A Public Affair

A Public Affair

The technology industry is rife with tales of senior government IT executives defecting to private enterprise, lured by prospects of more money, less red tape and the chance to work on cutting-edge projects. But just how often does fact measure up to myth?

Surely if the situation were as grim as some pundits would have us believe, we should count ourselves lucky that anybody at all mans the upper echelons of Australia's government IT departments.

Not true, say the government CIOs that we spoke to. While there can be little doubt that the life of a public sector CIO differs significantly from that of their private sector counterparts, reality isn't all that bleak. Executives with experience in both the public and private arenas agree that government CIOs have to work harder to achieve the same results that they could in the private sector. But that's only part of the story, they claim.

True, government CIOs face the added pressures that come with having to consider issues of accountability, privacy and government policy, but it seems many maintain that while remuneration isn't always commensurate with that of their peers in private enterprise, the rewards remain many and varied. Money, it seems, still isn't everything . . .

"Our job is harder."

That's the straightforward assessment offered by Centrelink CIO Jane Treadwell. She should know. As the CIO for the agency created in 1997 by the federal government to establish a single point of contact for citizens dealing with multiple government agencies, she knows firsthand how issues such as probity, privacy and the constant presence of government regulations add a dimension to the CIO role that most of her counterparts in the private sector can only imagine.

"There's more than one measure of success and, in public sector organisations, the bottom line is only one component of a complex environment - an environment that can change daily on the basis of government policy," she says.

The chief difference between that environment and that of the private sector? Executives on both sides of the public/private fence all agree: rules and regulations. While the private sector has ethical and legal boundaries, the issue of probity in the public sector is all-pervasive.

"I know there are rules, regulations and guidelines that apply in all business, but having worked in management in both sectors, I can tell you that public sector wins hands down when it comes to over-regulation," says Steve Amesbury, co-founder and director of Island Consulting.

Amesbury's background includes roles as project manager, applications manager and IT manager in some of Australia's largest insurance companies. In 1991, he founded Island Consulting to provide information management and technology project management services to both the private and public sector.

Specialising in risk management, change management and project quality assurance, Amesbury has held numerous public sector consulting assignments over the years, including work for government departments in Victoria and New South Wales. He recently completed five years as director, information services at the NSW Office of State Revenue, where he managed some of that state's largest IT projects.

"In my role, we had delegations specifying everything from our spending limits, to use of credit cards, to involvement on committees," he says.

"We had the Human Resource Handbook, Procurement and Disposal Guidelines, and technical procedures. We had Treasurer's directives, ICAC rulings and, of course, specific taxation legislation. There are rules governing how interviews are to be conducted, staff complaints are to be mediated, discipline is to be administered, and increments to be authorised. You name it, somewhere there is a highly detailed rule, regulation and/or guideline that tells you how to do it!"

This, of course, raises the question: who decides how much regulation is too much? After all, the public sector uses public money, and must be held accountable for doing so in a responsible and ethical manner. Similarly, CIOs are more likely than many other public sector executives to be involved with contracts and costly procurements, so their activities must be closely monitored.

"It is not that managers are incapable or unwilling to make decisions but - with a plethora of regulations to abide by, and additional considerations regarding privacy, probity and publicity - decisions can have unintended consequences. Thus care takes precedence over speed," Amesbury says.

The notion that caution is more important than swift action is one that Dr Ed Lewis, an academic consultant with the Australian Defence Force Academy, considers critically important to understanding the difference between the CIO's role in the public and private sectors.

Lewis holds a PhD in psychology and served in the army for 12 years, working mainly in information management policy. A member of the School of Computer Science at the Australian Defence Force Academy since its inception in 1986, his specialty, both in teaching and research, is systems planning. In that capacity he has served as an adviser to several government CIOs, helping to prepare business cases and evaluate tenders in most of the major federal government IT outsourcing initiatives since 1996.

Despite his long record of public service, however, Lewis undertook a brief sojourn in the private sector many years ago, acting as government marketing manager for Control Data in the early 80s. Lewis claims he entered the private sector to "see how the other half lived". He lasted a little more than a year before returning to government work.

"We used to complain about bureaucratic behaviour in the public service, with its seven layers of management, but then I went to Control Data and they had eleven layers of management," he says.

Despite spending most of his career in the military, which brought him face to face with government bureaucracy at its most tangled, Lewis maintains the amount of red tape to be found in a large multinational was even worse. "They had rigid bureaucratic processes you would not believe," he says. "I actually rejoined the army after that, thinking: Â'Thank God I'm going back to an organisation that knows what it's doing'."

Similarly, Lewis rejects the popular myth that portrays government agencies as lumbering administrative behemoths and instead asserts that the private sector has more than its fair share of convoluted bureaucracies.

"Bureaucracy is a function of size, not the sector to which you belong," he says. "You can get a small government agency that's quite capable of being as agile, as forward thinking and as rapidly moving as any private sector firm. You also have very large private sector companies - the BHPs and Coles Myers of the world - which are extremely slow moving because they have so many layers of management."

Lewis points out that over the last five years a number of government agencies have been turned into government business enterprises, complete with "shareholder" ministers that they must report to. He cites as an example the Defence Housing Authority, which has as its shareholders the Minister for Finance and Assisting Minister for Defence.

"They act as shareholders, there is a commercial board and so on," Lewis says. "Many such public sector organisations are run now on purely commercial lines."

"You get boards of directors or you get ministerial whim of fancy; you get commercial realities or budgetary pressures - they're just different names for the same sorts of pressures."

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