Australia’s outgoing CDO details the struggles in getting government to change

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez December 6, 2016
Paul Shetler worked for the UK government before moving to Australia to head up a new Digital Transformation Office.

Paul Shetler
Paul Shetler

The Australian government has followed a very similar path to that of the UK in relation to its attempts at digital transformation -

  • It set up its own digital department - previously called the Digital Transformation Office, but recently renamed the Digital Transformation Agency.
  • It focused on exemplar services.
  • It created a new single website for government.
  • It has created a Digital Marketplace
  • And it is adopting a platform approach to building services.

Anyone that follows the developments of the Government Digital Service here in the UK would notice the striking similarities between the two nations’ approach. And much of this is likely to be attributed to the fact that the Australian government hired ex-Ministry of Justice CDO Paul Shetler to head up the transformation in July 2015.

However, it was recently announced that after almost two years leading the digital charge down under, Shetler is now departing for pastures new. Interim CEO, Nerida O’Loughlin, said that a replacement CDO will likely be appointed in the new year.

Upon his departure, Shetler has penned a public post on LinkedIn detailing his time with the Australian government, outlining the achievements made. What’s interesting, however, is that he spends a great deal of time in the post talking about the current blockers still facing the Australian government. What’s even more remarkable (or maybe not) is that so many of the blockers Shetler highlights resonate with the challenges currently facing the Government Digital Service in the UK.

Shetler said:

The blockers to positive transformation are structural, cultural and skills-based. During the last 16 months at DTO and now at the brand-new DTA, we've also seen just how painful it can be for government to get on with delivering good digital services.

For services to be truly transformed, we need to go beyond the front end, and transform the back office IT too. If we don't rethink the underlying IT systems and business processes, we're constrained to do little more than make cosmetic changes. After all the service doesn’t stop at the user interface, it includes an ensemble of people, systems and processes that support it.

Unfortunately, across most governments worldwide - and Australia is no exception - too many public servants working in back offices are often reduced to human APIs - retyping information from one system to another, and stuck processing the repetitive common cases that shouldn't need any human intervention at all. This is a waste of their talent and initiative.

This is a complaint that has plagued GDS too. Whilst it was necessary for it to focus on front-end systems to place emphasis on the user need and to get buy-in for bigger budgets (it is often joked that GDS was created because of the savings created from one website - GOV.UK), it is also argued that much of what GDS has done to date is lipstick on a pig.

There hasn’t been a great deal of evidence for front-to-back wide scale transformation of systems for the digital era. And that’s likely because it’s really hard. Whilst GDS has made progress with its platform business, departments are still ploughing cash into outdated systems that are very hard to modernise. But leveraging the data locked up in those systems is necessary to build modern services for citizens. However, whilst it is also technically challenging, the biggest challenge is cultural - people are scared of change, because often this means a change in their role.


Whilst Shetler highlights an enthusiasm for digital amongst public servants, he also taps into the fear it has created. He said:

There's also a fear of digital. Over the last 40 years, as we've outsourced technology, there's been a progressive deskilling of the public service. The reliance on consultants is remarkable and the amount spent on them is eye watering. That’s just not necessary if we re-skill the public service, which was one of the Prime Minister’s goals on establishing the DTO.

Digital transformation can seem daunting. It means challenging the status quo. It means getting closer to your users, being rigorous at measuring performance, and being honest about the things that aren't working.

Government's biggest challenge in the digital age is to completely upskill the public service so that it is well equipped to deliver the change that's needed.

He went on to say that generally large bureaucracies seek to maintain themselves in their current forms, and that means that “institutional inertia against transformation is enormous”. Shetler said that for government to “operate at Internet speed and quality” requires strong will and expenditure of political capital from the nation’s leadership. He said:

Without that mandate to change, it’s naive to expect an organisation that is very comfortable with its way of working to decide to spontaneously transform itself.

This is the challenge in the next 16 months - to double down on building the capability to deliver on the vision, and eliminating the blockers getting in the way.

Getting the systems to work alongside policy

We’ve written before about how the Government Digital Service has had plans to more closely integrate policy making with system design, in an attempt to create services that work for citizens without the huge costs associated with creating new systems that may or may not be used.

Typically policy makers come up with ideas, which are theoretical in approach and tested via consultation with a select few, and have multi-year pipelines. The idea is that policy will be closely linked to service delivery, where services are created, tested and even destroyed at negligible cost through the use of ‘platforms’.

Shetler’s post also highlights the problems that the ‘traditional’ approach to policy making has created in terms of systems sprawl. He said:

When government is restructured by well-meaning politicians - and this happens often - IT systems often end up being passed from agency to agency. Over the last 40 years in Australia, this has created complex webs of systems that cost a lot to operate, and take a long time to change.

This creates a vicious cycle because, whenever a new policy needs to be implemented, it's often easier to build a new system on the side, than it is to change the existing legacy system. So you end up with what we have now, unworkable and inefficient systems that meet outdated needs and are expensive and slow to change.

However, he was also keen to point out that whilst government often thinks it’s a special case that is

Australian government

more complex than other industries - put into a digital context, it’s often not. Shetler added:

When it comes to service delivery, the transaction volumes of government services are small compared to the wider world.

Government might think it's huge, but its daily transaction volume is equivalent to just a few minutes of Twitter - or even less on the NASDAQ.

And still, government spends more than $16bn a year on IT. Our procurement and funding processes encourage big IT programmes, with bigger contracts. They drive a culture of blame aversion which creates the perverse outcomes and actually increases risk.

The history of the past several years of government IT failure is testimony to that. This is further complicated and exacerbated by the lack of technical and contract management expertise in government. (Too frequently, we actually ask vendors to tell us what they think we should buy.)

Government is one of the last industries that thinks it can outsource wholesale. Banks, brokerages and the insurance industry all made the shift twenty years ago, and have been able to transform their IT in the period since.

You don't build digital services in the same way that you build bridges. How can you test with users, deliver a lean solution quickly, and iterate with what you learn, if you are forced to specify all your requirements upfront? When you’re locked in a big IT contract, changing what you're building comes at a huge expense - in both cost and time.

My take

It’s incredible that the challenges or blockers that face governments are so similar the world over. As I’ve said before, until we have an honest conversation about what digital means for the public sector - where institutions will change shape, job roles will be different and policy making will need rethinking - we aren’t going to see the wholesale change we need. However, to have that conversation means having a government that knows it needs to look very different from how it looks now, which isn’t easy (particularly when the focus is on more pressing issues such as Brexit).

Lots to take from Shetler’s very honest blog. Good luck to him in his next endeavours.

Image credit - Changes signpost © pablographix -

Read more on: