Australia shifts the digital government goalposts – and the UK and US should pay heed

SUMMARY:

The lack of political ambition for digital transformation appears to be on show in the Australian government, but there are worrying parallels with the UK and the US there as well.

Paul Shetler
Paul Shetler

Governments should be able to use state-of-the-art technology; it is outrageous that we can’t.

Damning words from the man handpicked to run the digital transformation of the Australian Government, Paul Shetler. He was referring specifically to an ongoing controversy in Australia around its Centrelink debt recovery programme, but his views on public sector IT in general are ones that have resonance in the UK and in the US.

Shetler was chosen by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball back in July 2015 to become the CEO of the government’s new Digital Transformation Office (DTO). The DTO was set up with a $95.4 million budget to push forward the country’s $254.7 million Digital Transformation Agenda.

Australia’s gain was the UK’s loss. Shetler had been one of the champions of transformation in the British public sector, serving as Chief Digital Officer (CDO) at the Ministry of Justice and latterly as one of the executive leaders at the Government Digital Service (GDS).

The GDS model – at the time – was a template for the DTO down under, so Shetler’s appointment was a coup for the Australian government.

But late last year Shetler dramatically stepped down following what he refers to as a “fundamental disagreement” with Angus Taylor, Australia’s Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation.

Taylor had pushed through significant changes to the DTO, not the least of which was a rebranding as the Digital Transformation Agency. In the process, Shetler found himself losing the CEO title and being ‘demoted’ to CDO.

If the Australian government hoped he would go quietly though, it was very much mistaken. Following a revealing blog post in December,  Shetler this week told RN Breakfast radio a bit more about what had triggered his departure:

I came in to do a thing and the thing I came in to do was to transform the Australian government and to do so through delivery. When you have somebody saying, ‘Well we don’t want to do that, let’s take a different approach, let’s take the same approach we tried several times before which didn’t work’… I don’t want to take the same approach that didn’t work several times before.

The idea that the Digital Transformation Agency should just become a policy agency and essentially stop doing its delivery was not something which I agreed with. It’s not the way that I want to work and it’s not the way that I do work. And it’s not the way that I will work.

Parallels

While it might be tempting to see this as a ‘local’ difficulty for the Australian government, in fact what’s happening has some alarming parallels with the UK and potentially with the US.

In the UK, the changing nature of GDS has been well-tracked over the past year, with a series of high-profile resignations, including Director Mike Bracken  and his successor Stephen Foreshew-Cain. In fact, so many have quit that the Co-Op in Manchester is akin to GDS-in-exile.

The resignations began after former Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude left his post at the last General Election. Maude was a staunch political champion of GDS and its work, work which rattled the cages of the Whitehall bureaucracy. With Maude’s departure, the heavyweight political backing for GDS was significantly diluted and GDS role began to be redefined as the ‘old guard’ moved to take advantage of the absence of ‘the enforcer’.

At present, the UK government has yet to publish a long-promised and much-delayed update to the national digital strategy. A last-minute intervention by Downing Street killed off a planned publication shortly before Christmas, with no scheduled date for it to see the light of day.

Meanwhile in the US, incoming President Donald Trump has faced calls to shut down or at least radically reposition the US Digital Service, also modelled on the GDS template. Again, USDS  was something strongly backed by President Barrack Obama, but which looks set to suffer from lack of political support from Trump.

As we’ve noted many times in the past, the battle between the political will and the administrative won’t is one that has raged in government circles for decades and likely will continue for many more. As Shetler noted this week:

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. I think that there has to be the ambition and, extremely importantly, I think there has to be the political will to do so. And I question that. I think it’s absent.

My take

There are uncomfortable comparisons to be made between what’s happened in Australia and what many fear has been happening in the UK. With the departure of Maude and the likes of former Chief Operating Officer Stephen Kelly, Sir Humphrey and ‘not the way we do things around here’ mentality has regained ground in Whitehall.

There’s also a mindshift throughout the entire public sector that seem retrogressive. Take, for example, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which currently proposes to spend £1.3 million on building its own data centre, the sort of thing we were going to stop doing.

Meanwhile a growing number of outsourcing deals that were absolutely never going to be extended under any circumstances are now being, well, extended. Good news for the oligopoly, maybe not so much for the taxpayer?

It increasingly looks like 2017 is a year in which the shape of digital transformation in government across continents might be rewritten – and not in the right direction.

 

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