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IT: the opportunities, some lost, from a low-tech budget

Why do politicians and their groupies always go on about the budget “sending a message”? Can’t they just use Twitter, email and the phone like we all do? But there is indeed a message in the budget: the government has no real vision for transforming Australia, and isn’t particularly interested in developing one with us.

Looked at through the tech industry’s glasses — note that “tech” these days means only information technology — the budget seems benign.

At iTNews John Hilvert again has listed everything IT-related, thank you. “The total amount of federal government spending on IT initiatives is unlikely to suffer from Treasurer Wayne Swan’s search for $34 billion in savings,” he writes.

Hilvert quotes Ovum’s research director for the public sector: “The big message from this budget is one of opportunity. There will be a lot of IT work coming out of new or changed programs.”

My ZDNet Australia colleague Josh Taylor concurs: “IT spending is not a key feature of the Labor government’s fifth budget.

But it isn’t all bleak; aside from continued investment in e-health, the National Broadband Network (NBN), its document-verification scheme and IT systems for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), the government did commit to spending $43.7 million over four years for the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) to replace its market surveillance system with ‘an enhanced, integrated system with increased data mining and analysis capacity’.”

Government IT is, in other words, a trough for an already lucrative, loud-snorting industry. But consider these semi-random observations …

The NDIS is a billion-dollar project. Doesn’t spending $240.3 million on their computer systems, nearly 25% of the total program expenditure, seem just a little high to you? Even given its start-up nature?

With $477 million already spent on the National e-Health Initiative, we’re adding another $233.7 million over three years — including $33.4 million for the current financial year. While a “Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record system” is a laudable goal, and while preventing a comprehensive privacy and security disaster won’t come cheap, shouldn’t we be seeing a little more dialogue about how all this will transform the day-to-day experience of maintaining our health?

And the NBN. “The National Broadband Network is transforming our economy,” lied the non-time-travelling Treasurer last night. There will be a transformation eventually. The differently sighted Mr Freddie can see that the entire world is going through the biggest transformation in a couple of centuries.

The core NBN project is off-budget of course, something we’ve known since the very beginning. That this was new to ABC 612 Brisbane listeners this morning proves that the extra $20 million to market the NBN is desperately needed.

But were is the rest of it? The NBN has the potential to transform government along with everything else. Where in the budget is the recognition that just as the internet has reshaped the music industry and is reshaping the movie, TV and retail industries, that it will reshape government too?

Pretty much everything else IT-related in the budget seems to be the routine upgrade of existing systems (like the ASIC thing) or built around the clearly false assumption that the vast machinery of government will continue to operate much as it does now, just through a website. Sorry, portal.

Sorry, gateway. A new aged-care gateway will cost $198 million over five years. It’s clear — isn’t it? — that in 2016-17 our elderly will want exactly what we can imagine now because … well, remember MySpace.

Why does this project need to be strung out over five years? Why can’t we just do something sharply and with focus in one year, then do another thing the next?

Why, for that matter, don’t we ever see that information systems are processes that must be operated and maintained and continually upgraded? Never, ever are such things built and “finished”.

Why will it cost $17 million to “enhance” the MySchool website? Surely it’s just a bit of re-coding and design to provide a new presentation of data that already exists?

AGIMO is slowly pushing changes, sure. And there’s good stuff happening under the label “Government 2.0”. There’s a few smart, keen people organising events like the forthcoming GovHack in Canberra in Sydney, and somehow they’re even managing to find $30,000 in prizes. Bravo.

By why, in a cashed-up nation that is, or was, renowned for its eagerness to develop and adopt new technologies, is all this stuff just mouse nibblings at the edges, buried under the dull plod of business as usual? Sometimes I just want to cry.

3
  • 1
    TormentedbytheDs
    Posted Wednesday, 9 May 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Stilgherrian,

    On the MySchool website upgrade. This seems a common theme missed by the commentariat, the amazing cost of these things. Maybe some other subscriber with more experience with big website development can give a breakdown on costing but back of the envelope if you take half of the $17 million for costs such as office space, management etc. that leaves $8.5 million for the people doing the work. Say $200.00 per hour, not a bad rate for steady work, means 42,500 hours of re-coding and design. If they are contractors doing say 36 hours per week and 48 weeks a year then we have about 25 people on $345,600.00 per year spending a whole year just on the front end? Anyone got a better idea of the breakdown of costs?

  • 2
    Posted Wednesday, 9 May 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    @TormentedbytheDs: Thanks for the envelope work. I didn’t have time / space to do it all on deadline, but it does start to look insane when compared with costs in the web startup world.

    That said, the public sector does need to do so many approvals and revisions, and tenders before it can even start, and follow-up analysis to see if the KPIs have been met. And things like requirements specifications tend to be written in a series of cross-agency meetings attended mostly by people with a non-technical background, rather than just written by one person and run past the boss for approval.

    I suppose it’s this outdated behind-closed-doors and only-the-public-servants-participate process that I object to.

  • 3
    Robert Smith
    Posted Wednesday, 9 May 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Nice article even if the point is anything but nice.

    It seems we are mired in business as usual approvals punctuated by horror at stuff ups and cost over runs.

    Does it really have to be this way?

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