Australia’s Digital Transformation Agency slammed by inquiry - report echoes the woes of GDS

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez July 3, 2018
Summary:
The federal government in Australia is suffering from similar digital transformation woes in the UK, with a Senate inquiry stating that a lack of political will is hindering progress.

Australia
Australia’s Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) - previously the Digital Transformation Office (DTO) - has been slammed in a report released by the Senate, following an inquiry into its progress.

It seems that the Australian equivalent of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the UK is suffering from similar woes to its commonwealth counterpart, with the report citing a lack of political support across the whole of government and a fragmented approach to delivery.

The DTA has followed a similar trajectory to GDS, even taking cues on efforts such as a single website for government and the launch of exemplar services, but after initial successes also fails to be living up to the hope and rhetoric since launch.

In fact, ex-Ministry of Justice CDO Paul Shetler was even picked up by the Australian government to head up the then named DTO, but left in a very public spat with Angus Taylor, Australia’s Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation, back in 2016.

Since then the DTO has morphed into the DTA, but despite public announcements of increased powers and support, appears to be struggling to live up to the hype.

A damning verdict

The Senate inquiry states that whilst transformation of any kind is challenging, it “requires internal champions to overcome organisational inertia”. And whilst it found that there are many senior public servants across government who have sought to drive digital transformation within their departments, they have been “let down in their efforts by a lack of a champion within government as a whole”.

The report states:

The committee considers that the government has not demonstrated that it has the political will to drive digital transformation. This much is evidenced by the role it has given the DTA.

At the time, the reorganisation of the DTO into the DTA was presented as representing an expansion of the agency's powers. In reality, although the agency's scope of operations did increase (for instance through the acquisition of responsibility for procurement), it was less empowered to take action.

Now, two years later, the DTA performs a useful role in providing governance standards and guidance. Its contribution is muted because its role is confined to the level of assistance with discrete projects at the operational level.

The Senate inquiry found that even though the DTA is supposed to be tasked with tracking digital projects across the whole of government, stepping in to remediate when things aren’t working, in reality it has only played a minor role in the case studies examined by the committee.

For example, the DTA is supposed to maintain a watchlist of projects at risk. However, the recently canned Biometric Identification Service was not on the watchlist, despite being a large project that was significantly overtime and over budget.

In addition, DTA has been sidelined in new digital initiatives undertaken by the government. For example:

  • Cyber policy will reside at the Department of Home Affairs
  • Data policy will reside at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
  • The newly created Office of the Information Commissioner is organisationally separate from the DTA
  • The soon to be created Data Commissioner will be organisationally separate from the DTA

The Senate Committee stated:

Cumulatively, the evidence heard by this committee revealed an organisation that was not at the centre of government thinking about digital transformation, or responsible for the creation and enactment of a broader vision of what that transformation would look like. Troublingly, no other organisation is.

There is a clear need for a whole-of-government vision and strategic plan for the digital transformation of government administration. The evidence is of departments and agencies in silos looking internally and focussing on their own approach to the digital delivery of their particular government service, where in many respects all are facing the same challenges.

As a result of any lack of central vision, the Senate believes that individual departments (and ministers) may end up pursuing projects that run counter to the aims of digital transformation. In particular, digital investment may solely be seen as a way to realise efficiencies and cut costs, rather than as a mechanism for transforming services.

It cites the deeply flawed Centrelink robo-debt recovery programme, which saw scores of people incorrectly targeted after a data-match in fault on supposed payments. The programme saw notices sent to 20,000 welfare recipients, who were later found to owe less or nothing at all.

However, the Committee heard that officials were claiming that despite the hardship caused, that the program went “very well” because it saved the government money.

The report states:

It is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile a program like "Robo-debt" with the principles of user-centredness that the DTA is supposedly responsible for engendering throughout government.

This inconsistency is a direct product of the absence of a central vision for digital transformation. A cohesive and shared view, driven by a properly resourced and empowered department or agency, would serve to guide policy development and decision making by the bureaucracy and ministers alike.

All departments and agencies would derive significant benefit from a whole- of-government strategic plan to achieve the digital transformation of government. Ultimate responsibility for this plan should rest with a central agency that is properly invested with powers and responsibility.

My take

Sound familiar? The report could seemingly have been written about GDS. It’s worrying that despite high ambitions and hopes these agencies are dwindling as a result of a lack of political clout and leadership. We know that ‘transformation’ is hard, it’s not impossible. Those at the top need to take note and put the mechanisms in place, centrally, to deliver what is needed.