An Australian senate inquiry into the digital delivery of government services is currently underway following a series of high-profile digital failures and mounting political pressure.
The inquiry, which will examine “strategies for whole of government digital transformation”, puts the spotlight on the Australian public service’s ability to bring itself into the 21st century.
“We’re not that bad,” according to former Digital Transformation Office CEO, Paul Shetler, the man hand-picked by Malcolm Turnbull to lead the Australian government digital transformation.
He told Which-50 “Australia tends to do well in certain kind of metrics” and pointed to the amount of information and services Australia has online. However, there is still “a lot of opportunity for improvement” on how well those services are delivered and “what the experience is like.”
The provision of digital services is not enough, according to Shetler. Services have to enable real user outcomes.
“It’s not just putting a nice digital front end on things. You have to fix all the stuff inside as well to be able to operate like a digital organisation.”
A senate inquiry potentially sheds some light on how well Australia is doing this. It’s also simply a matter of transparency, Shetler said.
“There is a lot of money being spent and people deserve to know how it’s being spent and why it’s being spent and what are the outcomes.”
Shetler said he hopes the inquiry remains objective and isn’t inherently negative — “politicising this stuff isn’t terribly helpful.”
A different beast
However the inquiry does highlight the high-stakes nature of government digital transformations.
“When governments as a whole get it wrong, it isn’t just about a commercial loss. The risk is in undermining the way our social and democratic system works,” said Trevor Clarke, founding partner and Asia Pacific research director.
“Hence risk profiles are fundamentally different [from private enterprise] and need to be considered carefully,” he told Which-50.
It’s the big difference between digital transformation in the public and private sector. Failure means marginalised citizens, not unhappy consumers.
Private organisations also enjoy the shared metric of profitability in digital transformation, according to Shetler. They see the effect of decisions on their bottom line pretty quickly, which enables more conversations, he said.
“Government not so much.”
“You can have 12 different people in a room all from different agencies or departments. You can have 12 different policy objectives and it’s like herding cats. You don’t have that common yardstick to have a conversation around.”
While profitability isn’t always the right conversation for the private sector, it at least gives a point of orientation, Shetler said.
Where consumers can vote with their wallets, citizens can only vote — a process clouded by many factors. It produces less immediate transformations, Shetler said.
But a digital economy waits for no one — not even bureaucrats.
According to Shetler, the private sector has ratcheted up what users expect from their digital services, including government. It is challenging because in most cases “government doesn’t see itself as digital.”
“People expect the same level of quality that they get in the rest of their life.”
“Can you imagine if Facebook had 1,524 different web sites you had to go to use Facebook? People wouldn’t use it. Well that’s how many we have to use government.”
Private organisations failing to address such complexities don’t last long in a digital economy and the fact it exists in government digital services is “absurd”, Shetler said. Many government services can’t be found anywhere else but that’s no excuse for complacency, Shetler argued.
“Our view always was, because there’s no choice, that’s not an excuse to be lazy. That’s an ethical obligation we have then to do the very best possible thing. You say, OK great I take my responsibility seriously, I joined a public service because I want to serve the people. So do it.”
It is one of the reasons a government needs to consider itself a digital organisation with a focus on user outcomes, Shetler said.
For example, a user-focused holistic approach to digital would have gone a long way to preventing some of the Government’s recent IT failures, according to Shetler.
“When they were doing ‘robodebt’ and things like that we weren’t really consulted. It wasn’t viewed as part of what we were doing [at the DTO].”
User testing and a focus on outcomes would have shown faults in the system “immediately” Shetler said. Instead, the automated debt recovery system rolled out and 20,00 people received incorrect debt notices. It’s a digital service that Social Services Minister Christian Porter defended as “about as reasonable a process as you could possibly derive.”
It’s also one of the digital bungles that prompted Labor’s push for a senate inquiry.
Senate Inquiry — Digital delivery of government services
Australia’s efforts are now being examined and inquiry submissions have closed, with the report due on the 4th of December. So far, the submissions have presented two sides of a digital transformation story.
The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), the government agency developed to transform services, presents a submission outlining nine key achievements and five major priorities going forward. Overall it’s a positive outlook that rightly identifies significant progress.
In contrast, the submission from Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) — the primary union representing Australian Public Service employees — paints a bleaker picture. It outlines “serious problems with the delivery of government services, and with government ICT more generally.” According to the CPSU, these problems include:
- Government service standards are not meeting community expectations and are falling behind service delivery in non-government sectors;
- The government’s credibility on innovation and service has been eroded by a series of high-profile ICT failures and ongoing service delivery problems for clients:
- Poor-quality ICT systems are also a major problem for APS staff.
