GovInnovate Brief

Is Australian digital government at a crossroad?

Posted by GovInnovate Team on 13-Jan-2017 12:41:09

Is Australian digital government at a crossroad?


It seems as though it was all a dream. Australia desperately needed an experienced digital transformation evangelist, and when Malcolm Turnbull created the Digital Transformation Office in 2015, it seemed almost too good to be true when it was announced that digital evangelist, Paul Shetler would be heading the project.


But now in the wake of the resignation of Australia’s first Chief Digital Officer, it’s time to assess what went wrong and how we can repair our goal of digital transformation and spearhead innovation and agility in the public sector. This post looks at the events that lead to the resignation of Australia's first federal Chief Digital Officer, as well as trying to establish a path for the progression of Australian digital government. 



The vision


The ultimate goal, and Paul Shetler’s vision for the Digital Transformation Agency, was to drive agile and innovative government. Collaboration would be the foundation for the adoption of digital technologies, and eventually, a single government website (GOV.AU) would encourage open and transparent data sharing between agencies.

GOV.AU ideally would have swept away the woes of many users when interacting with government platforms like myGov and submitting their online taxes. According to Shetler, many of the day-to-day interactions with government should would have been simplified on a fundamental level.

Shetler states: ”My team and I worked with departments, agencies and state governments to deliver six exemplar services — demonstrating what was possible. Like making it easier to book an appointment for your newborn baby’s immunisations. Making it easier for businesses to import goods that need a permit.”


Paul Shetler thinks public servants are thinking differently about digital


To spur innovation and make it as easy as possible for agencies to create 21st century digital services, Australia's first digital agency worked to introduce common platforms that could be emulated by government agencies. Common platforms would allow those agencies without the in-house capability to build a platform, to stand on the shoulders of giants. 

The commoditisation of ‘building blocks for services’ would have reduced duplication and costs for many agencies that are most likely building services with common features. However, in more complex cases, bespoke services would have preferably been built in-house by public service employees with the digital acumen to create great, easy to use services.

For example, the GOV.AU site would have been built largely by in-house technicians in an effort to wean the government of the expensive task of hiring contractors and temps to undergo work that could be done internally. But as we know, this vision is currently in limbo as the Digital Transformation Agency no longer has its trailblazer.

Let’s take a look at what happened and what the next steps to achieving this vision are.



So that's the vision, but what happened?


Alas, Australia’s digital vision for having a one-stop shop for government services may not come to fruition. But, why? Much was accomplished during the last 16 months, but as criticisms on spending began to circulate, it seemed as though what was wrong overshadowed the good.

Shetler remained positive about the transition from the office to agency but stated that the government needed the ambition and political will to drive change. Shetler states: “There is a lot to do. There is an awful lot we can do. But I think there has to be the ambition to do so.”

In October 2016, the DTO metamorphosised into a digital agency, with Shetler re-birthed as Australia’s first Federal CDO, and control of the DTA was handed to the Canberra public service. Just six weeks after this, Shetler resigned suddenly due to a misalignment of whether to focus on policy or delivery.


Paul Shetler believes in delivery over policy


This significant disagreement on the philosophical approach to digital transformation was the breaking point for Shetler who firmly believed in delivery over policy.

“It's not OK when the government cannot deliver the basic services that people are paying for” Shetler stated.

The downgrading and defunding of the GOV.AU project in August 2016 meant that millions of dollars of taxpayers' money spent in temporary technicians, contractors and consultants to develop the program were wasted.

Although GOV.AU has been put to the wayside for now, the DTA will not be abandoning web transformation altogether. Let’s take a look at the next steps for Australian digital government.




Where to now?


In an opinion piece in the Mandarin, Shetler reminisced on his accomplishments and criticisms on his time leading the charge for Australia's digital crusade, and although much was accomplished, there is still much to do. Government websites across Australia are still in need of a useability makeover, Shetler explains:

“Unfortunately, across most governments worldwide — and Australia is no exception — too many public servants working in back offices are often reduced to human APIs — retyping information from one system to another, and stuck processing the repetitive common cases that shouldn’t need any human intervention at all. This is a waste of their talent and initiative.” 

The DTA will currently be focusing on reducing the amount of government websites (which are currently sitting at 1,500), and lifting the standards under the same GOV.AU brand name. But there are many questions about how this will occur now that Shetler has resigned.

Shetler believed in a whole-of-government approach to transformation, and understood that the user’s needs come first. Complexity of a government service doesn't need to be shown on the front end. “For services to be truly transformed, we need to go beyond the front end, and transform the back office IT too” Shetler stated in his opinion piece.

So what's next? Maybe we need to identify the main blockers to achieving transformation as suggested by Shetler? Or maybe the Australian government needs a new spearhead to transform the current thinking on delivering services to focus on the benefits of digital? What can we learn from international governments? And what should we avoid?

These questions may not give us a solution, but they will provide us a great foundation for achieving the vision for a digital Australian Government. One great positive that we have to start off with, is the dedication of the Australian public servants to better serve the nation's citizens. All we need to do now is turn the enthusiasm for digital into tangible results.

Have you got any thoughts on the latest developments in the DTA? Let us know your thoughts by sending us a note or commenting below. If you're looking to learn more about this, you can read Paul Shetler's fireside chat with Hillary Hartley from the GovInnovate Summit. 


Topics: Digital Delivery

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