Government plans major agency IT shake-up

Von Julian Bajkowski

The Australian federal government is preparing a massive IT shake up in the wake of the election and is set to consolidate and streamline information systems across no fewer than six agencies whose annual budgets exceed A$80 billion (US$57.6 billion) as early as next year.

The IT shake up will come as part of Prime Minister John Howard"s move to create a single Human Services department which will oversee Centrelink, Health Insurance Commission, Child Support Agency, Health Services Australia, Commonwealth Rehabilitation Services and Australian Hearing, under one umbrella.

As a junior portfolio within the Department of Finance and Administration (DoFA), the Human Services department effectively gives Finance minister Nick Minchin direct control of government IT, the sale of Telstra and the Australian Government Information Management Office -- with former Tourism Minister Joe Hockey appointed under Minchin to oversee Human Services.

Asked directly whether an IT restructure of the of the six Human Services agencies would occur, spokesman for Human Services Minister Joe Hockey, Sasha Grebe, confirmed an IT shake up was in the pipeline, but warned it was too early to predict any outcomes.

"We are (planning an IT restructure). We are ruling nothing in and nothing out. We"re not giving any statements on what we are or are not doing," Grebe said adding the Human Services portfolio would "follow through" on the Prime Minister"s promise to get service delivery right.

Describing the new Human Services department, Prime Minister John Howard said it reflected "the strong commitment of the government to reinvigorate public administration and improve the delivery of services".

"Immediate priorities will include improving the flow of clients from Centrelink to the Job Network; increasing the speed with which injured employees are referred for assessment, intervention and rehabilitation support; and further developing a client-focused participation network across government agencies," Howard said.

The moves to consolidate the six agencies gives credence to a long-standing concern among senior public servants that "public-facing" information architecture has become increasingly fragmented and costly -- the result being that IT suppliers are increasingly confused and out of touch with core public service objectives.

A senior government IT source said: "These are very large transactional systems, they handle huge transactional volumes. Policy is not always sympathetic to the way IT behaves. Sometimes you wind up building stand-alone (IT) structures just to get over the line. It"s about time we got a more holistic view... that opportunity is there now...I think it is very important we grab the opportunity while the will is there."

Concrete plans for the restructure are expected within six to 12 weeks.