BUDGET 2013: Government 2.0 at Abbott's expense

The budget has laid out some extensive plans for government IT reforms. But the timing suggests that these projects are intended to slip up an incoming Abbott government rather than push any kind of innovation.

There’s an old saying that IT projects sound great on paper, so it’s no wonder that so many were included in this year’s national budget.

For a budget that was foreshadowed to be quite frugal – or as Wayne Swan put it, “sensible” – the government has really ramped up its efforts to modernise the technology used by its departments and agencies.

The timing of these reforms raise questions as to their motivations behind them.

As Ovum analyst Kevin Noonan puts it:

“This is the kind of budget that you would expect to see early in the electoral cycle, where the government would tightly manage these projects all the way through their period in office,” he says.

“It’s quite unusual to see this kind of announcement come out at the end of the cycle.”

The reason perhaps ties into that second part of that old IT project adage. That is: they sound great on paper, but often lack in execution.

As it stands, an incoming Abbott government faces the prospect of having to manage numerous, extensive IT projects. Meanwhile, Labor gets to use its IT spend as an election platform.

Adding even more risk to these endeavours, a couple of the major projects have already been written off as future savings.

For instance, the government’s AusTender reform – which is expected to streamline and widen the opportunities for government IT tenders  – has been slated to return $68.4 million to the budget over the next four years. But as Paul Wallbank pointed out yesterday, there’s no guarantee that this IT reform will change attitudes of the public servants who tend to opt for larger suppliers over local vendors.

The government’s budget has also given numerous agencies the green light to their IT ambitions.

For instance, around $219.9 million will be spent over five years on a new international communication system for the Department of Foreign Affairs. In the same period, around $102.2 million will be allocated towards reforming the Department of Human Services’ child support IT systems.

The figures pale in comparison to other budget initiatives – such as the billions to be spent on both fuelling the DisabilityCare and Gonski education reforms. But the sheer number of major IT projects on the go at the same time may prove problematic for any incoming government that’s trying to keep its spend under control, as such plans do have a tendency to run both overtime and over-budget.

Despite this, analysts argue that a rapid improvement in IT is critical.

John Brand from Forrester Research claimed the budget didn’t go far enough, and that the government is stuck in a mindset where it’s using IT as a cost-cutting mechanism rather than as one that can generate future opportunities.

Talking of cutting, an incoming Abbott government could end up chopping a lot of these initiatives in order to mitigate risk. There’s no doubt that many of them won’t commence until after the election.

But in doing this, an incoming Abbott government would be missing the point of these reforms. These large-scale IT projects may be risky, but they are necessary if the government wants to have any hope of lowering costs and of staying relevant to the needs of its tech-savvy constituents. It’s just a shame that like so many other initiates, government IT has been transformed into a political hand grenade, rather than being treated as an investment for the future.

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