Large tech vendors that continually steal talented digital staff out of the Public Service can expect closer scrutiny, and run the risk of being penalised when it comes time to review contracts if a Labor government is elected in May.
Shadow minister for the digital economy Ed Husic has also renewed his call for Big Tech to play a more visible role at community-level to deliver digital skills into the workforce and to better demonstrate the potential job creation impact of technology.
Speaking at an Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) lunch at the Press Club on Friday, Mr Husic said Labor would outline hefty investment in building the skills of the digital economy to build business and public sector capability, as well as improve social outcomes.
But Labor has warned large ICT suppliers to government that they are expected to contribute more to skills development, and that “digital poachers” that unreasonably targeted public sector digital capability would face consequences.
With the public sector already over-reliant on ICT contractors and outsourced service suppliers – and the added costs this reliance presents – these digital poachers only made this challenge more acute, Mr Husic argued.
“Where we do make the decision to invest in capability, I need to let you know, we will also have a present need to defend and maintain our capability,” Mr Husic said.
While public servants were of course free to make a career change if they choose, Labor would more closely scrutinise which companies are targeting public sector talent and in what volumes they are doing so.
“We are concerned about reports of large vendors to government actively poaching talented public servants to work in the very ICT projects they were hired to complete,” he said.
“We love that a lot of companies love the talent that exists in the public service – which is a pleasant change from the sport of deprecating our hard-working public servants – but we are going to have to hold on in this rebuilding phase to the skills that we acquire and develop.
“That’s why I am flagging this in advance: In government we will take a closer look at the mechanisms available to us to track digital poachers and to reign in their actions.”
This may include reviewing contract terms and contract management approaches [and] it may mean tracking the behaviour and reflecting that in contract reviews.”
“We respect that individual public servants for a range of solid and varied reasons may make a decision to pursue new career opportunities. We are not stopping that,” Mr Husic said.
“But luring them away with hefty salary offers that reinforces public sector dependency on ICT vendors – I’m sorry but that is going to merit closer inspection on behalf of the public sector and the taxpayer.”
Mr Husic said government was already too heavily reliant on contractors to fill ICT positions. Of the 14,000-15,000 public servants classified as tech staff, about one third were contractors – a proportion that continued to grow.
While the cost of an internal ICT worker in the public sector was roughly $134,000, the cost of a similar contractor was $214,000.
Large investments in education, including a focus on digital skills development, would be one focus of Labor policy announcements in the lead up to the federal election.
While a future Labor government would earmark money for these investment, Mr Husic said more was expected of the tech sector as one of the beneficiaries on these investment.
While calling out the work of some multinationals – Salesforce and Google in Western Sydney, Microsoft for significant investment in Adelaide, and Atlassian for its scholarship program – he says there must be more, and that it must be visible at the local level.
“It is really important that you are able to demonstrate value to communities. To be able to have an impact in local communities that is not just a brand awareness campaign – but actually investing in peoples’ skills and young peoples’ skill – is crucial.”
Mr Husic said up to 3.5 million jobs might be affected by automation over the next ten years out of a total labour market of 12 million people, making engaging with the broadest public on digital skills and digital skills an imperative, as much for social cohesion as economic well-being.