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Australian government grappling with digital transformation woes

Digital transformation in Australia’s public sector has been beset by soaring rhetoric and vague aspirations by government, a new report reveals

An Australian government committee has delivered a withering report of the public sector’s progress with digital transformation to date.

In its analysis of digital delivery of government services, the finance and public administration references committee noted that “digital transformation is a policy area beset by soaring rhetoric and vague aspirations by government, largely unconnected to the actual policy activities actually undertaken”.

Calling the state of affairs a “shame”, it said digital transformation represents one of the best opportunities to deliver more to those who pay for government, those who work for government, and those who government works for.”

Although there were dissenting views represented in the report, the committee acknowledged that digital projects – rightly or not – have a reputation in the public and private sectors alike for running overtime and over-budget.

“Over the past five years, however, the government has overseen a litany of failures, largely unprecedented in scale and degree,” it said.

Just before the committee handed down its long-awaited report, the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), the organisation charged with being the catalyst for digital renewal across the public sector, lost yet another leader – this time Gavin Slater who stepped down after a little over a year in the role.

Slater joined the DTA from NAB and was seen as a change agent for the government. But so was the first leader of the organisation, Paul Shetler, who moved to Australia from the UK’s Government Digital Service to lead digital transformation.

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Shetler said shortly after he quit the DTA in late 2016: “It’s extremely difficult to get an incredibly bureaucratised, incredibly balkanised bureaucracy to decide it wants to transform itself. That’s an awful lot of inertia in the systems built in. It’s obviously possible to do that but you need to have strong support along the way from the ministers and the top”.

Now, Canberra has appointed Randall Brugeaud, a public service insider and deputy Australian statistician at the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), to lead the DTA.

Brugeaud will have his work cut out, with the committee noting that the contribution of the DTA to government digital transformation has become “muted” and sidelined from a series of important technology initiatives in many instances.

Somewhat ironically, Brugeaud’s former home at the ABS was one of the so-called “tech wrecks” investigated by the committee following the distributed denial-of-service attack that disrupted Australia’s most recent census in August 2016. The ABS was not alone, however, and the committee’s report went into detail about systems failures endured by a series of departments.

This included the Australian Tax Office whose external websites, client portals and tax agent portals went offline in December 2016, the failed replacement child support system at the department of human services, and the deeply flawed “robo-debt” system developed to claw back overpayments that received scathing criticism for its overly economic rather than human focus.

In a tweet last week, Shetler welcomed the release of the committee’s report, noting that it was useful to have a “good solid baseline of data on techwrecks”. He also applauded a number of its recommendations.

The recommendations seemed to cover well-trodden ground. The committee proposed another review of digital, cyber and data policy functions performed across government and that digital performance measures be shared and reported across departments and agencies, along with an annual ministerial statement on progress with digital transformation.

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