Competitive Australia

Government agencies are in the midst of a paradigm shift -- a transformation in how business is conducted at federal, state and local government. Government professionals are being forced to do more with less, compete with the private sector, operate with tighter budgets and smaller staffs, and provide better service. Does that sound familiar?

As a result government agencies are being forced to evaluate their core strengths and weaknesses and to seek new ways of doing business. Information technology has a vital role in the drive to meet these new challenges.

With few exceptions, governments have come late to information technology. Most governments have seen their job as creating a somewhat benign environment in which the hoped-for economic and social benefits of IT would unfold, rather than actively harnessing the fancy new technologies to their own ends.

As monopoly suppliers, they generally are not worried about being "Amazoned" and about waking up one morning to find a Web-based competitor with the potential to put them out of business. Many business folk think the best thing government can do to encourage technology vendors' relationships is to stay away. At best, the thinking goes, government is generally ignorant and grossly inefficient, while at worst it's intrusive and regulatory.

Another often touted view is that the public monies that the government spends internally on technology could be better used in tax cuts through which entrepreneurs could develop and grow Australian companies.

Strategic plan

Most countries now have well-developed and clearly enunciated strategies and action plans for IT and a broad concept of the information society. These usually cover framework conditions and regulatory rules to encourage the development and use of IT by the business sector, government and citizens, and give quality and reach to the network infrastructure.

The rapid advances in information and communications technologies have profound implications for changes in the economy and to the lives of individuals. The US government recognises that the rapid evolution of information technologies lends itself to a market-oriented environment and that minimal government intervention will enable information technologies to achieve their potential as tools for citizens.

Governments today find themselves armed with more tools to serve their citizens than at any time in history. The result is e-government, with government attempting to cast itself as a model user of technology from the top.

There should be no doubting that a period of IT gestation is coming to an end and its impact will be to dramatically change the world as we know it. Within the next few years we will witness:

Communication costs falling by several orders of magnitudeTrillions of dollars of commerce being done over the InternetIndustries such as banking and insurance education and health care, consulting services and entertainment adopting the Internet to change the way they do businessThe Internet being used to order goods and services that are produced stored and physically deliverMillions of people worldwide connect to the InternetThe rapid growth of the computing and communications industries has created a large and growing demand for programmers, systems analysts, computer scientists and engineers. As electronic commerce begins to substitute for conventional sales and services it will shift employment from traditional occupations to those needed to manage information and, in many instances, higher cognitive reasoning abilities.

Electronic commerce is very much part of a broader national trend that requires more skills in the workplace and an improved basic education in mathematics, science and information technology.

Britain's e-Minister, Australian Patricia Hewett, commented recently: "If Jack Welch says that GE is going to become an e-business, it does and pretty quickly. Governments are different".

Politicians can be as visionary as they like but unless they can get the machinery of government to take notice, nothing will happen.

And persuading public servants to abandon their paper-shuffling ways and to embrace change on a hitherto unimagined scale will require relentless pressure as well as "some carrots and sticks" that will keep people moving in the public sector.

Competing

For Australia to compete in this Brave New World, many of our institutions must undergo a substantial and speedy modification that in most cases can only be led by government.

Government must cast itself as a model user of technology right from the top. Cabinet ministers and their deputies must work with technologies, understand them and be able to articulate their impacts.

Governments must also use their massive purchasing powers to encourage new and entrepreneurial companies while outsourcing as much as they can to the private sector, so that competitive skills can be developed.

The universities and college systems must be rationalised so they can play a much greater part in economic development than is now the case.

The Singaporean government through widely criticised for its somewhat repressive policies determined more than 20 years ago that if it invested in technology and its human capabilities it would create an economy where both individuals and organisations would be more likely to flourish.

Singapore's story demonstrates the capacity of a country with almost no natural resources to create competitive advantages with influence far beyond its region. It represents one scenario for what can happen when a government assumes an instrumental position in shaping and managing industry development.

Lessons

This strategy holds lessons for not only other small nations but also for larger countries and companies of all sizes. There are today very few inherent advantages that nations and corporations can comfortably count upon. Advantages have to be created and continuously reviewed.

What is required in many cases is a closer and/or even merging of the technology and education portfolios and also to include innovation, all headed by "Minister(s) for the future".

Australia's task is to add as much value as it can in "today" industries such as information technology, genetic engineering and environmental technology.

What should these new gee-whiz ministers do? Establish yet another "technology summit" of industrialists, scientists and politicians? Publish yet another report to end all reports on the countries future?

Or do we need the tub-thumping Internet enthusiasm of an Al Gore?

Most Australian entrepreneurs would argue that our approach is conservative but pragmatic when compared to America's "chaos on the line". They would also rather have fewer rules than more grand plans and industry reports.

Yet the suspicion remains that Australian innovation probably does need a bit more chaos. In the past, the grand strategy of the day has often quickly succeeded only to be undone by a string of other factors.

As anyone who has ever flicked through the pages of a Tom Peters book knows, chaos has been a key ingredient of Silicon Valley's success, indicating that the market rather than politicians is driving today's technology innovations. But are there any politicians qualified to tell entrepreneurs how to run their businesses?

Opportunities

The opportunities for Australia are enormous. Technologies no longer recognise national borders and state lines. Work on the same project can be done in several places or several countries without staff having to relocate.

In conclusion: if we have a surplus of well- trained talent, we can find job opportunities opening up anywhere in the world. Alternatively if Australia has an insufficient supply of skilled talent we will see these high paying opportunities migrated to places like Singapore, Ireland, Israel and India where they can supply the needed talent.

And finally, the days when we might expect to see companies moving to Australia and creating jobs here may be numbered. We either create the people for the jobs and companies or they just won't happen.

New companies, new jobs and new skill sets need to be continuously created. We need government focus, we also need more and more talented flag carriers as we experienced at "The Games".

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