Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Budget Lock-up

Yesterday was my first experience of the ritual that is the "budget lock-up". This was well described by Jessica Irvine in the SMH on the weekend, but there is an additional flavour when you work for a smaller outfit like itNews.

As the scrum of what felt like 200 jourrnalists and commentators pushes its way through the doors to the suite of committee rooms in Parliament House that have been commandeered for the event you queue at a table to receive a Budget sample bag containing the four Budget Papers, Overview and Treasurer's speech. On top of this you obtain a number of papers trumpeting specific aspects, be it a mental health strategy or a jobs stsrategy.

As you make your way to your allotted room you pass yet another table decked out with folders of press releases from individual Ministers. Finally at your seat, laptop open, you confront the task of how to approach this mountain of paper and generate enough interesting words to justify your presence.

Here where the big and small differ. The big guys have already been in and set up mini-networks for their team to use, they have pursued Adam Smith's dictum about the division of labour. After a couple of hours between them they have digested the lot and can have a news conference.

Between the two of us from itNews we'd scoured Budget Paper Number 2 for details of any ICT related activity. We generated two ICT news stories, one about the biggest item being over half a bill in Human Services and a catalogue of other projects. We had one about Internet filtering. I then turned my mind to an opinion piece trying to establish the overall flavour of the budget.

It is while you are researching your story that you go to the Treasury officials with questions, and then discover a whole room of officials from different Departments who can explain parts of the budget. You also then discover the room where they have piled the individual portfolio budget statements. In the midst of all that we couldn't figure out where the $349M to be spent on cyber security in 2011-12 outlined in the budget overview is actually spent, other than to be assured it is just ongoing projects without new initiatives.

I want to use the luxury of my blog to expand on my opinion piece on how disappointing it was that a Budget positioned to talk about transitioning from a mining boom was so thin on detail about transitioning to a Digital Economy.

The Budget Strategy and Outlook (Budget Paper No 1) dedicates a section to “Opportunities and Challenges of an Economy in Transition”. It notes;

While mining and agriculture continue to play a valuable role, Australia has become more than just a commodity economy. Over time, a wide variety of forces has seen Australia convert its natural advantages into a knowledge-based, diversified and service-oriented economy, and this transition has continued throughout the mining boom. ...

Australia’s economic development has seen the benefits of a rich natural resource endowment being transformed into a diverse economy that is service-oriented yet maintains a core of technologically advanced sectors engaged in agricultural, mining and other industrial production.

The outlook then reflects on Australia’s sagging productivity performance. Given that Senator Conroy’s other title is Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity, this is the point where you expect at least flowery words about how our economy will transition.

Instead we learn that the Australian Government has a “broad ranging and extensive productivity agenda that is built around three broad aims”, and then lists achieving continued macroeconomic stability, providing flexibility, and investing in capability. Only then do we read “another priority is ensuring the timely and efficient implementation of existing initiatives such as the National Broadband Network.”

This lack of priority and focus is reflected in the budget initiatives detailed in my opinion piece (and I note that I didn't include the $60M for smart transport).

As an example Finance is to spend $3.6M researching ways the public might interact with Government online. To give a sense of the size of these initiatives, the Attorney-General is planning to achieve an additional $5.2M in revenue over four years from “more accurate recoupment of costs incurred by ASIO” for security assessments of applicants for Maritime and Airport Security Identification Cards.

So the best we can say is the Government is still committed to the NBN but hasn‘t really developed any strategies for Digital Productivity.

At least their strategy includes “investing in capability”, and a centrepiece of the budget is “Building Australia’s Future Workforce”.
This will also disappoint Digital Economy enthusiasts. A lot of the focus is on “vocational education and training” but almost every image used in the glossy brochure to promote the policy is of people engaged in industrial trades. This is media release by hard hat – again. Yes there is one picture of a test tube and one of a chef – but this doesn’t look or read like the VET vision of a “knowledge-based, diversified and service-oriented economy.”

The biggest saving in Education was the saving of $78.4M through the cancellation of the ill-conceived plan for a Vocational Education Broadband Network that was modelled on AARNet. This is a significant win for Conroy gsince the initial network was secured when the Prime Minister was in charge of Education and was widely regarded at the time as an error.
At least there is $21M over 3 years for the “Science for Australia’s Future” program to support the implementation of Inspiring Australia, a national strategy for science engagement that aims to enhance the level of societal understanding and engagement with science, as well as to encourage young Australians to study science and pursue science-related careers.

No doubt when Senator Conroy delivers his Digital Economy strategy there will be more details of the Government’s plans that don’t require expenditure, but overall there is a sense of unfulfilled expectation about the initiatives expected in this budget.

If the ICT industry and ICT professionals are disappointed in this, there is no point in blaming the Government.

Democratic Government’s reflect what their constituents expect, and demand. When it comes to the transition to a Digital Economy industry and the professions do a lot of “the Government ought to” and very little organising of their own.

In 2009 Senator Conroy facilitated one large conference on Broadband and the Digital Economy. In Canada, under the label Canada 3.0 these are annual events touted as “where industry, government and academia get together to spark creativity, foster innovation and drive productivity". But Canada 3.0 is a joint effort of the Canadian Digital Media Network (CDMN) and the University of Waterloo Stratford Campus, not government.

Finally the other difference between the big media and small is that the catering is provided by your employer, not Treasury.

I think I want to do it again!

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est


Anonymous said...

There is the ongoing conundrum of how one might foster a sense of the digital (electronic) in an economy so resolutely engaged with molecules!

Anonymous said...

VEBN "ill-concieved". Not at all. AARNet is and will continue to be a mile ahead of the NBN - and the poor old VET community will now continue to have network access that is nowhere near as good as their University brothers - and worse even than many high-schools.

I guess we should keep blue collars blue ;-)