Conroy seizes Cyber whitepaper

By Julian Bajkowski

Responsibility for the federal Government’s key technology security policy document, the Cyber Whitepaper, has been shunted out of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to Senator Stephen Conroy’s Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy after Prime Minister Julia Gillard moved to substantially widen the scope of the late-running treatise.

The transfer of the policy document to Senator Conroy’s command – and its widened focus – is a significant shift because it opens the door to input from key business and public sector supporters of the National Broadband Network who are looking for new technology policies that go beyond the limited debate over telecommunications infrastructure pricing.

The move will also provide the government with an opportunity to move the policy debate around technology away from a largely negative and risk-centric vernacular of security culture to a more positive and saleable language of technological innovation and improvement.

The key change to the document’s purpose is that it will no-longer be confined to a cyber-security agenda. Instead, at the instruction of the Prime Minister, it will encompass a high-level cloud computing strategy for both business and government.

As such, the document has been renamed the “Digital Whitepaper” and will also include input on a range of issues including the rise of internet  business models and the economic benefits and challenges the online economy has brought to Australia, including a technology skills shortage.

The initial Cyber Whitepaper had originally been intended to deal with security issues surrounding business, government and community computing and communications with a particular emphasis to the upswing in criminal hacking for profit and state sponsored cyber espionage.

While no formal written announcement of the policy formulation change appears to have been released by the government so far, policymakers including Senator Conroy are now pointing to the PM’s remarks at the Digital Economy Forum in Sydney on 5th October.

Talking about the creation of a cloud computing strategy at the event, the Prime Minister said that: “I think it needs to be a genuine government industry partnership and for us to embark on a cloud computing strategy so that we can capture in terms that are going to make sense to people what is very powerful about this and do it in a set of synthesised ways.”

The Prime Minister also told the Digital Economy Forum that although the original Cyber Whitepaper was important to get people thinking about a “security base” for Australia’s digital economy “we should be broadening that out so it is more a digital white paper and helps us capture some of the more profound and longer term issues being brought to the table.”

Senator Conroy has embraced the Digital Whitepaper’s new brief with some gusto.

“I’m now in charge of a Digital Whitepaper that encompasses all of the issues that we were looking at [during the digital economy forum], so it’s now part of a different process,” Senator Conroy told Government News last week.

“Essentially I’ve now been put in charge of developing our cloud strategy. So that’s all now all part of it [the Digital  Whitepaper],” Senator Conroy said.

“We are consolidating it, cloud strategy is now under me, we are going to be working our way through those issues to maximise government involvement.”

The Gillard government’s recent enthusiasm for cloud computing powered by the NBN is palpable.

At the launch of MYOB’s new cloud-based accounting software product in Sydney last week, Senator Conroy referenced cloud technology at least a dozen times, including somewhat modest estimates of the economic benefits it may bring.

“KPMG estimates that NBN-enabled cloud computing will boost our economy by $3.32 billion over 10 years,” Senator Conroy said.

However the relocation of cyber-policy responsibilities may not be good news for all parts of the government.

The latest manoeuvre comes as frustration mounts among policy makers over the comparatively slow pace of technology reform within the Commonwealth public service, especially the limited ability of departments and agencies to easily embrace new innovations that improve productivity, convenience and security.

While officially hailed as a success, some senior public servants now privately concede that the Department of Finance’s Gershon Review of government technology represents a missed opportunity because of its conservative focus on governance issues rather than disruptive emerging technologies like mobile and cloud computing.

The broadening of the policy scope for DBCDE will also likely act to broaden the role of Senator Conroy and DBCDE in shaping government technology while diluting the role of agencies like the Australian Government Information Management Office, whose effectiveness has been repeatedly questioned.

AGIMO’s intended role had been to better coordinate whole-of-government technology management and purchasing, however its heavy focus on technology cost-cutting and the creation of multiple committees have not always endeared it to other arms of government.

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