ICT needs a single policy home

James Riley
Editorial Director

Let’s move responsibility for the tech sector away from the oily-rag end of industry policy once and for all.

It must surely be time for ICT industry development to be handed over entirely to the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy.

The tech sector has been completely lost inside the Industry department. While much of the policy development for the sector has quietly migrated to DBCDE, it is time to formalise this responsibility.

And while we’re at it, let’s also give a new home within Stephen Conroy’s portfolio to large chunks of the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO), the Commonwealth’s orphan-child of an agency.

In industry development terms, the ICT sector is special. It is a horizontal industry that plays a critical support role across the whole economy. It should be treated separately, therefore, in the context industry policy.

With an election looming, this is a live issue. This is as good a time as any to be advocating for such change.

The natural home for ICT sector industry policy is DBCDE. This is where the deep expertise resides. And whatever enthusiasm there is for ICT within this government also resides in DBCDE.

I have been thinking on this issue since the Digital Productivity Conference in Brisbane earlier this month. This conference included a raft of big policy announcements, all delivered by Senator Conroy.

These initiatives ranged from a planned review of the tax treatment of stock options in the startup sector, to future workforce skill requirements, ICT syllabus in primary and secondary schools, to an planned overhaul of online services delivered by the Australian Government.

NBN is the driver

The NBN is, of course, the initiative on which virtually all other ICT industry development rests. DBCDE departmental secretary Drew Clarke acknowledged this in his summary of the Digital Productivity Conference two weeks ago in a discussion on the nature of policy.

“Policy can often be of two kinds,” Clarke told the conference. “Policy could be, do nothing get out of the way and let the market yield its magic; or the policy could be, we actually need to intervene in some way in order to let the market yield its magic.”

“But there are a couple of standouts in this area. First of all, of course, ubiquitous access to high-speed broadband, the NBN, is clearly the foundation policy on which so much of the discussion is built,” he said.

Clearly the telco sector was an area where this government took a massively interventionist route – as it had indicated it would since before it was elected. Now that the project has reached a stage of mass roll-out, it is getting more active in policy areas that ultimately rely on faster broadband.

“The announcements made yesterday by (Stephen Conroy) build on this very significantly,” Clarke said.

“Interventions in the area of ICT education: the future workforce to drive the digital economy; reviews of the financing structures for start-ups; the role of open data as feed-stock for innovation and competition, and of course the Digital First initiative … the way in which government engages with citizens in the era of the digital economy.”

Each of these are big chunky plans for policy changes that can make a significant difference to the local ICT sector. These are bread-and-butter industry development issues for the ICT industry.

New ideas for development

It is significant that it was Senator Conroy who announced the review of tax treatment of employee share schemes (ESS), and that the announcement was made at a digital conference. Same with the announced consultation on crowd-sourced equity funding CSEF.

The employee share option scheme was a joint announcement with David Bradbury (assistant treasurer) and Greg Combet (Climate Change, Industry and Innovation), but the prime mover in this was DBCDE.

In relation to the employee share scheme review in particular – something that has been a no-brainer priority among tech sector advocates for years – it is almost remarkable that something is finally moving.

If we are reading the tea leaves correctly, the Coalition is on board with ESS, and is in agreement with the intent of the digital economy initiatives.

We know that Stephen Conroy has gradually taken hold of much of the government’s ICT industry development agenda (see also components of his Cloud strategy announced at CeBIT Australia in May) since Labor took office in 2007.

This is a positive development for the tech sector. Industry development policy for ICT should be run in tandem with NBN-related policy development. NBN should be the driver.

Before Labor came to power, it argued that the Howard Government had hobbled the industry by putting ICT industry development in the communications department (then known as the Department of Communications, IT and the Arts, or DCITA.)

The argument then was that ICT should be moved across to the Industry department – where it could be the focus greater attention and be given a higher priority. Labor said the horizontal nature of the industry meant that ICT would be a central plank of all policy.

In reality, the opposite occurred. ICT went into the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science and Research and promptly disappeared from site under then Minister Kin Carr – who had little interest in the sector.

And when responsibilities for Climate Change and Tertiary Education were added to the already unwieldy portfolio, any chance of finding a cogent ICT policy from inside that department had long since disappeared. And its new minister Greg Combet has not had time to scratch himself, let alone get up to his elbows in tech startup issues.

Without Kate Lundy’s voice as Minister Assisting for Industry and Innovation, the tech sector would have been excused for thinking it had been forgotten entirely inside that mega-portfolio.

Senator Conroy’s portfolio took up the slack through its Digital Economy responsibilities. More he recently has been able to expand that role through his appointment as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity. This enabled DBCDE to drive cross-departmental policy development.

Change for the long term

It would be a good thing if a change of government would formalise this structure. If Malcolm Turnbull is to be communications minister, then please let him also manage the sector’s industry development needs.

It should be an aspirational goal of everyone with an interest in this industry to, for the next three months, get beyond issues related to the day-to-day trench warfare over the NBN roll-out, and to get tech sector industry development issues into mainstream conversations.

Public policy in ICT sector industry development terms is littered with failure and missed opportunity – interspersed with the occasional, unlikely success.

But our ICT in Australia right now is incredibly vibrant. There is both a mood and an appetite for success. There is an opportunity.

Hopefully we will hear some active, intelligence and vigorous debate in the lead up to the election on how we can all benefit from that opportunity.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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