Digital government lessons learned down under

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan August 23, 2015
Former GDS director Paul Shetler is now pioneering the Australian government's work on digital transformation, with lessons learned from his UK experience helping to shape thinking.

Paul Shetler

Our job is to serve the public and we are failing. It's not good enough in the age of Uber and AirBnB. If Amazon did that they'd go out of business.

Stirring stuff from one of the UK’s leading digital government figures, Paul Shetler. one-time director at the Government Digital Service (GDS).

Unfortunately for the UK, his words were delivered in his new guise as chief executive of the Digital Transformation Office (DTO), the GDS-equivalent for the Australian government.

Shetler moved down under earlier this year following stints at the GDS and prior to that as Chief Digital Officer at the UK Ministry of Justice. The UK’s loss is Australia’s gain - and at a time when the digital government agenda is increasingly prominent there.

Last month, Deloitte Access Economics delivered a high-profile report on the potential for digital transformation across the Australian public sector.

According to Deloitte, if non-digital transactions can be reduced from 40% to 20% over a ten-year period, the cash benefit would be an estimated $26.6 billion on an investment of $6.1 billion. The potential savings projected by the report equate to net benefits of $20.5 billion, or $2,000 per Australian household.

Deloitte Access Economics partner John O’Mahony, author of the Digital Government Transformation: Unlocking the Benefits of Digitising Customer Transactions report, said at the launch in Sydney:

This report makes the economic case for digital transformation within government. The report highlights the challenges government faces in going digital – policy bottlenecks, budget constraints, meeting the needs of citizens who are not digitally savvy, navigating privacy and security issues, and managing change for a large workforce.

Citizens won’t want to interact with government via a website or mobile app unless it’s a great experience. It needs to be well-designed, simple and end-to-end, so they don’t log onto a website, only to be told to print off a hard-copy form and post it into a government department.

GDS model

All of which brings us to the work of the DTO, set up at the start of the year, answering in to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and modelled unashamedly on the UK’s GDS. Hence the appropriateness of luring a UK digital government specialist down to lead it.

There are lessons learned from the UK experience that will inform the decisions that are made in Australia. For example, not to try to do too much and impose a centrist-led vision onto an essentially conservative civil administration. In the light of recent events in the UK Shetler’s made the interesting observation that:

In the UK, we did great work at the central level but it was all very departmentally-centred and when it came to integration with huge swathes of the public sector, like the [National Health Service] or the local government, that was just off the agenda. All we did was focus on central government.

In one of his first public appearances in his new role, Shetler cautioned:

You can't do it all at once otherwise it will be a train wreck - it must be iterative and responsive starting from a position of humility.

That means, no ‘big bang’ approach to change:

We're going to get there by doing small things, delivering them very quickly and then iterating them, changing them, improving them, making sure that they actually do meet user needs and that we continue to do so as we move along.

Australian government

But it’s essential to recognise that, without scaring the horses, the status quo can’t continue:

In many cases we're hamstrung by the ways we are forced to communicate out to the outside because of the way we organise our digital presence and because of the tools we use to work.

Shetler’s been clear to date about the objectives underpinning his new role:

Our opportunity is huge. Not only can we save a lot of money but we can also start restoring public faith in government. Because one of the biggest problems that every government is facing around the world right now is lower budgets, less money to spend, increased demands and the fact that many citizens are saying, 'My gosh, can't you do better than this? Everyone else seems to be able to do better than this. Gee, why can't you do better than this?'

And there's a drip, drip, drip of inadequate services. It's the death of a thousand cuts that undermines public faith in government. That is why we're here — to fix that. It's not a policy issue — it's a delivery issue." We can lower the cost and we can provide better services. We can do better for less because in many cases the high cost is the high cost of doing things not as well as we could, or not as well as we should.

Rather sadly given the work to date in the UK, Shetler’s also convinced that Australia is now set to take the lead in digital government transformation:

There is no other government in the world that has the ambition and the drive to do this.

He added:

We think Australia can become the best in the world, absolutely the best in the world, at delivering digital public services. We have strong support from cabinet, from our minister, and from all the departments we've spoken to.

My take

The work of the DTO will be something to keep a close eye on in the coming months. Against the fallout from the recent defections from GDS in the UK and against the backdrop of continuing rumours about the future shape of digital transformation efforts, Shetler’s boast about Australia’s new leadership role will come under particular scrutiny.