Gov’t tech creds are now in tatters

James Riley
Editorial Director

There must, surely, never have been such an exciting time to be Malcolm Turnbull. The Prime Minister has been desperately keen to focus the attention of the nation squarely on his favourite baby, technology.

Now, in one fell swoop, in the shape of the country’s already controversial census and the record-smashing incompetency of the once mighty Australian Bureau of Statistics, he has everyone’s undivided attention.

Perhaps not how he planned, however.

Malcolm Turnbull: Census debacle a body blow to governments tech agenda

“There were some failures in the equipment, frankly, hardware failures in some of the protections that were put in place, the so-called geo-blocking protections and obviously that will be the subject of examination,” a sheepish Treasurer Scott Morrison (this guy really cannot win a trick) said at the mea culpa news conference, following a rambling intro by his boss.

Indeed, so universally has the event been branded an epic fail, everyone is an online expert now.

What is clear is that any trust the public may have had in the government’s ability to keep their data safe – which was already the big concern, even before the site crash/suspension – has evaporated.

And you can also bet that any move toward electronic voting – something that mainstream tech industry lobbyists have pushed for – has now been moved to the Never Never.

Here’s what the Australian Information Industry Association chief Rob Fitzaptrick had to say shortly after the July 2 election, when it became clear the result was knife edge.

“If we had [electronic voting] in place today, we’d already have certainty regarding the results of the federal election. Instead, we are facing the possibility of up to a month before the outcome is known,” he said.

“In 2013, the cost of the federal election for the House of Representatives and half the Senate was $193 million; in 2010 the cost was $160m,” he said, adding that money invested in a universal electronic voting system would be returned “very quickly in savings, the money saved could be better spent elsewhere on making our economy more productive, such as technology infrastructure for schools.”

One might have thought that with all the unwanted attention yesterday on the massive gap between the government’s empty rhetoric on technology and its actual performance, the industry might have waited for the dust to settle before offering its sage advice. This is, after all, an epic fail shared by the industry.

Not bloody likely.

The unseemly gusto with which Australia’s tech associations had fallen in sycophantic lockstep with the government’s still half-formed plans (and budgets, always the budgets) has been breathtaking.

Despite the catcalls of a nation over census night, the AIIA continues to gush.

“The AIIA applauds the Australian Bureau of Statistics for taking the census online and we view this as an important step forward in the digitisation of our government,” Mr Fitzpatrick said – astonishingly – in a statement immediately after the disaster unfolded.

“We must make the move towards a digitally-driven economy in order to be globally competitive and our government should be an exemplar of this digital transformation. Done well, significant savings can be made in time, convenience and efficiency for both the government and our citizens.”

He doesn’t seem to have missed a beat or have any sense of the impact this has had on most Australians.

If you listen carefully, you will hear the cries of a group whose pet project – the very electronic voting mentioned above – has been swept off the table for a generation.

The AIIA has been a prime advocate for electronic voting. The double-barrelled blow to citizen trust in government IT and cyber security means e-voting is off the table for the long-term. To pretend otherwise is facile.

Still, maybe the glass is not quite as empty as it looks. This SNAFU is surely Ground Zero for Mr Turnbull and his not-so-merry anymore men. It’s now central to the Prime Minister’s hope of survival that he turn around this blow to one of the central themes of his economic narrative. Technology. Agility.

Less talk, more action, and well-spent money is the order of the day.

Any semblance of trust by the public in government’s handling of their data will have to be carefully rebuilt, not with words but with actions. And that means gold-plated infrastructure that can’s be compromised once more.

Lloyd Ernst, one of Australia’s original dotcom successors who founded Web Central – and sold it to the PM – put it like this:

“This is irrefutable evidence there needs to be more government investment both in terms of dollars, and more importantly investment in smart innovative people,” Mr Ernst said.

“We tell our customers you can not, should not, must not outsource your secret sauce, your innovators, or your architects. These are the people that over years have built up the domain knowledge necessary to realise the potential risks and how we address them.

“Necessary and sufficient investment is needed to provide rigorous Information Technology solutions for Australia if it is to be an innovative nation. Partisan politics will not create robust solutions. If education is the golden bullet of innovation, then sound infrastructure is the foundation on which innovation can stand,” Mr Ernst said.

Simple, isn’t it. Well, it should be.

It’s also worth noting – even without Derryn Hynch in the Senate, it would be time to name names – that the biggest contractor to the online census project, to the tune of contracts worth more than $14 million is the company supposed to be the industry benchmark for IT services, IBM.

The PM put the company squarely in the frame with the ABS yesterday, but rather than providing comfort that someone has been found to carry the can, it only adds to uncertainty

Government technology is supposed to be the exemplar by which all others follow. IBM is in many ways meant to be its rock solid corporate mirror.

Would you want IBM looking after your electronic votes right now?

The campaign for electronic voting is wrong-headed. It’s clear, now that there are far more basic priorities to which the government needs to attend.

There is much more needed here than empty rhetoric, whether from the government or from the industry. Even smart people – and Australia is full of smart people –need good tools to thrive.

One last thing while we are on the subject of, effectively, Mr Turnbull’s tattered tech credibility: There are lessons aplenty here for the NBN strategy, too.

But that’s another story.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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