIO has in a federated system is extremely challenging because if anything is done across multiple agencies it has to be done by enlisting the goodwill of the individual agencies - particularly the big agencies, the gorillas

Ann Steward is Australia's first federal CIO in close to a decade. She brings more than 20 years' worth of experience to the role, but will that be enough to convince Australia's independently-minded government agencies to work together? Only time will tell . . .

In the year 2000, under the leadership of Australia's new whole-of-government CIO Ann Steward, then on secondment, the UK government issued a landmark report spotlighting significant failings in the running of government IT projects. The McCartney report on IT was completed halfway through Steward's four-year stint in the UK and named after its ministerial sponsor, Ian McCartney. It noted government IT projects frequently came in late and/or over budget or simply failed to do what they were supposed to do. In the face of such failings, it called on the government to reform substantially its conduct of IT and to enlist the active involvement of top-level leadership.

Steward departed the UK in September 2002, her reputation enhanced and her recommendations having unarguably proved sound, yet as recently as July 2005 not nearly enough seemed to have changed in the UK. That was the month an influential committee of MPs - the Commons Public Accounts Committee - issued a report that found many UK government bodies were ignoring one of the main measures introduced in the wake of Steward's report to prevent IT disasters: getting their projects independently passed by the Office of Government Commerce, which set up the Gateway Reviews process to provide reality checks for risky projects. The MPs took such a dim view of the failings that they called on the Treasury to find ways of blocking funding for IT projects where departments "choose consistently to ignore stages of the Gateway process".

In their quest for IT perfection, Australian MPs have gone further, indicating in recent days their willingness to sack under-performing IT chiefs as Steward settles in to her new role. Yet the UK experience highlights not only the intractability of many government IT practices and institutions, but also the fact that even when government CIOs recognize their own and their team's weaknesses and embrace their government's imperatives, and even with the best will in the world, trying to orchestrate whole-of-government change can be incredibly difficult.

That in turn intimates that Steward - who has been armed only with carrots, not sticks, in her new role as federal CIO - now has carriage of one of the tougher IT gigs in Australia. It also suggests that the government, if it is serious about those sackings, might be aiming a tad high in its quest for IT perfection.

"The role that any whole-of-government CIO has in a federated system is extremely challenging because if anything is done across multiple agencies it has to be done by enlisting the goodwill of the individual agencies - particularly the big agencies, the gorillas," says Gartner Research VP Richard Harris. "Without the ability to direct, then it's got to be done through forming coalitions, trying to encourage individual agencies to do things that are not necessarily in the interests of their individual agencies. Every agency has its own legislative framework and so on, and there isn't a common business strategy for government like there is in a commercial organization for a whole-of-enterprise CIO, so it is about forming coalitions and working within a politicized environment. That's a big challenge."

Australian Computer Society Communications Tech Board director and Australian National University visiting fellow Tom Worthington also sees problems aplenty ahead for Steward, even apart from the usual difficulties of attempting to influence the behaviour of a group of semi-autonomous government agencies. One of her biggest challenges will be to get agencies to work together to get the benefits from networked technology. Another will be to integrate business processes with the private sector for the delivery of services, while maintaining needed privacy, accountability and the like, he says.

Nevertheless, Worthington believes, if anyone can do it, Steward can. "She has experience from both the Australian and UK governments. Ann minded the electronic document management committee I chaired while at Defence and proved very able to push us along to get things done. That work has now borne fruit with Australian Archives having the most advanced electronic archive in the world," he says.

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