The man handpicked by Malcom Turnbull to lead the government’s digital transformation has told a Senate inquiry that the Australian government must significantly change the way it delivers digital services.

“People need government services most when they are in times of distress,” Shetler told the inquiry.

“Right now, if you go to Centrelink’s payments finder page it will redirect users who say they need help with a crisis to the Bureau Of Meteorology.”

These sort of digital mistakes are unacceptable for government services and can mean people are “left behind”, Shetler said.

The former head of the Digital Transformation Office (DTO), addressed the parliamentary inquiry as an “interested observer” and explained his inquiry submission. He recounted his experience at the DTO and argued how the government can improve its digital services.

Former DTO chief Paul Shetler

According to Shetler, governments can learn a lot from digital leaders like Amazon, Uber and Netflix, who are successfully providing exceptional digital experiences by focusing on user needs.

Their success is determined by their ability to quickly identify and meet user expectations.

“Facebook, Amazon, they don’t outsource their stuff to IBM or Accenture – they make darn sure they can actually react in real-time to their understanding of what user needs are, that’s how they survive, that’s how they maintain competitive advantage,” Shetler told the inquiry.

Those capabilities are a major point of difference and one of the main reasons the government is failing to deliver exceptional digital services, Shetler said. An over reliance on outsourcing IT and digital skills has eroded the public sectors digital skills and the government’s ability to deliver digital services, the former DTO CEO said.

Shetler argued for a rebalancing of the mix of service development within the public sector and procurement. But governments can’t and shouldn’t do everything themselves, Shetler said. Where contracting is appropriate government agencies should lower the barriers to entry which currently favour larger international companies.

Shetler concedes it is a significant change that requires “forethought and creativity”.

However, getting it right means Australia can, in addition to delivering better digital service, be a global leader, which quickly flows into industry, Shetler said.

“It’s a very virtuous side effect of fixing government services. Government after all is the largest single customer in Australia.”

Senators at the inquiry questioned the viability of operating government digital services like Amazon and that the poor digital performance of several other national governments suggested there was something “inherently different” between the private and public sector when it came to digital performance.

“I’m not saying run the government as a for-profit enterprise at all,” Shetler explained.

“That’s not what I’m saying, but we should learn from the methods that for-profit enterprises use to deliver brilliant products and seeing what of those we can actually apply.”

Following his part in the hearing, Shetler told Which-50 he thought the review was a “necessary part” of bringing about effective change to how the government delivers digital service and he believes the wheels are now in motion.

“I was impressed with the fact that they actually put [the review] together. That to me was important and they are obviously taking it seriously. So let’s see what comes out of it,” Shetler said.

The Government’s Digital Problem

According to research cited by Shetler, nearly half of the Australians accessing government services online experience a problem doing so and just 16 per cent believe the government is doing a good job of providing digital services.

The poor digital service pales in comparison to leaders in the private sector and ultimately undermines the public’s trust in government, Shetler said. But it is possible to deliver a seamless digital experience on par with the tech giants, according to Shetler.

“Government can do that and the first government that does will have a huge advantage over others.”

Shetler outlined three “blockers” which are currently hampering the digital delivery of government services.

1. Capability

Shetler said there is no shortage of passion from Australia’s public servants but too often they failed because of a lack of digital skills.

“Instead of providing digital training to public servants, too often we outsourced IT to large international technology vendors and consultants. Outsourcing makes the government seem smaller, but it is expensive and contributes further to deskilling the public service.”

Shetler said he supports the CPSU proposal to put a spending cap on contractors and consultants with the savings used to raise the average staffing level cap and provide more training to public servants.

2. Culture

“Amazon would never ask you to deal with their packing site and then head over to their shipment site,” Shetler told the Inquiry, illustrating the government’s digital culture problem.

“But Australian entrepreneurs have to work though multiple websites to get various licences, tax numbers and other things required to start a business, rather than being led through a single process. We leave it for them to figure out how it all works and if they are being compliant.”

Instead of focussing on digitising process with an eye on efficiency as they currently are, government departments should be collaborating on delivering user outcomes, Shetler said.

3. Outdated digital construction

According to Shetler, government still builds digital products like they build bridges. That is, every project requires too much specification, leaving little room for agility and response to user needs.

“This makes it impossible to deliver a lean solution quickly, test it with users and continuously improve it based on user insights.”

Robodebt was a great example of this problem, Shetler said.

“Digital transformation isn’t easy. Changing government to operate at internet speed and quality requires strong will from our nation’s leadership. But DTO’s work helped prove the government really can deliver simple, clear, fast services that meet users actual needs.”

“And after removing all the jargon that’s really what digital transformation means,” Shetler said.

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