The Influence Peddlers
- 06 June, 2001 11:27
Who represents IT interests in Canberra? The vendors. And as long as CIOs are kept at arm's length from the process, that's the way it will stay.
In formulating the policy that culminated in the introduction of its much maligned Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Act 1999, the Howard government consulted mostly with itself.
Over the five years before the introduction of the new rules governing Internet content, there had been no less than five Senate inquiries, an exhaustive agency investigation and two consultation processes, each considering the impact of the introduction of that brand-spanking-new communications technology, the Internet. (Wheels turn slowly at the seat of Australia's federal government.) Yet ultimately the input of only two bodies - the Internet Industry Association (IIA) and Young Media Australia (YMA), a South Australian body concerned with the issues of the effect of media content on children - had any influence on the new laws. Mainstream groups like the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), the Australian Computer Society (ACS) and the Internet Society of Australia (ISOC-AU) were effectively sidelined.
In a city where image and influence are everything, CIOs don't have overly much of either. When it came to the Broadcasting Services Amendment (BSA), the voices of CIOs were either not heard at all or blithely ignored.
The outcome is a "censorship regime" which Roger Clarke, principal of strategic, policy and public advocacy company Xamax Consultancy has famously described as being based on utter technical ignorance, and of being intrusive, ineffective, confusing and costly. Even that most right-leaning member of the Institute of Public Affairs, Michael Warby, wrote in the Canberra Times that "Senator Richard Alston's Internet censorship bill - the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999 - displays a conjunction of technological incompetence, commercial destruction and political short-sightedness that has rarely been equalled." There have been fervid charges that the policy has damaged Australia's international technology reputation by positioning us as the "global village idiot" and that it imposes unfair costs on ISPs and hence ultimately on business. The government rejects all such claims, secure in the knowledge that at least its own advisers, the ultra-conservative Senator Brian Harradine and some parent groups agree with it. Opponents are labelled supporters of pornography.
Since then, the government has followed up with futile attempts to ban gambling on the Internet, absurd copyright rules on the forwarding of e-mails, and a failed and disastrous digital television policy. During the two terms of the Howard government, spending on R&D has rapidly declined in keeping with the government's withdrawal of support, and efforts to home-bake the skills we need to keep Australia moving forward technologically have stalled. The Opposition, meanwhile, makes plenty of noises about how the government is getting it wrong but has so far given minimal detail about how it would try to put things right.
Missing in Action.
In an election year where the phoney election campaign has already been running for as long as many IT projects, it's worth considering just how much influence CIOs can bring to bear when it comes to helping governments to formulate IT policies. In Australia circa 2001, the answer seems to be "precious little". While the government listens to big business on such hot-button technology issues as e-commerce, the IT skills crisis and intellectual property regulations - issues in which technology vendors and customers alike have vested interest - who is speaking for the CIOs?
"Historically it's always been a bit complicated," says associate professor Karl Reed of La Trobe University's Department of Computer Science and Computer Engineering. "The industry sectors - that is, the people who might regard themselves as the IT industry in their various forms - have always tried to assert some influence on government. In the 70s and 80s, through to the early 90s, the ACS asserted a very substantial amount of influence, but it was fairly narrowly-focused on the needs of the indigenous industry and it wasn't so wide-ranging as it is now."
But Reed says the needs of CIOs and others representing the larger user community have never been taken very seriously, and that Australian governments on either side of politics have generally been reluctant to acknowledge that there is an IT industry problem. At the same time, he says, the most significant influence on government IT policy over the last 30 years has been industry associations led by transnationals. These associations have historically done a great job of coming up with policies which appear to be even-handed and capable of benefiting everybody, but which in practice only further their own best interests.
"I don't think the CIOs have a direct lead into government," says GartnerGroup research director John Roberts, "and I think one of the things that governments lack badly in Australia at the moment is the all-of-government CIO."
Roberts points out that collectively CIOs tend to have little common interest. "In many respects they're out to deliver competitive advantage to their own organisations," he says. "So while they're interested when we facilitate a lot of peer group interaction . . . I think few if any of them would see themselves as an industry grouping."