The CPSU attributes the problems to two main causes.
First, decades of outsourcing and contracting have left the public sector “overly reliant on external vendors and contractors — creating critical issues with capability and cost”. Second, past ICT reviews and strategies have focused on savings at the expense of “strategic and architectural reform”.
Shetler said he agreed with the CPSU’s criticism on outsourcing, and it’s something “Australia needs to dramatically fix”. However the outsourcing problem is not exclusive to Australia or the public sector, he said.
“It’s also true of the private sector. You see that just as much in these very large private sector bureaucracies where they have outsourced large parts of their functions and they’ve deskilled internally. So it’s something which is pervasive in large bureaucratic organisations that predate the internet.”
Outsourcing can be the safe option for government — maintaining the status quo. But effective digital transformation in government is “radical” and can often mean bringing ICT systems in-house and up-skilling the people to use them, Shetler said.
Blueprint for Success
The radical approach worked for the UK government, where Shetler worked as the CDO of UK Ministry of Justice.
“They went to the root of a lot of problems. They put in things like spend control. They didn’t just bring in a bunch of designers. They didn’t just say let’s redo some web pages. They also thought about their processes, the way they do IT. And they fixed those.”
“Those are pretty radical, when you have a group like the government digital service which is able to say, no you can’t spend money on that thing because it doesn’t meet user needs and it’s bad.”
It radically changed the way IT was done in the UK government and exposed then stopped the bad practice, Shetler said. At the same time, positive user-focused digital practice was developed and encouraged. Shetler said he would love to see that empowerment and user focus applied to the DTA here.
Meeting user expectations is what digital transformation is really all about, according to Shetler. A government “needs to look at things from the standpoint of the user” — in other words, what they’re trying to accomplish.
“The second you start trying to look at what people are actually trying to get done — what is the outcome they want? — rather than a particular outcome you’re automating, you can provide much better services.”
“That’s really the biggest challenge for government is to do that. It’s not an easy one to solve by the way, because of the way government’s organised.”
The Service NSW Case Study
The federal government would do well to follow the NSW government’s approach to Service NSW, Shetler said. It’s an often-cited digital transformation success story and the praise is well deserved, according to Shetler.
“They really have taken a user-centric view on things and they’ve done it consistently. I think they’re a really great model.”
The Service NSW digital transformation showed “a certain amount of maturity and wisdom” it also bought a “huge amount of political goodwill,” Shetler said.
Damon Rees, the former NSW government Chief Information and Digital Officer and acting CEO of Service NSW, cites consolidating disjointed and inefficient service providers into a “one-stop-shop” as a major achievement for the state government.
“We’ve already seen the step change in performance and value that we can achieve as a government,” Rees said during a presentation at the Gartner Symposium held on the Gold Coast last week.
“About five years ago the NSW government, like many governments, wasn’t designed around the customer. We presented many, many different brands, we presented many, many different shopfronts. We presented something like 8000 different phone numbers that you could call depending on what you were trying to do,” Rees explained.
“All that complexity to navigate us was back on the customer.”
It meant Service NSW had to “pivot” to a digital-first, omnichannel model and provide customers a one-stop-shop for government services, with customer choice and convenience sitting at the heart of it, Rees said. It required a “fundamental shift” in the way it delivered change.
Today Service NSW is “famous for its customer service” and Rees counts it as the state government’s “flagship” for customer satisfaction in digital, measuring other digital projects against it.
However, there is more to do and, like many private enterprises, Rees is pushing for a more agile and sustainable product approach to digital services.
According to Rees, the successful transformation of Service NSW has been akin to “many great startups” and consequently had left it very project-focused.
“We have scrambled our way to MVP through a hell of a lot of passion, a hell of a lot of handwork, blood sweat and an occasional tear along the way. But it’s left us being very project-centric in the way we deliver change. Very department dependant on the way we deliver change.”
“Sometimes it can be expensive for us to change, and sometimes it can take longer than we’d like. Sometimes it doesn’t leave us with the capability in our organisation to ensure we are truly sustainable. Whether that’s from a production stability perspective or whether that’s from an ability to adapt to the constant changes of government.”
The Service NSW example shows what can be accomplished with a committed approach to government digital transformation. Despite the federal government’s digital failures, progress has been made and the passion of public sector workers can not be questioned. It’s worth remembering just how challenging a true digital transformation is.