ImageA few weeks ago Ann Stewart, the Australian Government Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Deputy Secretary leading AGIMO (the Australian Government Information Management Office) announced she was retiring from the public service after seven years in her current role.

Her announcement was widely covered in the media, and there's been a number of public and, I am sure, private thanks and congratulations to her from her (soon to be) former colleagues across the Australian Public Service, from the present and from former Australian Governments for her work in the service of Australia.

I'm not going to add to this chorus, other than to say that I believe Ann performed admirably, given the opportunities and constraints of her roles and duties.

Instead I want to look forward - to consider how this is an opportunity for the Australian Government.

When Ann took up her role in 2005 as Government CIO, about 67% of Australian households had a computer and only 56% had internet access. The majority accessed the internet via dial-up (67%), with only 28% using broadband (with most broadband 2Mbps or less in speed) (ABS Household use of Information Technology 2004-2005 - PDF).

YouTube and Google Maps were new, both launched in February 2005, while Facebook was over a year away from extending beyond universities to the public (in September 2006). Geocities and MySpace ruled the roost.

Government's online IT efforts were focused on eGovernment - streamlining the speed and cost of services through online forms and reports. Government 2.0 had only just been coined as a term and the use of social media for government engagement was barely on the radar of the most progressive public servants.

The role of Australian Government CIO was defined in the context of these times. AGIMO was focused on providing IT leadership to agencies around egovernment, but had a weak mandate when it came to doing more than advising or suggesting and had no mandate at all for supporting and encouraging other forms of online engagement by agencies.

We now live in a different world. Close to 100% of Australians use the internet for an average of over 48 hours per month online. The overwhelming majority of Australians use broadband (96%) and it is their most popular way of engaging with governments.

Social media rules the roost online, with Social Media News reporting that over 11.5 million Australians are using Facebook, 11 million use YouTube and 3.7 million use Blogspot - each month.

Internationally we've seen many governments introduce strong central mandates for the use of the internet in service provision, public engagement, policy development, accountability and transparency.

The US and UK have introduced strong central government CIO roles, who were not only first amongst equals, but who were mandated and empowered to proactively lead whole-of-government agendas for IT, particularly online.

Australia's government has an opportunity to similarly rethink the role of Government CIO - whether the current role definition, whole-of-government responsibilities, placement (currently in the Department of Finance and Deregulation), funding and objectives.

There is an opportunity for Australia to follow the bold leadership of other nations to mandate a more powerful and central role for the Government CIO than was previously the case. A role that allows the CIO to mandate and enforce standards on agencies, rather than simply providing advise and support which can be ignored.

The main risks that I see right now are that Ann Stewart's replacement is appointed as a matter of procedure - selecting the best person for the currently defined role, rather than reconsidering how the role should be defined. This will send a critical message to agencies, the media and the public that the Australian Government is still living in 2005, seeing the internet as a 'nice-to-have' cost-efficiency channel alongside their other one-way engagement channels, rather than as a paradigm shift in how societies interact with each other and with governments.

The second risk is that the role is redefined behind closed doors, not secretly, but through old practices, where a small group of people decide what is appropriate without consultation with the broader engaged community. This would send a message that, while government recognises the challenges brought on by the digitalisation of engagement, it is not yet ready to embrace the opportunities - to bring a larger set of voices into the conversation and pursue more transparent and accountable governance.

I've heard nothing about the process for replacing Ann as yet, and the government and Department are likely still coming to terms with her decision and the ramifications. There's still opportunity to consider taking a different approach to what is becoming an increasingly important central role for spearheading the necessary cultural and IT changes in government to help Australia's government remain fit and competitive for the 21st century.

The process and the new appointment could have a large impact on how Australian Government employs IT and engages online to meet the needs of society, the type of level of impact that could see individual governments rise or fall based on how well they meet community needs.

I hope that the Australian Government takes up this opportunity, providing strategic leadership by reconsidering the role of Government CIO and opening the doors to hear the views of the many engaged stakeholders who have thoughts as to what the role could be and how it could support the government in achieving its broader policy and service delivery goals - all of which now rely on IT and the internet for public engagement, promotion and delivery.

This would send a strong positive message to current and prospective public servants, to the community, industry, the media and to other nations - that Australia is one of the powers to watch in the 21st century.