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.

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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.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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