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Life in the political pressure-cooker: Government CIOs

Life in the political pressure-cooker: Government CIOs

AGIMO’s Glenn Archer, Department of Defence’s Dr Peter Lawrence, Department of Human Services’ Garry Sterrenberg and DEEWR’s Susan Monkley share their experience working in high pressure ICT environments

Behind the scenes of electioneering, the wheels of government never cease. They can’t afford to; life goes on for the general population and people need their connection, their communication and, for some, their livelihood, regardless of any shenanigans in the house on the hill.

Glenn Archer is the Australian Government CIO and heads the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO). Prior to this, he was national manager of IT infrastructure with Centrelink, which he describes as his “scariest job”. It’s a 24/7 operation and many people depend on Centrelink payments to live.

“You know the single point of failure is in fact the IT systems that process those payments. We came very close one night to missing a pay run, and you just don’t want to be there,” Archer recalls.

“What I learned is just how important IT is to this country and to the people of the nation that depend on government services. Not just payments, but also being able to interact with government to apply for a licence or to register a business. All these things are quite fundamental to their needs and if you stuff it up, you’re going to seriously hurt them and ultimately the country.”

Current CIO for the Department of Human Services including Centrelink is Garry Sterrenberg. He bluntly points out the responsibilities are profound: “Failure of ICT can end in people not having food to eat or a roof over their heads.”

The risks facing some government CIOs can go even further than a missed payment. Dr Peter Lawrence, CIO for the Department of Defence, agrees an error in his arena might actually have graver impacts. His IT role is about capability and communication and covers everything up to but not including weapons systems.

“Uptime is obviously very important, as it is with a bank,” he says. “But there are serious issues in Defence where uptime could make a life-or-death impact.”

No pressure, then.

Career connections

So is there a typical background and set of qualifications that best support these responsibilities?

Coincidentally, Lawrence and Sterrenberg both previously worked for ANZ Bank and Shell, though Lawrence hails from the UK and Sterrenberg from South Africa. The similarity in their formal backgrounds, though, stops there.

Sterrenberg has an MBA and a Bachelor of Commerce in Computer Science and Accounting, and moved quickly into a range of IT roles. His immediate position prior to joining Human Services was Australian CIO for ANZ Bank.

Lawrence took a different route, at least initially. He has a PhD in chemistry, although he admits he did little in that field, with a stint at Shell research. He quickly moved into supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and corporate networks with the oil company.

We can be put in a situation where we're a bit more of a fast follower than a leader in innovation

Glenn Archer, Australian Government CIO

Archer spent eight years with Apple as a systems engineer, and four years as sales and channel manager for Cisco. After joining Centrelink in 2002, Archer was tasked with turning on the government agency’s online services.

Centrelink became the lead agency and is now one the largest government providers of such facilities. Archer also has a bachelor degree in science, maths and computing, and an MBA.

Susan Monkley, group manager, technology services with the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), also previously worked at Centrelink looking after national service delivery strategy and business and service improvement in an area office. (At one stage Archer was also CIO of DEEWR).

Monkley is a career public servant, and holds a Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting and a Master of Taxation and Executive Masters of Public Administration. Apart from Centrelink, she has worked at the Australian Taxation Office with the small business community on tax reform, and was instrumental in developing several electronic tools for small business to support GST implementation.

Before taking a more IT-focused role at DEEWR, she was responsible for job network procurement and contract management, stakeholder engagement and communications, and job network performance measurement.

“Ongoing learning is important and helps to keep you up-to-date on new approaches and new ideas,” says Monkley. “Each of my degrees have helped to develop an inquisitive and questioning approach, analytical capability, research and scanning, looking at things with different perspectives.”

Lawrence agrees an analytical mind is extremely useful as a government CIO and was an intrinsic part of his career in science. “You need skills in encapsulating knowledge, especially for research papers, and this means problem solving, probing and challenging accepted ideas,” he says. “You apply logic and scientific rigour to processes, and there’s a balance between attention to detail in presenting results and the need to be creative, especially in the early stages.”

However varied the career path, the four CIOs agree their background diversity has given them the broader perspective they need in managing IT careers at the big end of town.

Technology kudos

Managing complex and vast technology projects is another trait shared by the CIOs dealt with here, and most are currently or have recently been involved in major technology overhauls.

The way to fight wars is changing; it's driven by electronics and intelligence

Dr Peter Lawrence, Department of Defence CIO

Lawrence oversees one of the largest ICT networks in Australia. Defence conducts business of $1.3billion a year globally, and manages fixed and mobile ICT networks of more than 6000 servers, eight satellite constellations, three primary domains, three primary data centres, 110,000 workstations and 3000 applications.

Lawrence claims he was thrown into the deep end at Defence when he joined in November last year.

“The way to fight wars is changing; it’s driven by electronics and intelligence. The real challenge is interoperability across the three services and our partners,” he says.

Apart from a number of projects he is not at liberty to discuss, he tells CIO Australia several Defence projects are helping to address the department’s massive data management and communication issues. One is the Terrestrial Communications initiative to provide a more modern, scalable domestic voice and data network supporting 100,000 users at 330 sites in Australia, and enabling Defence to run 10Gbps links into its largest bases.

The third phase of this project enables users to connect to Defence’s networks at any time, including wirelessly, and provides desktop-to-desktop video conferencing on the Defence Restricted and Secret networks.

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