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

Public versus private

It’s worth pointing out the unique quirks to operating as a CIO in the public sector. All government departments, at whatever level, face budget constraints. These could be tighter now thanks to the new Coalition government’s public sector cuts.

That’s not to say private sector IT chiefs don’t also face the same restrictions, but public sector CIOs have a number of masters hanging over IT’s shoulder – departmental management, political masters, media and the public – that put ‘risk’ into a particularly constrained environment.

“The difference in the public sector is the degree of scrutiny,” says Archer. “What that does is introduce into our own processes a need to be far more rigorous in assessing new proposals coming forward and new ideas. In the private sector, you can kind of throw money at a good idea and see if it works. That’s not easy in the public sector.”

That might come as a surprise to private sector IT departments, but given the transparency public sector operations find themselves faced with, entrepreneurship is not necessarily top of everyone’s strategy.

“In the private sector, you can take an idea to market, and you need to get a balance between risk and timing,” says Lawrence. “The public sector is more risk averse. We ask the question: How do we introduce processes in a safe but timely fashion?”

“We all need to be responsive,” adds Monkley, “to provide cost effective and efficient services that support the delivery of business outcomes. We all need to be aware of what is happening, what the opportunities are and how we can best take advantage of them.

“One of the differences in government is we have a range of policies that guide or govern what we do, which are there to provide assurance and certainty.”

Archer says governments can be innovative, but need to do it in ways that demonstrate why it’s an appropriate investment. That often includes doing research on how a particular innovation has worked in the private sector.

“This of course means we can be put in a situation where we’re a bit more of a fast follower than a leader in innovation,” he says.

Sterrenberg also points to short investment cycles and rapid structural change as being distinctly different in public versus private environments.

Recent events in particular may bring that last point home. Public sector IT departments can fall victim not only to a change in the ruling party, but also in the way ministries are set up. A case in point: After Centrelink, Archer served as CIO of the Department of Education, Science and Training. Following a government consolidation of departments, he became CIO of the larger DEEWR and in one fell swoop, went from being “the CIO of a middle-level department to being the CIO of a mega department”.

To cope, government CIOs must be extremely agile, recognise priorities and suggest solutions in a short timeframe. To a certain extent, they also need to learn to play politics.

“It’s important you have some understanding of where the debate is going,” Archer says. “But at the end of the day, we work for the government of the day.”

The key characteristic of a Future-State CIO is being able to look beyond current solutions and technology, and certainly beyond accepted wisdom.

As Monkley says: “It’s important to not get captured by existing ways of working, and to continue to question if we are doing things in the right or best way. Is there any way we could do this differently or better? Is there someone else who can do this more efficiently than us?

“Broad experience and continuous development help you achieve perspective and balance, and give you access to new ideas and approaches you don’t necessarily get exposure to in your job.”

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