The Australian Computer Society strives to put forward CIO's concerns but admits to being wary of antagonising decision-makers by being overly critical of government policy. That may be why its input seems so often to be ignored. Things may be slowly changing, though. John Ridge, current president of the ACS, says that, after years of neglect, the organisation is finally getting a somewhat higher profile in Canberra and government circles generally, even though the body prefers to influence and advise, rather than lobby.
"We are starting to get a higher profile in Canberra and we are now a member of the Australian Council of Professions," Ridge says. "A lot of our focus over the last 10 years has been to achieve that status, which we think was significant, not just for the ACS but also for the whole industry, because we're now recognised as being a true profession. "We can accept that government is not always going to accept our views and they may even - as has happened - act contrary to the views or advice we have given them. However, what concerns us is that our voice is heard. We would love to achieve a status where at least we're being consulted, at least we're being asked what our opinion is, because then we feel that at least the government is getting a balanced view."
Ridge says few CIOs have the time, inclination or resources to lobby government.
And while the companies' CIOs work for belong to their own trade associations, these groups lobby for their own industry-specific policy issues - health care or tax reform, for example. They leave IT issues to the IT trade groups, which consequently are the only voices many lawmakers hear.
One such group, possessing one of the loudest IT voices in Canberra, is the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA). But the AIIA is largely driven by the interests of its multinational members, even when these interests are to the detriment of local SMEs and users.
"The large industry organisations like AIIA, for example, are without doubt very much driven by the interests of their multinational members," one senior computer professional active in the ACS told CIO. "Now I wouldn't for a second suggest that multinational vendors haven't got a legitimate part to play in our industry in this country. However, I think we need to be careful and almost cautious of the amount of unbalanced influence they're given. AIIA are very effective at this: they've got very good and strong resources, a lot of their focus is on lobbying and they're very good at it."
New Kids on the Block.
The AIIA is just one of a handful of IT industry associations staked out in Canberra, each working tirelessly to affect legislation on behalf of their technology vendor members with varying degrees of success.
Now a new group may have a chance to counter their influence - but only if it is prepared to pay the cost. In an extremely controversial move, the Liberal Party is giving a small group of IT executives special access to government ministers for a $7500 fee. Recently, 15 key IT and communication executives attended their first meeting of the exclusive Liberal IT and Communications forum, which promises them a voice in party policy and the ear of Communications and Information Technology Minister Richard Alston "in addition to the normal channels of communication".
Prime Minister John Howard has denied the members of the committee will have more influence on government policy than will others in the community or that the move can be seen as policy for sale. Presumably those executives disagree, or why fork out the $7500? But whether they will eventually influence government policy or not, it's clear in many cases the current government is paying little heed to either the ACS or AIIA. It certainly wasn't interested in the views of the ACS on the advisability or feasibility of Internet censorship.
In his thesis, Australia's Online Censorship Regime: the Advocacy Coalition Framework and Governance (http://www.webprophets.net.au/websites/chen/thesis), Peter Chen notes the professional members of the ACS - amongst whom are numbers of CIOs and whose 15000 members comprise a good cross-section of the IT industry - should have been well placed to influence government decision-making. In fact, it seems their very expertise worked against them.
"Their capacity to understand and communicate the technology may, ironically, help explain the organisation's absence from the policy network," Chen writes. "As a professional society, the ACS was not only in the technical position to describe the limitations and flaws in many of the various policy proposals developed by the government, but was almost honour bound to do so.
"As an enthusiastic advocate for Internet technology, (then ACS president) Tom Worthington was unlikely to play by one of the key rules of the game: retaining criticism to inside the policy network itself. This, combined with Worthington's personal enthusiasm about the future of the technology and personal friendship with Labor Senator Kate Lundy, may explain the position that the ACS had outside the policy network," Chen posits.
As the Internet Industry Association (IIA) became increasingly involved in the policy debate, leading to their inclusion as the key industry insider administering parts of the Internet censorship regime, these tensions inevitably lead to further alienation of the groups, and less than veiled hostility, Chen notes.
Small Business, Big Concerns.
