Stewarding government IT policy

Having been anointed by public service chief Peter Sheregold as to lead government CIOs towards cohesive government ICT strategy, Australian Government CIO Ann Steward has been charged with fulfilling public service IT delivery expectations great and small.

These include redefining the most basic ways in which the government uses ICT to interact with the public - from baby bonuses to tax returns and even funeral allowances. Julian Bajkowski seeks out the Steward agenda that will chart the course for $5 billion dollars a year worth of IT spending.

Congratulations and welcome to one of IT's toughest jobs. How do you see your role as Australian government CIO? It seems like a very broad agenda - what have you inked out as immediate priorities?

My role is really setting the scene for my CIO colleagues. There's really no point in setting directives were there is little chance of success because there is no [management or stakeholder] buy-in. But we can be smarter about how we use ICT in government and deliver outcomes back to the community. For example the reuse or repetition of standardized business processes.

That sounds rather a lot like ITIL (information technology infrastructure library)...

Parts of ITIL make a lot of sense. I think the creation of the Department of Human Services also shows a commitment to improving coordination and delivery of services.

What's underway through the Tax Office, both with the Health Insurance Commission around Medicare and the Centrelink program for Family Tax Benefit... to be able to have that [interoperable] information pre-populated within the individual forms...well that has been a small step but a very significant step. We can build on that.

You have to chunk it down. Take it down to clearly-defined, small scope [increments] that you can leverage and learn from.

What will that mean to end users?

Well, a couple of things. I think we ought to be moving on is a FedEx type approach to let citizens know where there is interaction at within the government. Where their transaction is in the supply chain. It's the concept where people will be able to track the finality of there transaction.

The transforming of existing business processes also is an ongoing and challenging part of the work we will do - whether it's the Tax Office change program through to individual smaller agencies.

It's the simplification, streamlining and ability to have consistency in the way in which we operate; so when I deal with government I [the citizen will have a repeatable style of interaction rather than having to remember how to navigate through an individual department.

Government CIOs haven't always been exactly thrilled by the way their IT shops are audited, and some have even gone so far as to express concerns about Australian National Audit Office findings. Now that there is a new National Auditor, do you think things will improve?

I think governance is a really important component of everything that we do across the public sector. It's no different to what occurs in the private sector, bar the one issue of open and direct accountability through the parliament. A lot of work is undertaken in raising awareness, best practice...

Fair enough, but some CIOs have actually gone on the record and said they are unhappy about the way they were audited - that the people auditing may not have necessarily understood the IT they were looking at, for example footy tipping comps turned into "rogue databases".

If you speak with Ian McPhee as the new Auditor General, I'm sure he will be happy to provide any comment. But from my position as a [government] official and a practitioner, [the solution] is to work with [my] colleagues to make sure we have as much understanding as possible.

Case study work is also very important, and I know the Audit Office has been working on that. That's not only in the negative, but in the positive where there has been really good work done.

It's important to share that. Whatever we can take as lessons learned and populate that within our departments and agencies and raise the level of maturity - that's a positive thing.

You've also said you want a high level architecture statement to get to grips with the government IT big picture. Isn't this really another IT audit? What is this going to entail?

It's not an audit, but a map of what it is we understand we have in our IT environment [across the whole of government]. It's a view. There has been a lot of development over the last couple of years within the individual agencies. [The architecture statement] will help us in targeting where the gap points [deficiencies] we have. Not so much that we don't have something at all, but proactively looking at how you have something in place to later to an increased need or demand.

It's also, I think, an opportune time to look at where any further consolidation might be available in back office integration.

Looking at lifecycles in departments for upgrades will certainly help much more timely management. It will also help industry [ICT vendors] for them to have an awareness of the directions we will be taking, or the agencies will be taking. If they can see it from a more holistic level, I think it will be very helpful for them.

What about vendors. Where do they fit in?

[The architecture statement will] also, I hope, encourage [vendors] to bring more innovative products to market, or to work with us where there are opportunities trial new technologies to support our agenda. I think the push is really about the business processes: what more can we leverage?

When will it be available?

It's not something that will be available in a short period of time. But there is certainly preliminary work.

Australia has an adversarial political system with the states and the Commonwealth frequently at odds. How do you intend to deal with deal with say federal/ state antagonisms in terms of policy deliverables? You coined the term "e-rail gauge issues" before, but how do you intend to get ICT on the same track?

If you look at our authentication processes and other initiatives, you see we went to seek support and endorsement from our state colleagues and we achieved that [support]. That demonstrates the willingness of those entities to work with us to avoid the e-rail-gauges. We do a lot of work in the background - that's what a lot of my role is. There are major steps forward in the identity authentication area - what we call the 'known customer' framework.

What about citizen identity management? You've mentioned a whole of government identity framework. Is that for internal government consumption, or more customer facing?

This is internal for government for employees. This is part of the understanding of how we can better enable the easier transition of employees across departments and agencies. For example, for when staff are seconded; how easy it is for their details and profiles to e available to an organization.

There's been work at the Department of Defence in the form of initial studies undertaken last year. They have been looking at it not just for their employees, but also for contractors. This is an important base step we will take in understanding the nuances across agencies.

So is this a dry run to learn lessons for a more public roll-out?

This is around our own internal practices and being able to understand what it means in the government space. We have done additional work in terms of how we interact with business. These are important foundations we have work through. There are already a whole lot of processes that individual departments use to preserve the privacy of citizen's data. We share citizen data, but in compliance with relevant legislation, like the Privacy Act.

But would you seek to apply the lessons learned from creating a unified internal identity to other contexts?

It's very much internal.

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