Industry fears Abbott government lagging on APS tech reforms

Paul Fletcher, Parliamentary Secretary for Communications.

The Federal government risks failing a surge in citizen demand for modern, web-powered delivery of transactional services unless a more comprehensive and holistic approach to innovation policy is put in place, Australia’s leading technology industry group has warned.

The Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) is worried that key reforms needed to transform how the government now interacts with citizens is could fall badly behind mainstream consumer experiences as the corporate world continues to digitise its services apace.

It may not be a new debate, but technologists are concerned the experiential gap between business and government is widening following a change of government and a slow start to policy changes.

“Citizens’ expectations are outstripping [the] government’s capacity to deliver and government needs to find ways to engage with industry and deliver services and solutions [for]n citizens needs in a cost effective way,” AIIA chief executive Suzanne Campbell told Government News.

The strong concern from the Australia’s peak tech industry group comes on the back of the public release of the AIIA’s candid submission to an Inquiry into Australia’s Innovation System by the Senate Economics References Committee, a probe that has mustered a whopping 161 responses.

Specifically, group’s submission takes the Abbott government to task over its promising a raft of innovation policy driven changes to government that are still yet to materialise.

Put simply, the AIIA wants government to try and lead by example on the innovation front as a way of reducing costs and improving outcomes, goals the government on face value would be expected to share.

But high-level consensus is where much of the agreement on the pace of real action appears to end.

“While there is lots of talk about the ‘innovation’ of government operations and service delivery, in truth there is little evidence that agencies are being genuinely encouraged to innovate,” the submission says.

Describing the government’s role of “taking a leadership position in driving innovation, particularly in the delivery of services” as important, the AIIA submission argues public sector innovation often flows through into the wider private sector.”

Having helped inform many of the more tangible positions contained in both the National Commission of Audit and the Coalition’s 2013 election policy, the AIIA is now pushing for answers on why progress on technology-led innovation appears to be so slow.

“While the more aggressive approach to eGovernment announced by the [Abbott] government in their pre-election E-Government and Digital Economy Policy was welcomed, progress remains elusive. For example, despite a clear commitment to ‘open public data’ to drive efficiencies in government service delivery, the most valuable data sets that would drive innovation remain locked up, and where data is available the ability to access and use it effectively is patchy,” the AIIA’s submission says.

The peak tech group has also taken swipe at why a “mooted ICT Advisory Board” that “aimed to provide private sector ICT expertise to advise on the productivity benefits of ICT” is still yet to be formed more than a year after the policy was announced.

“Similarly the dashboard of metrics to report Government’s ICT performance has not been delivered. AIIA raises these as critical because they provide clear opportunity for Government to build the innovation culture from within – in the departments and agencies over which it has direct control.”

Government sources have indicated that neither Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull or his junior minister, Paul Fletcher intend to preempt the inquiry’s findings. The Committee is due to report back on the first sitting day of July 2015.

That length of time has many in the technology industry deeply frustrated in terms of getting runs on the board in terms of technology-led reform.

Meanwhile, despite the AIIA’s best lobbying efforts, Budget savings measures of the more immediate and hard cash kind are winning out over the more valuable, if slightly slower goal of systemic reform.

Although Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull remains an avid proponent of the value and savings that Open Data can generate for government and the community, his stand – which is backed by most states – has clearly not extended to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission which appears likely to privatise its profit-making registry functions; as opposed to making its corporate data freely available to developers and the public.

Mr Turnbull has previously attacked the pay-walling of ASIC’s data as regrettable and used an AIIA analytics conference in March to put a pre-Budget public broadside into the regulator that ultimately fell upon deaf ears in the Cabinet room.

A further frustration for those selling technology-led innovation into government are the often awkward demarcation lines surrounding government technology settings that fall between the Department of Communications, which develops policy and the Department of Finance, which sets down procurement rules.

There had been heightened expectations big IT infrastructure savings could flow from the adoption of technologies like cloud computing.

However large parts of Canberra are still playing catch-up on the cloud front in the wake of a now -lifted moratorium on new data centre contracts that was put in place following the instigation of the Gershon review by former Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner.

An even bigger worry is what will happen to government-funded technology research and development following the Budget.

“The lack of well-structured or permanent information sources available to participants in the innovation system combined with the absence of innovation precincts – physical hubs that provide a focal point to bring together the relationships and resources they need to innovate – are symptomatic of the bigger issue if an innovation system that lacks formal and effective collaboration frameworks,” the AIIA warned in its submission.

The group is also clearly concerned about the diversion of funding away from technology.

“Recent funding cuts to two of Australia’s premier public research institutions – CSIRO and NICTA, signals  . . . a potentially serious erosion of Australia’s future research infrastructure capability.

“Funding cuts and policies premised on the assumption that the market will drive basic, core research are therefore, flawed,” the submission said, before pointing out that Australia could trying for the wrong kind of world first.

“There are no economies in the world where such fundamental, pure research is undertaken by commercial entities,” the AIIA submission said.

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