In a pre-election cabinet reshuffle, Prime Minister John Howard has put former Attorney-General Daryl Williams in charge of IT. Williams spoke to InformationWeek's deputy editor Siobhan Chapman about his new role.
After more than 17 years in Parliament, including about 11 years in the Communications, IT and the Arts portfolio, Senator Richard Alston stood down last month.
In his wake, Alston has left a behind a number of critical issues for his successor Daryl Williams to address should the government remain in power, such as the sale of the final tranche of Telstra, spam legislation, the Framework for the Future initiative, the Government's IT outsourcing initiatives, the offshoring of IT jobs to low-wage countries and the rollout of broadband to ensure all Australians have access to affordable broadband services.
A former barrister, Williams also has his dissenters. Kate Lundy, Shadow Minister for IT, has labelled him a 'plodder' that lacks the 'dynamism' she believes the role requires. The Australian Privacy Foundation awarded Williams the inaugural Big Brother Award for Lifetime Menace to Privacy over the ASIO legislation he pushed through as Attorney-General. Yet Williams himself, who responded to InformationWeek's questions through email via his media relations department and leaves the home computing to his wife, said he feels priveleged to head the high-tech fray.
IW: What do you want to achieve during your term?
DW: This is a very challenging, interesting and dynamic portfolio. Technology presents challenges to government and it is important that the government facilitate the advantages that technologies can bring in the public interest without in any way stultifying with inappropriate regulation. So the government has to provide some leadership in the area without putting obstacles in the way of those involved.
IW: Do you use a computer at home?
DW: We do have a computer at home. My wife Judith uses it every day.
IW: Your predecessor was dubbed by an international media outlet as the world's greatest Luddite. What is your experience with technology? And how are you going to ensure that you don't draw the same criticism?
DW: Senator Alston made an outstanding contribution in championing innovation within government. For example, his contribution to the change in regulatory and taxation arrangements applying to venture capital and the innovative companies that will flow from that initiative will act as an enduring testimony.
Similarly, his championing of National ICT Australia (NICTA) in the Building Australia's Ability (BAA) decisions corrected a long-term distortion in the direction of public sector research. Australia's position at the forefront of the information economy is among his greatest achievements.
I intend to continue this very important work. Innovation in general is a key to Australia's future prosperity. It complements the government's microeconomic reforms.
I feel privileged to occupy this key ICT policy portfolio. Our movement to the information economy is one of the most important transformations in recent history, on a par with the invention of printing and the spread of mass literacy.
I intend to emphasise the importance of strengthening coordination across our innovation activities, building a more innovative culture and creating better linkages across the innovation system. I also want to consolidate the research gains of BAA, while building critical mass in key technologies and placing greater emphasis on commercialisation outcomes. An important part of this agenda is securing ongoing funding for NICTA and for the Building IT Strengths (BITS) program and enhancing the research effort where ICT intersects with other technologies.
I intend to pursue the e-research agenda and promote the provision of the very high-speed infrastructure it requires. But we also need to ensure that we have a coordinated approach in relation to governance issues. This kind of investment will underpin the emergence of the next generation of the Internet.
IW: How is your approach going to differ from Alston's?
DW: We may have different styles but I think that our approaches will be similar in that we both have the interests of the Australian community as a primary consideration.
IW: Do you think you need a strong background or knowledge in IT to do the portfolio justice? Do you have this background?
DW: As with all portfolios, what is important is ensuring that as much relevant information as possible is taken into account in formulating policy. I don't have a particular background in ICT. However, there is a great deal of expertise in the department and agencies in this portfolio to provide advice and background information as necessary.
I appreciate the importance of this portfolio and the fact that it affects Australians at many levels and in many different ways. I start from the position of what is in the interests of the Australian community and work from there.
IW: What is your stance on the current debate and push to legislate the adoption of open source software within government? Should the government move to an open source model? A mixed model? Or use only proprietary software such as Microsoft? What are the benefits or disadvantages of each model?
DW: The government requires agencies to select ICT solutions that best meet their business needs and provide value for money. In this respect the government is encouraging trials of open source software within the framework of fit-for-purpose and value-for-money.
The National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) is monitoring Australian and international trials and promoting the flow of information about open source to agencies.
Specific examples of agencies using open source software include NOIE, the Bureau of Meteorology, Centrelink, the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, and the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
I would emphasise that each agency decides whether to select proprietary or non-proprietary software and the timing of the introduction of any new systems and software. Assisting agencies to have access to current and relevant best practice information about emerging trends in ICT, including open source, is one of the roles of my portfolio.
IW: Your opposite number, Kate Lundy, has been quite vocal on the government's IT outsourcing model, which has since been broken up. Recently Lundy called on all CIOs of government agencies to stop outsourcing offshore. What is your strategy around offshore outsourcing for government agencies? Do you think the government should keep outsourcing within Australia to drive local industry or should it consider other factors such as price and quality when considering outsourcing partners, regardless of whether the job is going to an Australian?
DW: The lapsing of the five major IT outsourcing contracts has resulted in purchasing being undertaken by separate agencies rather than clusters of agencies. Some agencies have also used selective sourcing under which their overall IT requirements have been sourced from different suppliers, such as separate telecommunications and IT contracts. As a consequence, there has been a tendency for a reduction in overall contract sizes. This helps small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) to access Australian government ICT procurement.
The government's policy has been that the best future for the Australian ICT industry is for the industry to be internationally competitive. This is unlikely to be achieved by shielding the industry from overseas competition when government agencies purchase ICT goods and services.