Govt IT tsar talks up opportunities

Colin McDonald

He could be called the man with the largest target on his back in Wellington.

Colin McDonald is the government IT tsar – or, to give him his formal title, government chief information officer.

Given the rising profile of government technology-related problems, including technology related privacy issues at Work and Income and the Accident Compensation Corporation – not to mention the growing concerns about Inland Revenue’s system and its ability to cope with a massively inflated role – the job of taking responsibility for public sector IT looks to be something of a ticking bomb.

It is a role which was only formally invented last year, although there has, in the past, been someone at the State Services Commission with specific responsibility for looking after all the government’s many and varied information and communications technology issues for a decade or more.

The notion of having a separate person nominated outside the murky corridors of the SSC was to have someone working in what Mr McDonald calls “the operational part of the public sector” and also someone with departmental chief executive role and clout.

Goes with the role
So it goes with the role of being chief executive and secretary of the Department of Internal Affairs.

The previous holder of the role was Brendan Boyle – who also had previous technology related roles in the SSC and who is now head of the government’s largest agency, the Ministry of Social Development.

It was in that connection that Mr McDonald’s role first hit the mainstream media: he has been appointed to head the inquiry into just how Work and Income’s kiosks were set up with the technology equivalent of an open swinging door and a pile of uncollected newspapers at the front gate.

Mr McDonald cannot talk to NBR ONLINE about that inquiry. It is still ongoing. But he can discuss his role and what it makes possible for delivery of government services.

He is not a career public servant, although he has been in various New Zealand government agencies since the mid-1990s.

A Scot by birth, he gained a computer science degree in Glasgow before working in large banking and legal firms, including, when he first came to New Zealand, Bank of New Zealand Bank’s IT systems.

“Technology can be a barrier and it can be a fantastic enabler,” he says. “And it can be very difficult to align technology with the business.”

His job is not to sort out individual IT systems problems within particular ministries, he says, but to ensure greater co-ordination between government agencies.

That has two purposes: one is to save money, the other is to look for ways government agencies can use technology together to deliver better services.

Was given more power
A few weeks ago ministers gave him more power to ensure this happens.

“I’ve now got the right to look at every agency's ICT plans and see whether they make sense and whether they are going take the agency and the government where it needs to go.”

The idea of having government agencies use ICT in more co-ordinated way is not new – it has been around since at least the 1990s, and ministers in successive governments of both political hues have talked of it with some enthusiasm.

The country’s first IT minister, Maurice Williamson, used to become positivity evangelical on the possibilities: Paul Swain and Pete Hodgson used to talk enthusiastically of a “one-stop shop” for all government to citizen interactions.

It has never quite happened, something Mr McDonald acknowledges.

“You’re right. The concept has been around for a long time and, like you, I’ve asked when are we actually going to start to make some progress on this? Well, in the last two to three years we can point to some progress, and the momentum is building.

“And now the government has said, 'we want to achieve more, here is some more authority, go and use it judiciously'.

“There is now an expectation that what are called ‘common capabilities’ – things like telecommunications networks or government servers – are used by government agencies together and the presumption now is they will be unless there is a good reason not to.

“And government agencies now have to work with me and explain what that good reason is. If I’m not convinced they have to use the common capabilities.”

That gives economies of scale and also providers a bit more ability for agencies to work together to deliver government services.

One.govt network brings 17% costs discount
An example is the one.govt network, which has 38 agencies using it and another five pending, and 827 network ports at different government agencies around the country. That has provided a 17% discount on previous costs, he says.

A recent whole of government Microsoft licensing agreement was also achieved with “substantial” savings, he says.

Other efforts in the works include using the Christchurch rebuild to provide more cross-agency government co-ordination, starting with the justice sector agencies.

These are still the initial stages, he says.

One of his oversight roles is to make sure government agencies are making investment choices that are wise not only for that agency but for the government as a whole.

If the 40-odd core government agencies, instead of developing ICT projects focused on their own rubric have to take a government-wide approach, “we might invest in quite different ways, and the government as a whole might take a more co-ordinated or leveraged approach.

“There’s going to be significant changes in they way ICT is deployed across government. The ministerial appetite to make progress in this area remains very high.”

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