As the old saying goes the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The Rudd government in their infinite wisdom and lust for slashing government spending after election turned their eyes onto my bread and butter: IT. This lead to the creation of a report that can send chills down any IT contractor’s spine when you utter its name, the Gershon Report. Released on 16th of October last year it coincided with some of the worst hits to the world economy in recent times and this proved to be disastrous for people like me who make a living out of providing IT skills for an hourly rate. Whilst I have managed to sneak under the radar of the Gershon report for almost a year now I know that I am not a typical case, and in most cases the report has lead to an erosion in capability for the Australian government.
Whilst the Gershon report has been in full swing I have worked at 2 government agencies here in Canberra, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Australian Trade Commission. Both of these agencies have very specific requirements for their infrastructure and as such find it hard to attract people with the expertise required when salaries and benefits of the public service are far below what is available in the private sector. The remedy for this is of course contractors, as whilst their salary is higher there are no costs associated in providing things like sick/annual leave, superannuation or insurance. Additionally it is usually easier to bring a contractor on board than a permanent employee, with turn around times measured in weeks instead of months. Both of these agencies had a stable contractor workforce that was working well for them, until Gershon cast its eyes on them.
This is what sounded the death knell for many contractors’ jobs in Canberra:
Reduce the total number of ICT contractors in use across FMA Act agencies by 50% over a 2-year period and increase the number of APS ICT staff. This should save the Government an estimated $100 million (across both BAU and project-related work).
The above recommendation was made on the basis of submissions from the 100 FMA agencies as well as meetings and a couple visits to the local data centers in Canberra. The figure then was derived from primarily financial figures, giving little to no heed to the actual needs of particular agencies and whether or not they could attract the people required with the standard APS pay structure. This then lead to an outrageous backlash which decimated the Canberra contractor market by around 30%. Whilst at first this may seem like a good idea since the agencies are following the recommendations of the report there’s an underlying issue that didn’t make the headlines.
Initially many government departments offered contractors what they considered equal opportunities as permanent employees. Unfortunately for most government agencies their pay scales are unable to cope with high level specialists in any area and hence use contractors. This is in part due to the ingrained mentality that once you’re above a certain pay grade in the public service you are required to have some management responsibilities as well, something which the specialists generally do not have and do not wish to take on. Therefore many of these offers were simply turned down, and contractors continued to work out their current contracts.
When renewal time came along there was a mixed reaction from the agencies. In a shock turn around any contractor that could not be directly linked to a project or capitalizable expense was not renewed. The remaining ones were usually offered a reduction in rate and a much shorter contract. As a result many contractors then decided to take their business elsewhere, with many of them leaving for greener pastures in the private sector away from Canberra. Not only did this then leave Canberra wanting in terms of skills require for IT related projects it also drained many agencies of their corporate knowledge. Any skill gap that required filling would also require a lengthy period of corporate knowledge transfer, which typically costs around 1~2 months worth of employee time.
The Gershon report wasn’t all about contractors however, there was also a keen focus on the efficient use of IT resources. Talk to any IT expert and they’ll tell you it’s not a good idea to run something at 100% of its capacity 100% of the time. You need to build in some fat and redundancy in order to ensure that the system operates as expected without any surprises. Unfortunately the Gershon report, which used numbers more than anything else, saw this as a lack of efficiency and required extensive proof that the tolerances built into large corporate systems were required. This flies in the face of the ITIL principals of capacity management which dictate that you should plan for future requirements and build systems as such. Thus any ITIL aligned agency was then told that they had to increase utilization of their resources, which in some cases was just not possible.
The report itself was a good idea however the nature of the report is far too general to be applicable to all agencies. Specifically the smaller agencies were hit particularly hard as there is less room for them to improve their IT expenditure and efficiency. The lack of intangible cost considerations also leads to questions of the reports applicability as we have already seen that there are numerous hidden costs in trying to apply some of the recommendations.
Personally though I have been lucky to be able to duck and weave my around the reports various swings at me. Initially I did this through proposing large capital projects that would provide tangible benefits to the business, which did eventually get implemented. More recently I’ve been targetting direct cost reductions which, whilst not part of my specialist skill set, help keep me in a job for the coming months. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that us contractors have it easy, especially the ones of us who are still doing well in these harsh conditions.
And no, this isn’t a call for sympathy 🙂
After just over a year at my current position I will now be moving onto greener pastures. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before but I’ve been working as a contractor for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, and that website is on part of the infrastructure I helped maintain. I’ve done a lot here over the past year and it was a great first contracting gig. The combination of a small yet extremely innovative environment let me accomplish things that I’d never saw myself doing before, and gave me a taste for the technical solution architect in me. On Wednesday I will be moving onto another contract at the Australian Trade Commission, working in a much larger environment with a completely different mindset. I’m very excited.
So the last month of my time here has had me finalising everything that I’ve done over the past year and it has been quite an interesting experience for me. Most of the organisations I’ve worked with prior to here haven’t had me solely responsible for a large section of their IT infrastructure and I realised that without a proper handover I’d be leaving these guys without a leg to stand on. It was good to note however that they loved my idea of spending the last week and a half handing everything over, and I’m sure they’ll be able to keep the whole show running whilst they get other staff trained.
This was probably one of the common challenges I’ve faced in small organisations. With such environments its very hard to get all the skills you need to ensure you’ve got full primary and secondary coverage on them. It usually ends up that if the person who knows a system is sick or incognito you’re pretty much up the proverbial creek without a paddle. In high turnover environments your even more likely to suffer from this and that’s when documentation and handover become critical, and it’s something that I noticed when I left my last position.
Whilst I wasn’t responsible for as much in my last position I was still a key player in a lot of projects. I had requested that I got the people in my team (the projects guys) for a couple days to do some detailed hand over. Instead I got about 3 hours on a Thursday afternoon, which was barely enough to cover everything that needed to be done. Needless to say I knew that something would go wrong and I was called by them no less than 3 times the week after I left and spent a good few hours explaining to them what was going on and why. They were lucky in that respect since I’ve tried that in the past and been told that they did not have the time nor inclination to speak with me. Harsh but completely understandable (from a professional point of view anyway).
So these last few days I have here will be spent making sure they’ve got everything they wanted to know out of me and giving my heart felt goodbyes to everyone. The CIO has said that I’ll always have a place here at AMSA and I must say, it’s the first time in a long while that I actually feel like coming back would be a good idea.
Maybe I’m just becoming soft in my “old” age 🙂