The government's hard stand on offshoring public sector ICT jobs appears to be softening around the edges, with federal ICT Minister Senator Helen Coonan adding some noteworthy qualifications to her so-far ebullient support for the concept.
Speaking at the Melbourne Press Club last Friday Coonan told journalists she thought "…the prospect of jobs going offshore is a matter of concern and I think [organizations planning to offshore need] to look very carefully before they do that. But I do think that in terms of how you would regulate it, you shouldn’t artificially constrain it".
The softening of rhetoric appears to indicate the first jitters in what has amounted to policy tightrope act, balancing the economic merits of the Free Trade Agreement whilst hosing down fears of the potential loss of thousands of government IT jobs.
However, Coonan is sticking to her guns that government agencies must retain the option to offshore if it proves to be the best ICT option for them. Answering a question on what sort of jobs may leave Australia, Coonan went to some length to illustrate what would stay at home.
"Obviously, the government is not going to be outsourcing jobs overseas unless there is real value for money and you have to ask yourself with the characterisation of the people and jobs [of lesser skill and value] in India, why would you be outsourcing high-value jobs? You wouldn’t be," Coonan said.
Having been accused of planning ICT job subsidies by Coonan last week, Labor ICT Shadow Senator Kate Lundy launched a counter offensive, labelling the government's position as dangerously confused.
Lundy said that while the government was big on conflicting rhetoric and accusations of protectionism, it had little to show in the way of criteria for offshore vendor performance or security.
"She took the soft option and then toughened up her stance. This government provides assurances based on contracts [it knows can be difficult to enforce]. We know from experience [onshore] how hard it is to enforce privacy and security…these are very real concerns," Lundy said.
Casting suspicion over all outsourcers, Lundy cited the infamous "wheelie-bin incident", where classified e-mail back-up tapes from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet mistakenly found their way to a Canberra rubbish tip, as a case in point.
The prospect of an offshoring push has set the already rampant public sector rumour mill into overdrive, with some sources speculating the cost of election promises may be taken out of government IT.
One public sector source said it was now getting "far harder to distinguish" what came in from offshore rather than what went out with vendors.
"Whoever wins [the election] is likely to prune heavily, so offshoring is easily part of that mix. But it's really a matter of what not to let go.
Vendors are already shipping in code created offshore, so it will be more a contractual adjustment as to what cannot be sent away, rather than whoever delivers the code locally," the source said.