Skills crisis grips feds: CIOs form crisis group

Von Julian Bajkowski

In a classic cycle of famine or feast, federal IT projects are facing long delays and higher implementation costs because no one can get IT staff to move to Canberra for love nor money.

First surfacing around a year ago, the Canberra IT skills drought has become so pressing government IT managers have formed a crisis group under the umbrella of the federal Chief Information Officers Committee (CIOC) in an attempt to stop agencies and departments poaching each other"s staff.

The special group was this week publicly acknowledged by the office of Special Minister of State Senator Eric Abetz, with a spokesman confirming it will be run under the auspices of the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO).

However, the spokesperson said the preferred description of the crisis group was "a task force" but frankly conceded "there is definitely an issue". He refused to name the agencies involved in the crisis group, saying only it is being led by newly installed federal CIO Anne Steward and would work on a cross-portfolio basis.

Ironically, one of the organizations hardest hit is the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR) which has been forced to move a major applications development and integration project to Sydney to attract staff.

DEWR faces an uphill struggle to fill more than 200 new IT positions to complete the government"s Welfare to Work program, aimed at reducing welfare dependency. The new system will affect hundreds of Job Network provider agencies which are required to push some 3.5 million transactions through DEWR per day to authorize the payment of client benefits by Centrelink.

"The IT market in Canberra is quite aggressive and we find ourselves competing with the needs of other large organizations, both private and public sector, for the skilled staff we need," a DEWR spokesman said.

Department of Immigration, Indigenous and Multicultural Affairs CIO Cheryl Hannah is another adding her voice to the issue. Hannah told a government IT conference in Canberra this month agencies needed to manage their recruitment process better so they were not destabilizing each other"s projects by stealing staff. She added this was particularly the case if agencies wanted to live up to the interoperability imperatives laid down by across the whole of government.

Another high profile refugee from the national capital is the Australian Taxation Office, which set up a code shop in Melbourne in February for its Siebel case management system. At the time, Tax CIO Bill Gibson warned his agency was having great difficulty getting staff and was not alone.

However, the mere offer of work may not be enough according to some vendors. A Canberra-based executive for Siebel said part of the difficulty in getting skilled staff into federal projects was that Canberra"s lifestyle suited more senior IT professionals with families, rather than younger IT professionals such as systems integrators who were desperately needed.

Calling all workers Australia Post customer relations center manager Greg Bubke admits there is a global trend to cut costs that has led to organizations using prisoners. However, Bubke said his organization isn"t considering it.

"It is not an option for us because of the high level of training we provide to consultants in terms of product knowledge and services we have to offer. We encourage our call center staff to pursue career development within Australia Post and using prisoners in a call center would make it hard for us to deliver that opportunity," Bubke said.

"There is not a social stigma in using prisoners in call centers - a consultant is answering calls as a representative of the organization employing them and if they had appropriate skills and abilities, would the customer even know?

"It gets back to a value judgement for each business to make and not one we would be pursuing."

John Rogers, managing director of Australian call center firm TeleTech, said he would consider using "stay-at-home mums" as agents, but it would depend on the complexity of the work undertaken by the customer service representative (CSR).

"I can see some companies employing work-at-home CSRs to deliver relatively simple customer management processes," Rogers said.

"However, companies will need to take into account the effect this kind of employment would have on their company culture and also the impact it may have on their customers."