Opinion: Lessons to learn from down under

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Opinion: Lessons to learn from down under

Australia is well ahead of the digital economy game.

“Forty-three billion dollars! How did you persuade your fellow cabinet ministers to agree to that scale of investment in 100Mbit/s broadband to every home and business in the country?” This was my first question to Stephen Conroy, Australia’s digital economy minister, when I met him in his office at the start of my trip to the country.

I was there at the request of Intellect’s Australian sister organisation, the AIIA, and with the support of the Australian federal government.

The purpose of the trip was to push forward industry-government discussions on the reforms proposed following the review of federal government IT that Sir Peter Gershon carried out last year. In the UK, our joint government-industry work began in earnest when Sir Peter was the chief of the Office of Government Commerce.

Key achievements have included Intellect’s Supplier Code of Conduct and the Concept Viability service, an approach that has enabled more than 50 ideas from government departments to be cheaply and easily tested with Intellect’s members at a very early stage in their development.

We are now working with government on identifying realistic ways of delivering the 20 per cent annual cost savings target set out in the recent Treasury review. The benefit of coming to these things later, as is the case in Australia, is that you can learn from others’ successes and failures. Hence the work of the Australian government and the AIIA following a recent workshop in Canberra.

The plans will probably include developing a joint IT industry-government code of conduct ­ an advance on the UK, where we only have an industry code. The code will be richer too, incorporating policies on intellectual property and limits of liability, for example. There also seems to be more joint commitment to make it stick right across industry and government, in contrast to the UK where the government’s demand for industry adherence has been patchy.

It also seems likely that an Australian Concept Viability service will be developed. Initiatives on green IT (and IT for green government) and efficient use of IT (cost saving, in other words) are among other likely outcomes.

Maximising opportunities to stimulate the local IT industry, which government spending on IT presents, is certainly on the agenda of the federal government. But perhaps it is more sharply felt at state level. At a meeting in Melbourne with

the government of Victoria we heard about a very successful panel ­ the equivalent of a framework agreement in the UK.

The panel is very popular with government and the local IT community and I can see why: savings to industry of $37m, to government of $9m, 75 per cent of the business awarded to local small firms and the ability for companies to apply to be accredited to the panel at any time. Tellingly, one senior government official had responsibility for both the successful use of IT in the government and the health of the local industry.

So what about the 100Mbit/s Australian National Broadband Network? A company, in which the government will retain a controlling interest, has been formed to begin the work. Fibre should begin to be laid in the first region, Tasmania, this month and is scheduled to take a year. The whole rollout should take eight years or so. Look out for the first business book charting the stormy relationship between the incumbent telco, Telstra, and the Australian federal government that, in many ways, laid the foundations for the plan.

I hope though that it will eventually be a story of a visionary government taking a big bet on a connected continent.

John Higgins is director general of Intellect, the trade association for the UK IT industry.

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