Halton's new firm steps up amid concerns of government's IT skills shortfall

By Harley Dennett

April 17, 2018

When two of government’s heaviest hitters — Jane Halton and Dennis Richardson — left their plum mandarin gigs and almost immediately joined the board of a little-known Australian technology firm, it piqued interest across the sector. Now we know what they’ve been up to.

When the Finance and Defence bosses left their respective departments in 2016 and 2017, they both heaped praise on government’s technical workforce for having achieved far more and delivered far wider than government’s critics recognise.

But it came with a note of caution: staying skilled and innovative (and flexible and diverse) would be critical to the future utility of the Australian Public Service. They should continue to pursue the best technology, whether grown in-house or wherever it can be found, to keep delivering for the Australian people.

It might have been assumed that those words were a challenge left to their former colleagues and successors to address. That, it now seems, would be wrong. A lack of familiarity with leading-edge technology, like cloud computing, is a barrier to adoption. And the private sector, it might be said, abhors a vacuum.

Local technology firms, like Vault Systems, which Halton chairs and is joined by Richardson on the board, and US companies like Microsoft and others are stepping up to provide training where government has fallen short of doing so on its own.

Today, Halton announced 3000 places for government IT users per year in a two-day program at a new training facility called Vault Academy. Opening in May this year, it’s aimed at end-users such as software developers, infrastructure engineers, cloud architects, and technical project leaders.

Government is different, don’t treat it like it’s not

A further consideration is not grow technical talent, but poach it — particularly where individuals have shown a penchant for innovation and an appreciation for the standards the community now expects of services.

Deciphering the often arcane constraints that government has to operate under, particularly around scrutiny, aren’t often well understood in other sectors, Halton says, but there is also a case for picking up people who’ve done these difficult things elsewhere.

“There are still things that are specialised to the public sector, that you cannot if you have no background in public sector administration come in and instantly understand, there is craft involved here and everyone needs to get that.

“But there are also things that the public sector can learn from the outside. I think a permeable membrane that allows people to flow in and out [albeit] not a complete change over because that becomes really difficult to be effective.”

The expectations on government are growing too, as service quality has lifted elsewhere.

“People don’t just say compared to government elsewhere, or last year this is better, they say, hang on the service delivery experience I’m having when I book my travel with Travelocity or when I go to the bank, is so much better than this, why can’t I have this from government. That’s the standard people expect these days. Government must pick up while acknowledging the political issues, privacy standards, expectations of citizens.

“Government must pick up while acknowledging the political issues, privacy standards, expectations of citizens.”

Trust and privacy in the age of big data

While cloud computing has taken a while to develop to state where government is ready to jump on board in a big way, the conversation has meanwhile pivoted strongly to serious concerns that people’s data has been used cavalierly. Definitely in the case of Facebook and its peers, and maybe in the case of government.

Many people failed to realise how strongly the public felt about their personal privacy, Halton says. Given the rise of these technologies has been a bit like the wild west, she suggests government and the community need to start a belated conversation about appropriate privacy settings.

“What we’re seeing with the Cambridge Analaytica concerns that people are expressing is that is exactly that being realised, so the issue for government is how can we say to our citizens confidently: your information is safe, we understand you take this incredibly seriously, and we won’t do anything to breach that trust.

“It’s about trust, it’s about confidence, it’s about being able to say to people very clearly we actually have your back in terms of privacy.”

Putting her money where her mouth is

A reasonable question that could be asked is why these mandarins joined Vault Systems, which is first and foremost a technology company specialising in the very leading-edge.

As formidable in government as they were, Richardson was a self-confessed “technological incompetent”. Meanwhile, Halton was fond of saying she uses an iPhone so she has fewer technology decisions to make, while her kids will happily self-configure their Samsung devices. So while The Mandarin has Halton on the phone, I ask her why Vault:

“I was introduced to Rupert Taylor-Price who is the owner and founder [of Vault Systems] by a mutual colleague who suggested it would be good for Rupert to meet someone like me to talk about how Canberra works. Because he’s a young Australian entrepreneur in the technology space, I thought to myself, I’ve been out talking about the importance of supporting domestic technology, domestic entrepreneurs and young people, and it was very hard to say no.

“I’ve been talking from a policy perspective about the need to support people of this kind for as long as I can remember in various contexts, and you get presented with someone and you think OK, I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is. I did due diligence on the technology, I did due diligence on their approach in the market, the fact that they’re very ethical, they are Australian-based, I decided … I should get in and support somebody like this because it’s a worthwhile thing to do.”

Vault Systems recently won a major contract with Perth-based ASG Group to deliver air services. “We won that in competition with the big guys,” Halton says, describing it as a David and Goliath  battle. “We know it’s always tough [for small and medium enterprises]. We do know Australians are tough, they’re innovative, they’re out to have a go. I’m not saying we’re going to win all business, you don’t expect to do that, but to be able to compete in that environment is fantastic.”

Vault is now one of a very small number of cloud computing providers to have earned permission from the Australian Signals Directorate to host “PROTECTED” classification material.

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