Why Government IT Often Sucks And How To Fix It, By Malcolm Turnbull

Dimension Data today officially launched its Canberra managed cloud platform, which will provide a government-only cloud option for departments that need a high degree of data sovereignty. That gave Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull an opportunity to sound off on how governments could deliver IT services better — and he didn’t hold back.

The official government policy is to adopt a cloud-first approach , but that option has been somewhat restricted by a lack of on-shore options that meet required certification and security levels. The Canberra centre is being hosted by Canberra Data Centres, and will open in early 2015 with a range of shared and virtual private cloud offerings. (In what is surely not a coincidental move, Telstra also announced similar plans this morning, though its launch data is somewhat hazier.)

“The cloud we are announcing is able to handle classified government data up to protected level,” Dimension Data CEO Rodd Cunico said at the launch event at Parliament House in Canberra. “We guarantee that the data will remain here in Canberra.” The Department of Finance and National Disability Insurance Agency have already signed up to use the platform.

On a panel that also included deputy department secretary Elizabeth Kelly, Dimension Data CTO Debra Bordignon, Turnbull was the star turn. And his central thesis was that it was shameful that government had taken so long to adopt cloud. Government is rarely renowned for speedy adoption in IT, so that’s not entirely surprising, but the prospect had Turnbull very fired up.

“Cloud services represent a very important opportunity for governments to reconsider their traditional ways of spending on ICT,” Turnbull said. ICT? Really? Isn’t it all IT these days? But I digress and Turnbull is still speaking.

“We need to move away from the box-hugging mentality that resists any move to the cloud. This is not unique to government of course, but the private sector has more plainly transmissible incentives to cut costs and promote efficiency. There is no substitute for that very simple KPI of the bottom line. It’s the best discipline ever invented for any enterprise.”

I feel like Turnbull may have the ABC cuts on his mind, but he presses on. “It’s fair to say there has been much more resistance to the cloud in government than there has been anywhere else.” Turnbull points out that while the federal governments spends $6 billion a year in IT services, cloud expenditure has only totalled about $5 million since mid-2010.

“That is very, very disappointing progress. There’s a whole revolution in the way people are using ICT and it just wasn’t happening at government level. Something had to change.”

Recent changes in procurement policy were of course part of that change, but Turnbull seems a little surprised that shift didn’t happen even if it wasn’t officially allowed. “It’s remarkable actually that people do not reflect more often on the superiority of professionally managed cloud services versus what you can do in your own office or business or agency. The previous approach was very much one of aversion to change — that box-hugging resistance to anything which was going to perhaps challenge the roles of ICT professionals within agencies. It was a very defensive approach of protecting turf that has gone on.”

Thank goodness for smartphones and tablets, apparently. Turnbull credits those with making cloud concepts comprehensible to non-tech executives. “Decision makes in corporations in agencies who may not be ICT professionals or even particularly familiar with ICT are suddenly able to get it.” he said. “It’s quite interesting that the consumer side of cloud has actually led the way. The consumer side of cloud took off and is continuing to take and that means everyone knows what you’re talking about.”

There is a problem with this view: consumer-focused cloud services are almost entirely about storage, and rarely about drawing on external computing services. So there might still need to be some mental adjustment. But at least all those iPads give Canberra types a chance.

Turnbull was a little less forthcoming when asked during Q&A how governments would respond to an extended outage (which Dimension Data suffered earlier in the year.) “Nobody likes systems failing or outages of any kind, but the important thing is to anticipate and build in appropriate levels of redundancy and to learn from the incident to ensure it doesn’t happen again or its likelihood of happening is significantly diminished.”

But he becomes fired up again when discussing the pointlessness of highly customised solutions, telling a lengthy anecdote about a foolish Sydney law firm which commissioned its own word processing software from Honeywell in the 1980s. “The critical thing is to move away from the idea of bespoke solutions. Everybody thinks they’re different. The problems that are created from excessive customisation and needless customisation are just legion. A lot of people customise software and systems not because they need to but because they can. There is far too little sharing and far too little awareness.”

And with that point we return to how governments go wrong. “One of the big differences is that governments are far less aware of what is happening elsewhere with other governments, even in Australia, than the private sector is. One of the single biggest weaknesses in governments worldwide is a failure to understand and appreciate what I would call comparable policy solutions to common policy problems. Every jurisdiction is grappling with very similar issues. Yet how much are we learning from other countries?”

Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to Canberra as a guest of Dimension Data.

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