Aussie Whirlwind Sweeps Through Government IT

A piece of butcher’s paper peppered with hand-scribbled adjectives hangs on the wall of Jane Treadwell’s office in downtown Canberra, Australia. It is a memento from a recent leadership workshop, during which Treadwell’s colleagues at Centrelink, Australia’s massive social welfare agency, were asked to describe their CIO: “flashy,” “imaginative,” “process driven.” In looking over the words chosen by Treadwell’s colleagues, it’s difficult to imagine that they all describe the same woman: “colorful,” “hyperactive,” “tough and principled.”

How could so many people see such different things in one person? Perhaps it’s that over the course of the last seven years, during which time Treadwell has been remaking Australia’s biggest government agency, she has had to be all of those things and more. As CIO and Deputy CEO of Business Transformation at Centrelink, Treadwell has presided over a $312 million e-business modernization of the agency’s delivery of social services across the entire continent, called Project Refresh. She’s even been able to successfully shed the label of “femocrat” (a derogatory Australian term for a feminist bureaucrat).

Even though Treadwell is a high-ranking government official, she is all business. Since her arrival at Centrelink in 1998, customer satisfaction has grown from 63 percent to 86 percent. And a 2002 Boston Consulting Group review reported a 21 percent increase in productivity over the agency’s first five years.

Centrelink now delivers $55 billion (Australian) in payments for 25 government agencies and has more than 1,000 offices throughout Australia. Its staff of more than 25,000 serves 6.5 million customers—including retired people, families, single parents, the unemployed, people with a short-term incapacity or long-term disabilities, students, children, members of Australia’s indigenous population and people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Centrelink has the second largest call-center network in Australia, and it can be used, as required, by any government agency.

Today, Treadwell is held up as something of an IT hero in Australia. Her face has graced the cover of all the major industry magazines, and her opinions on sticky IT issues are sought by government and business executives alike. But it took many years to earn that sometimes grudging respect, and, even after proving herself time and again, she still recognizes the enduring key to her success in driving transformative projects: “If you can’t demonstrate value, you’ll only argue about cost.”

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