When the government does go to business for advice about policy, it tends to talk mainly to the big end of town and to CEOs. Certainly, there were CIOs and executives sporting titles like manager, global e-business among the 30 business leaders on the Business Council of Australia (BCA) e-business roundtable set up to develop an agenda for Australia's future as an e-business leader and to identify supporting strategies. However, they were there representing the interests of companies like JP Morgan, Amcor, CSC, BHP, Australian Stock Exchange, Hewlett-Packard Australia, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Boral and Qantas. The concerns of smaller businesses remained unaired.
Dr Peter Burn, BCA's secretariat contact for e-transformation, says there were quite a lot of companies represented at CIO or equivalent level at the forum. There was also strong CEO involvement, and he assumes many CIOs were influential via that connection. He says the BCA is setting up a reference group that will mostly comprise CIOs or their direct reports to advise it and to road test all proposals. He says CIOs can also make their views known by taking advantage of the high levels of direct interplay between various layers of business and the bureaucracy.
"You basically can ring up someone in the National Office of Information Economy (NOIE) or the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts and say: Hi. I'm from the Commonwealth Bank, I want to talk to you about IT issues' and they'll go: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, sure, take me to lunch'," Burn says. "You can get a feel for where the bureaucracy is coming from and you can express views that may or may not go anywhere in that sort of environment; but that's a very important link.
"In truth, it's up to people who are interested and who want to have a say to get off their bums and have input because the politicians and bureaucrats just aren't geared to going and finding out things about what people think."
Ears Wide Shut.
Critics of the Howard government's public service reforms, which have practically led to the abolition of the career public servant and the politicising of the service, claim the government has surrounded itself with yes men, and hears only what it wants to hear.
The result in IT terms has been some less than desirable outcomes. For instance, a recent survey by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu suggests further refinement of the government's innovation policies is required for technology companies to realise their full potential. According to Deloitte technology and communications industry group leader Ian Thatcher, the government has missed the boat on making it easier to access tax incentives and on providing enough assistance with global commercialisation.
The Deloitte Technology Fast 50 survey of CEOs and managing directors in the technology, biotechnology and telecommunications sectors reveals that while almost half of respondents believe the government's initiatives will have a positive impact, 41 per cent consider they will not deliver substantial change for the industry. The survey shows that although most respondents had accessed government funding or used tax concessions in the last three years, 69 per cent believe the incentives were too restrictive and difficult to access. A hearty 73 per cent thought they were too focused on research rather than development activity.
It is also becoming increasing clear the government is doing nowhere near enough to attract skilled IT people to Australia. Delivering the keynote speech at the Higher Education Information Technology Forum in Sydney recently, professor Lauchlan Chipman, Vice Chancellor of Queensland University, said Australian IT salaries could not compete on the global market, relegating the nation to a backwater. The fall in the dollar had also wiped out the benefits of the federal government's income tax reforms, he said.
Investment foreshadowed in the government's recent "Backing Australia's Abilities" innovation statement was welcome, he said, but was "significantly less than is required simply to tread water". In addition, universities are producing up to 10,000 fewer IT graduates a year than industry requires.
Making noise about the problems may be the best way of securing changes. As election time nears, Internet regulation, e-commerce taxation and digital privacy will be huge issues among incumbents and challengers. With these lively debates come prime opportunities for CIOs to be heard.
One way to start influencing government ministers and backbenchers is to talk to the public servants. For instance, NOIE has a strategy of partnering with business groups to improve efficiency.
However, as Worthington points out, "Working with industry has great potential, but also great risks. Large organisations can afford to devote staff and resources to projects with government. As a result, the direction of such projects can be skewed by the interests of a few large organisations which make up only a small proportion of the Australian economy." Worthington's own favourite way to influence government is via public forums and particularly via online forums.
"Politicians and senior bureaucrats do not want to participate in debate in these, but like to listen from the sidelines and see what ideas get support," he says. "As an IT person and consultant, I get asked about my special contacts in government. The reality is that I have few, if any. To let government people know about something, I put it online and then wait for government to read it."
Whether CIOs as a constituency can speak loudly and persistently enough to balance what lawmakers are already hearing from the IT vendors is an open question. But the only alternative to trying is to accept being effectively disenfranchised - totally removed from the policy-making process. Perhaps CIOs should be asking themselves how many more BSAs Australia can bear before the "global village idiot" label starts to stick.