Creating a ‘digital economy’ super-portfolio

The public service can have a huge role in building an innovation culture through the rest of the economy. But to make that happen, the responsibility for the ICT sector needs to move away from the oily-rag end of the Department of Industry's policy sheet.

The public service can have a huge role in building innovation culture through the rest of the economy. But to make that happen, it's time to move responsibility for the ICT sector away from the oily-rag end of the Department of Industry's policy sheet, once and for all.

In the Australian market, the Commonwealth is a disproportionately large buyer of ICT products and services. Spending more than $5 billion on ICT annually, it has enormous influence. It follows that the more innovative the Australian Government is in its use of technology, the more opportunity there is for local companies to be innovative.

Beyond blunt-force procurement

Yes, this is about procurement. But it’s not about the kind of blunt-force procurement policies of the 1980s and early nineties, where policy mandates dictated that a percentage of departmental budgets had to be spent on Aussie technology products..

Instead, the fresh push is needed to encourage the Australian Government to become a creative, best-practice user of technology, the public service to become a service  innovator. This can be a powerful driver of product innovation among local suppliers.

The key focus needs to be on tying the development goals for the ICT sector to Australian Government service delivery, and ultimately to government procurement. Forget about mandating John Button-era purchasing requirements. These programs were gamed by the multinationals, and we have Free Trade Agreements that don’t allow fair behaviour anyway.

A ‘digital economy’ super-portfolio

Surely the responsibility of developing the future of the local ICT industry now needs to be handed over in its entirely to the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE).

The ICT sector has been completely lost inside the Department of Industry's portfolio.While much of the policy development for the sector has already quietly migrated to DBCDE, it's time to formalise this responsibility.

And more importantly, let’s move the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) inside the Comms portfolio, as well as drop the full portfolio ownership of NICTA onto DBCDE's hands.

If we have decided as a nation to spend tens of billions of public money on upgrading our national broadband capability - as we have, regardless of which side gets elected - then let’s get fair dinkum about leveraging the investment.

In industry development terms, the ICT sector is special and should be treated as special. It's a horizontal industry that plays a critical support role across the whole economy. If the so-called ‘New Economy’ is to be a national priority, it needs to be addressed separately..

The aim of these moves are straight forward. That a ‘digital economy’ super-portfolio be created to elevate the profile of the sector.

Responsibilities should include taking over the responsibilities for the NBN, AGIMO, NICTA and all ICT related programs from the department of innovation. It would be useful too to have a shared junior minister liaison with the Trade and Education portfolios.

The natural home for ICT sector industry policy is the DBCDE. This is where the deep expertise resides, which in combination with the AGIMO policy-makers have done some good work. The cooperative efforts that have developed excellent work like the National Digital Economy Strategy should be formalised into a single portfolio. (This Digital First and Cloud strategies, open data initiatives, the review of employee share schemes - all good stuff.)

Driving these initiatives needs powerful voices in cabinet.

Turning back the clock 

There are some historical markers worth noting that point to why it's a good idea to bring all ICT issues into a singular portfolio.

The Howard Government structured industry development for ICT sector within the Comms portfolio. At the time, the Labor party argued this was misplaced - and that ICT should be moved into the industry department in order to give it greater prominence.

Unfortunately, the opposite happened. Under the Rudd 1.0 government, the IT sector sank without a trace under Industry minister Kim Carr, who has rarely never demonstrated any interest in anything that isn’t an automobile. He has reprised this role as the reinstated Industry minister in Rudd 2.0. Kim Carr is simply not interested.

AGIMO is slightly more complex, but holds enormous potential as a driver of innovation culture.

Since the departure of Lindsay Tanner in 2010, the federal government has lost much of its mojo in relation to genuine public service innovation in this sector. 

Tanner’s Gershon Review was a starting point, and the innovation dividends for public service tech departments to the opening up of government data sets had started to created a new culture within the public service. Powerful momentum was building.

The presence of Tanner and Stephen Conroy, as the communications minister, was a boost for the profile of the ICT sector, but with Conroy now also out of the picture the outlook seems deflated.

Kim Carr is seemingly ambivalent about ICT, and is quite frankly the wrong guy for the portfolio. Anthony Albanese isn't a "New Economy" guy, and wears a hard-hard and flouro in relation to the NBN.

Our ICT sector deserves better 

This is proving to be a difficult and frustrating election for the Australian technology sector. There's no real discussion of industry development. The NBN debates have been ridiculous and Malcolm Turnbull comes across as if he is  been gagged on talking about anything other than NBN speeds and feeds.

It's absolutely critical that the discussion can proceed beyond issues related to the day-to-day trench warfare over the NBN roll-out, and focus on whether the ICT sector is equipped to find its feet in a post-NBN landscape. 

Public policy in ICT sector industry development terms is littered with failure and missed opportunity – with an occasional, unlikely success thrown in. However, the current ICT space in Australia is still incredibly vibrant.

There is both a mood and an appetite for success, what's needed is some active and intelligent debate as the federal election ticks closer.

James Riley has covered technology and innovation issues in Australia and Asia as a writer and commentator for 25 years.

He has a special interest in public policy as it affects the tech sector and has written for newspapers and trade magazines, including The Australian, the South China Morning Post, InformationWeek and PC Week.

Contact James at james@innovationaus.com