A Public Affair

A Public Affair


There can be little doubt that CIOs in the public sector have to be far more aware of probity guidelines than their private sector peers. Unfortunately, as Amesbury points out, the multitude of government regulations that public sector CIOs must take into account also slows down the decision making process drastically.

"In the agencies I was involved with, I saw decisions take days or weeks and involve committees or panels - decisions which in my previous employment I would have delegated to a more junior manager and expected to have resolved the same day," he says.

However, despite his criticism, Amesbury is quick to point out that a longer decision making process is simply the price of doing business in the public sector. Those who deal with the government know from the outset that these are the rules that the government plays by.

It's a view shared by Colin Roberts, former director of information systems at the Federal Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA). An 18-year veteran of the IT industry in Australia, Roberts began his career in the public sector but, after nine years in government, moved to private enterprise, where he assumed a number of sales roles selling solutions and hardware. Five years ago, he founded his own company and set his sights on the government outsourcing market. His position as manager of information systems and services with DCITA was a contract role. As such, Roberts is ideally positioned to comment on the difference in the way public and private sector organisations conduct business.

"It can take a lot longer to get something done [in the public sector], but that's predominantly because there are processes you have to go through and rules you have to follow," he says. "Accountability is what slows the process down, but when you're dealing with taxpayers' money you have to make sure you're squeaky clean. There's no way of getting around that."

According to Roberts, achieving success in the government sector is largely a matter of setting realistic expectations.

"The period between when you start taking a look at an opportunity in government and when you actually start doing the work can sometimes be fairly drawn out. But that's a known quantity. Government bureaucracy is no secret," he says. "Once you know how long it will take to get something done, you need to set expectations accordingly. It's a matter of establishing a realistic time frame for achieving something, given the bureaucracy that you have to go through."

In fact, it is precisely the challenge to streamline government bureaucracy that attracts some CIOs. Treadwell counts herself among the their ranks. She regards the need to scale back bureaucracy and deliver more efficient service to the public as a top priority.

"As an organisation we're trying to make ourselves responsive, low on bureaucracy, high on quality and provide a good work environment that makes it easy for our staff to service citizens," she says. "My interest is in helping that reform process, and in the information and technology area that's very much a transitional role. That's also what excites me about being a CIO."

Lewis takes a slightly different view. While conceding that public sector organisations often take longer to make strategic decisions, Lewis maintains that, when you hold the strings to the public purse, accountability must take precedence over action.

"One of the essences of an organisation that has to deal with the public is that you need a certain sense of stability so that the public knows what to expect," he says. "This can constrain circumstances, but often stability is a good design feature."

"Having stability is different from being hidebound and slow," Lewis says. "In fact, it's one of the characteristics of a quality service provider."

"Take the example of an organisation that's paying veterans' cheques. You want to know what to expect from this organisation. You want surety of service rather than wonderful innovations that mean each time you turn up there's a new product to consider or a new way of doing business."

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