Lessons Learned from Australia's Chief Technology Officer

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Australian government’s chief technology officer, John Sheridan, is a big proponent of taking small steps to achieve large, federal IT service goals.

For over two years, the Australian government’s chief technology officer and procurement coordinator, John Sheridan, has led the charge in providing governmentwide technological services.

Although a large scale, complex responsibility, his strategy is simple: Work in short, achievable steps to meet long-term goals.

Most recently, Sheridan’s efforts resulted in the successful launch of GovCMS, a website hosting and content management system available to all Australian federal agencies, meant to cut costs and reducing duplication while improving websites.

Nextgov spoke with Sheridan recently to get his take on the role technology plays in Australia’s government and what technological services are on the horizon for the nation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NG: Can you tell me about the IT services you've helped to provide for Australia’s government agencies?

The idea is to provide a more efficient and effective way of running government websites. The proprietary solutions can be expensive. They can be hard to maintain. A proprietary solution means that each agency has to, to some extent, set up their arrangements and everything almost from scratch each time they do it and it’s not really transferable.

Whereas with GovCMS, by being built on Drupal in open source, it gives people the opportunity to share the distribution . . . for us to feed things back into the Drupal community as a consequence of that work and to establish easier to maintain standards for agencies as a consequence of doing it too.

NG: Can you tell me about the process involved in launching GovCMS?

Australia.gov.au is the main website for the Australian government . . . We had the opportunity to reconsider what we were doing with Australia.gov.au and start to look at some better things. We wanted to move it off the private platform on which we had it previously and put it on a cheaper open source platform. And we wanted to move it to the public cloud.

The first thing I did was investigate alternative platforms that we could put it on. And we settled on Drupal as the platform of choice to do that . . . And we moved Australia.gov.au and some other sites that I also look after to Drupal as the first step.

Then, we wanted to follow the government’s direction to put it into the public cloud. Having done some research about how to do that, we went to the market in a request for proposals and asked the market what they wanted to do. And we settled on Acquia as the supplier for that, with the sites themselves in the Amazon public cloud.

Having got that situation up and working over about eight months, my view was that we could expand that service to make it available to other parts of the government who wanted to use a standardized front end . . . GovCMS was the result.

NG: Is this the Australian government’s first foray into open source?

We've had an open source policy for some time. And agencies and vendors are required to look at open source whenever they're procuring anything in that software space. We actually have an existing service called GovSpace.gov.au, which is a WordPress offering that we stood up in, I think, around 2010 that was aimed at providing relatively cheap Web 2.0 services for agencies who wanted to stand up a Web 2.0-focused design. We've had, I think, over 150 sites up at various times. I think there are about 30 live at the moment, but they change over time. But that was my area's first major foray into the open source space.

NG: You've held your current CTO position for a little over two years. How have things changed in the digital side of Australia’s government during that time?

Australia has always been a nation of early adopters of technology. That’s been the case for some time. The government has been using technology for an extended period.

My role in this area is to provide all government services. So, my focus is providing services to government agencies in technology and procurement as well. Generally, I provide the sort of services that we use across government. For example, I provide a fiber optic network around the capital here at Canberra. I provide a wider area network that goes out to the states and territories and capital cities. I provide the communications network for ministers, the elected heads of the cabinet.

NG: What kinds of IT trends have you seen during your time in this position?

Although my title only changed two years ago, I've been working in this area since 2009, which is when the government decided to start doing this coordinated procurement. So, that’s seen a growth in the centralization to drive better prices for IT and IT services. And the expansion of working the online services area, the expansion of working that network area I spoke about, has occurred over the last couple of years as we've undertaken projects to provide better services to the government.

NG: What kinds of challenges have you faced in your position? Have there been any sections or projects that were particularly challenging?

In the area of [information and communications technology] procurement, working with vendors to get official and effective arrangements that provide value for money for government is an ongoing activity. I don't know that I'd describe it as a challenge, but it's one of the things that you have to do all the time. Making sure you have reliable services in network areas and those sorts of things is a challenge that all CIOs face. I don't see that we're doing anything particularly different in that regard.

You want reliable, effective services. You want to roll out projects that work well from the outset. You want to have good user experiences and ensure that they continue -- the same sort of challenges that any IT professional faces.

NG: Can you describe any other particularly noteworthy IT project you've worked on?

I guess I'm sort of thinking of the things that we've done more recently, but the success of coordinated procurement has saved us over AUD $300 million since 2009, in terms of better outcomes as a consequence of aggregating demand and getting better arrangements like that.

The ongoing success of Australia.gov.au, which deals with 2 million hits a month from people looking for information about Australia. That’s a very strong service and appears well regarded by users.

The recent work in GovCMS has been very successful in terms of both getting efficiencies through open source software, the use of the public cloud and providing more efficient and effective services for agencies. So, that’s been a highlight recently.

NG: Is there a particular government Australia gets its IT inspiration from? 

We talked to the U.K. and the U.S. a lot about what they're doing, and to New Zealand. So, I think you'd find that various governments are at different spaces or stages in these things. So, we might be more progressed in terms of procuring IT services from small to medium enterprises and the U.K. might be more progressed in terms of digital services through the work in the government digital service there.

I don't think we're in competition for a start. We're in different stages. We might be doing this a bit differently, and somebody might be paying attention to what we're doing in that space, whereas others might be doing other things a bit differently. It varies, and we talk to each other regularly.

NG: You've worked in Australia’s government for a long time. Have you noticed its focus on technology projects grow over the past decade?

I think technology plays an important part in everything that business does these days. Government is not any different from anybody else in that regard. The Australian government has a strong focus on technology support and departments work to that all the time. We spend around AUD $5 billion a year on IT, including in the defense sector. So, there’s a lot of investment in IT and a lot of work progressing those things.

NG: Can you give us a glimpse of what the future holds for federal IT services?

I think our continued focus on driving value for tax-based dollars is where we want to go. And using the power of technology to provide support for agencies so they can transform their business and get better results. It's a continuing focus on service delivery and value for money for taxpayers in that regard . . . Those incremental changes are how we do that.

I'm a believer in looking at not necessarily one project at a time, but looking at projects and delivering on those things with good project management, good governance, getting the outcomes that you want and then planning ahead to see where you'll go after that. So, doing it in achievable steps rather than some long, enormous project that takes a long time to do and has a lot of risks as a consequence.

(Image via Brendan Howard/ Shutterstock.com)