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Australia’s digital transformation head Paul Shetler marks a first year

The man heading up Australia's digital government transformation talks to Computer Weekly about the progress his department made in its first year

They may be small capabilities in the morass that is Australia’s government IT, but the beta releases of several core e-government services in March and April 2016 will mark an important milestone for Paul Shetler, the man hand-picked by the country’s prime minister to drag its public service IT into the digitally focused 21st century.

Those service exemplars – which include an imports facilitating service designed with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), a streamlined newborn enrolment process for the Department of Human Services’ Medicare healthcare programme, and an appointment booking system for Australian Capital Territory government-backed community health services – will be the first tangible outputs of Shetler’s Digital Transformation Office (DTO), a government agency established a year ago to shepherd the country’s public service towards digital transformation.

Former communications minister Malcolm Turnbull poached Shetler from the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), which he joined after driving well-regarded transformation through the UK’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ). When Turnbull assumed the prime ministership in a political coup in September 2015, he reaffirmed the importance of the office – which was funded in the May 2015 federal budget to the tune of A$254.7m – by bringing it under the watch of the Department of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

Six months later, Shetler remains thankful for the strong top-level support and believes the newly minted organisation has overcome teething pains and is “firing on all cylinders” to ramp up its change programme, which in 2015 was dominated by broad policy pronouncements such as the Digital Service Standard (DSS) and the publication of low-level technical guidelines for strategies such as the use of application programming interfaces (APIs) to encourage service re-use.

The three exemplars – more will be launched later in 2016 under the DTO’s current work programme – are analogous in some ways to the exemplars in the UK, says Shetler, noting that he has applied many of the lessons learned in the UK to streamline the DTO’s ramp-up.

Fostering government-wide collaboration

“We realised that one of the things we could do better when it comes to delivering digital projects in the government is to define what happens in the phases better,” he says. “The discovery phase, for example, had been the most mysterious in the past. There had never been a clear listing of the activities, who would be involved, what outcomes we wanted and what artefacts we would create.”

As a more honed team than it was at the beginning, and one that is working with a better sense of purpose, Shetler says the DTO’s sharper focus on outcomes will help government agencies gain more momentum towards transformation. Yet he’s also aware that a small organisation can only do so much – and he is keen to insulate the DTO from bearing the burden of driving this change, noting that it is “not the startup, but the incubator”.

That, he says, means it will focus more on facilitating collaboration between agencies that have too often worked in silos in the past: Co-working spaces at the DTO, coaching services around DSS compliance and access to a team of digital designers, developers, technical architects, delivery managers and other experts that were brought onboard as part of an aggressive hiring campaign in 2015.

Encouraging that interplay, and the sharing of skills and experiences through mandatory regular showcases of project work, was another of the key lessons Shetler took away from his time at the MOJ.

“Our team at MOJ was 180 people, and we were sitting on two floors,” he says. “Even though we learned from our colleagues, just down the road was the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Home Office was just down the street, but no one from those teams was going into our showcases and we didn’t really know what they were doing.”

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While executives occasionally spoke to each other, Shetler says it could have done better at the level where the work was done. He notes that the DTO is actively working to encourage inter-team sharing through its Sydney facility.

A DIBP team is working in the same space as the teams working on, he says. “That has been very helpful because they have a better understanding of what it’s like to deliver a service. It’s all about making the connections a lot easier and making the flow of information a lot easier.”

While such sharing is intended to minimise the reinvention of the proverbial wheels as different agencies pursue their transformation agendas, the DTO is not pushing to develop broad uniformity of services; rather, Shetler says, “we’re looking for consistency, especially in the user experience”.

That consistency is already starting to manifest across many Australian-government websites and services, where a more consistent look-and-feel has crept into federal and state agencies, in particular, in recent years.

Are government agencies ready for digital transformation?

Yet while there are superficial improvements, a recent Deloitte survey of public service leaders – including 200 in Australia – found there is still a high degree of concern about agencies’ ability to execute digital transformation agendas.

Only 27% of Australian respondents said they felt confident about their organisation’s readiness to respond to digital trends, and just 43% said their leadership “understands digital trends and technology”. This is despite strong support for the idea of transformation – fully 80% said digital technologies and capabilities empower employees to work better with customers and citizens.

“There is also a very compelling argument for more to be done in terms of driving the development and uptake of digital, both in terms of improved access to services and the provision of services at lower cost,” said Deloitte Australia national public sector and healthcare leader Fran Thorn in a statement.

Deloitte modelling suggested that if digital transformation can reduce the volume of transactions through traditional channels by 20% within 10 years, the government would enjoy A$17.9bn in productivity and efficiency benefits, as well as A$8.7bn in time and convenience savings for citizens.

The stakes, then, are high as Shetler continues to push his team through the DTO’s first full year in operation. And while he is “very proud” of the completion of platforms such as – which was completed in nine weeks “to show how government services can be designed around user needs” based on specific citizen interactions – more needs to be done.

We’re not changing government but we are using mapping to demystify it and to help people navigate it
Paul Shetler, DTO

“We’ve come up with a pattern for how we can deliver these services,” says Shetler. “We’re not changing government but we are using mapping to demystify it and to help people navigate it,” he says.

Recent external assessment of the initiative against the DTO’s own DSS requirements – something that never happened at the UK GDS – suggests the DTO is on the right track, says Shetler. He adds that a forthcoming report will also illustrate an effective compliance pathway for agencies in measuring their progress against the DSS.

Continuing to encourage compliance will be a key part of the DTO’s agenda this year and into the future. Early work is already beginning on new initiatives in areas such as a digital trust framework for identity management and development of a digital marketplace for government services.

Strong attendance at recent communities-of-practice meetings in Sydney and Canberra have shown a “strong thirst and desire on the part of a lot of practitioners for the kind of community that we’ve been building”, says Shetler. “We’re moving very quickly; it’s extremely exciting.”

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