CIO

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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In November, Defence shifted its systems running 125 core applications from a data centre in Canberra to a new primary data centre in Sydney as part of its data refresh project.

Defence is also reducing computer rooms from 280 to 10, which along with the next-generation desktop project will save the department about $400 million.

“[This] moves us into more of a private cloud, virtualised environment, [which provides] more flexibility and the ability to scale [capacity] up faster than we do today,” Lawrence said.

Much of our technology interfaces directly with the customer base or supports our staff in the front of office and call assisted channels

Garry Sterrenberg, Department of Human Services CIO

Sterrenberg joined Human Services in October 2011, and has been engaged in a large transformation project over the last two years to integrate the former agencies of Centrelink, Medicare, Child Support and Commonwealth Rehabilitation Services into a single department and merged ICT platform.

“The interdependencies and business impacts are managed through tight co-ordination of activities between executive team members,” Sterrenberg says. “The successful implementation has required moving to common business process and other standards across the department.”

Monkley runs through a list of projects at DEEWR, from technology architecture to those directly supporting business across early childhood, schools, education and workplace relations. All projects are about driving business efficiency and continuous improvement, she says.

“Building our business analytics capability, and ensuring we have a good business intelligence platform, are key areas of work, especially in schools and early childhood.”

Another key project is desktop virtualisation, and DEEWR has a proof of concept underway with Citrix utilising the XenMobile platform.

Ultimately my role is about ensuring we work together to achieve business outcomes

Susan Monkley, group manager of technology services at the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations

“XenMobile is, hopefully, our long-term solution for BYOD and corporately supplied devices, but we will see what the proof of concept brings,” Monkley says. “In the meantime, we are transitioning away from BlackBerry devices, and using Good for Enterprise. We will offer a choice between selected Apple and Android devices.

“We are concluding a pilot with Amazon Web Services to host our development and test environments in the cloud. It looks positive and, pending the pilot, we anticipate pursuing cloud hosting more aggressively. We are reviewing the design of our data centres and space requirements, ahead of lease expiry over the next couple of years.”

Cloud computing is one approach Archer believes will not only reduce costs, but also allow more flexible IT delivery. “Cloud is an environment to innovate, to move and deploy new capability quite rapidly, and to look to leverage that enormous number of developers and companies that are providing new tools in the cloud environment,” he says.

He also points to big data as an area of opportunity. “Cloud represents a platform not just to potentially store large data sets, it’s also the ideal environment to run your analytical tools on. You can look to leverage capacity for a short period of time, and use those cloud-based analytical tools co-located with your data.”

One area of concern for Archer is legacy systems. “We have a very large number of very big legacy systems we’ve built up over many years, and we are going to get to a point where maintaining those legacy systems represents an investment that’s just too high or actually can’t be maintained.”

The bigger picture

Whatever the technology challenges, CIOs operating at such a strategic level see business as the greater priority and driver. “The role of CIO at Department of Human Services is definitely not a back office role,” Sterrenberg says.

“Much of our technology interfaces directly with the customer base or supports our department staff in the front of office and call-assisted channels. We are highly digital, supporting almost $500m in payments every working day. Because of the size and diversity of our customer base, it’s essential we provide technology that enables them to interact with us in a way that works for them.”

An example is the Express Plus Smartphone app, Sterrenberg says, which has been used to complete 8 million transactions since being introduced in August 2012. There are also 4 million Centrelink customers registered to use online and phone self-services. These individuals completed more than 74 million transactions last financial year.

For Monkley, business engagement is critical. “Ultimately my role is about ensuring we work together to achieve business outcomes,” she says. “In developing our IT strategy, we were very deliberate about ensuring it had a strong business focus, but did not attempt to replace the DEEWR Strategic Plan, which is where the key business direction needs to come from.

“Being responsible for the development and support of corporate applications, as well as business ones for schools and the workplace, means you have to have a good connection and understanding of the business outcomes to ensure what you are delivering meets those requirements. Importantly, you also need to understand the business well enough to inject information and technology possibilities into the design process that inform policy development, program design and delivery.”

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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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