Australian Government CTO Explains How To Be A More Effective IT Pro

Australian government chief technology officer (CTO) John Sheridan gets a big say in how more than $4 billion of Federal IT expenditure is deployed each year. What strategies does he recommend, and how can you apply that logic in your own work?

Chess picture from Shutterstock

Sheridan gave a presentation on current trends in government IT at the Kickstart conference in Queensland on Sunday. Here are 10 key lessons to take away from his experiences — worth noting even if you work in the private sector.

Big Deals Won’t Always Save Money

Being able to buy on a large scale should produce savings, but that isn’t always the case. Sheridan boasted that rationalisation of desktop purchasing processes had produced a $27 million saving over 18 months, but those figures also highlight that bulk buying isn’t inherently efficient. Prior to changing the process, government prices for desktops were 54 per cent above average Australians prices, Sheridan said. After the change, they fell to 49 per cent lower. The lesson: The best hardware deal isn’t always a result of scale; examine your processes.

Waiting Too Long Makes Your Decisions Irrelevant

“Cloud mobility and social media mean that the way we provide IT now has in some cases been overtaken by events,” Sheridan said. His principle example? A 2009 government task force devoted considerable time to debating whether accessing social networking sites was an appropriate use of government PCs. “Guess what? In 2013 no one cares. Anyone who wants to be on social media uses their mobile device to do so.” The lesson: “The problem is not one of technology, but of personnel management,” Sheridan said. “We need to look at this wave of new technology and position ourselves so we can ride it, not just get dumped by it on the beach.”

Don’t Have A One-Size Fits All Data Centre Policy

The government uses a range of data centre sites, and their security levels are a key consideration. However, that doesn’t mean every single centre needs to meet the highest security levels. “You need an appropriate degree of security,” Sheridan said. “Pick different providers based on these requirements.” The main is a case in point. While that site included sign-up facilities for members of the public to access services, it needed to be hosted in a highly-secured centre. After a strategic decision to switch responsibility for accounts to the Department of Human Services, a cost-saving switch was possible. “Once you take the private information out, it sits very comfortably in the public cloud,” Sheridan said. The lesson: Private/public cloud decisions sit on a continuum; they aren’t absolute.

Not Everything Centralises Well

Along with hardware software purchases, government IT procurement included a panel for centralised purchase of mobile accessories. “No-one bought their accessories through the panel; there was too much administration involved to do that,” Sheridan said, noting that buyer behaviour reflects personal purchases. “Typically, not only do they buy their own devices, they changed their devices over very quickly.” The panel now concentrates on obtaining better deals from operators for services rather than accessories. The lesson: Centralised buying doesn’t always make sense.

Focus On Processes When You Consolidate

Sheridan was asked to nominate examples of services where centralisation across government had worked well, and nominated two: AusTender (for tender management) and APS Jobs (which lists public service job vacancies). “Why are those systems so successful? Because there’s a single business process across the entire government that is supported by a single system. If you try to build one system for multiple processes, the CIO starts having to force process changes on the business.” The lesson: “We need to ensure when we’re dong this stuff that business processes are addressed first.”

You Can Get Better Microsoft Pricing.

Centralisation can have pricing benefits too. The whole-of-government Microsoft sourcing agreement covers 300,000 devices, 260,000 user accounts, and 85 agencies, and Sheridan estimates it has saved $100 million over standardised government pricing. That process has been efficient, but setting it up was time consuming. The current agreement expires in June this year, and the process of drafting a replacement agreement began in August last year. The lesson: “Getting all these things together and driving an outcome that it good for everyone is a challenging activity.”

Put IT In The Right Division

A restructure last year placed central government IT management into the main department responsible for overall procurement and finance management. “This moves technology and IT issues from something that you bolt on at the back of a policy and sticks it at the front where policy is formulated,” Sheridan said. “This will make sure technology issues better inform policy development.” The lesson: Your existing business structure may need rethinking.

Choose Your Targets For Automation

Automation is a key goal for IT. “We need to look at using the technology not just to address savings but also to address productivity,” Sheridan said. “Automation is key.” However, that doesn’t mean everything can be automated. “You shouldn’t try to automate the really complex tasks,” Sheridan said. The lesson:

Match Apps & BYOD To User Needs

“There is still a place for large enterprise level applications such as Microsoft Office, but most of us don’t use all the facilities of those large programs,” Sheridan said. He advocates using more basic and lower-priced software, especially on tablet devices (citing the presentation software Haiku Deck as an example). “I’d rather see us break up the office suite and use smaller cheaper apps that don’t need to be upgraded with major IT changes.”s

However, that doesn’t mean that every user needs a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) option. “All of us like BYOD and it has a lot of applicability for a lot of public service knowledge workers, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to riflemen. Centrelink counter staff need to use the system Centrelink provides for that.” The lesson: Match technology to user needs, not current trends.

Don’t Be First, Be Second

“We have to be careful about getting innovation right,” Sheridan said. “We should aim at being first to be second. There’s not many things where we need to be the proponents of putting a technology out there first.” The lesson: Pace your innovation: don’t fall behind, but don’t fall off a cliff.

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