Paul Shetler's perspective on UK, US and Australian government digital transformation

Paul Wallbank Profile picture for user pwallbank January 19, 2017
Paul Shetler talks exclusively to diginomica about the difficulties that successive governments in the US, UK and Australia face as they attempt digital transformation projects.

Paul Shetler

“You can't Kumbaya your way through this,” smiles Paul Shetler as he relaxes in a cafe in Sydney's fashionable Potts Point while talking about the challenges of managing a government's digital transformation.

Shetler was talking exclusively to diginomica about what he learned during his 16 month tenure at Australia's Digital Transformation Office and the UK's Government Digital Service before that. He also offered some views on the state of digital transformation in the US. Be warned - his views make for uncomfortable reading.

Before being attracted Down Under by the then communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to head its digital transformation agency, Shetler had worked for Microsoft and Oracle before becoming the UK Ministry of Justice’s Chief Digital Officer and then a director of the GDS.

Despite recent setbacks for the UK's GDS, Shetler is upbeat about the work done in the UK and how the organisation identified  and worked around structural problems and digital roadblocks within government.

In terms of the UK, GDS really have done a great job. If hadn't been for GDS we wouldn't be having the conversation we're having in Australia today, much less in New Zealand, the United States and other countries.

An awful lot of the basic ideas on how you fix government IT by looking at structural reasons for behaviour rather than just saying 'let's make a nicer interface', they were really good at identifying those things.

While the UK was leading the government digital transformation wave in the English speaking world, Shetler says New Zealand offers lessons in the design of technology led public service delivery.

If you go to New Zealand you'll see they've been doing a lot of great thinking – it really influenced us in Australia on user journeys across governments, where you want to get something done that goes across agencies.

Let's look from the standpoint of the end user; the end user wants to send a child to school, to emigrate to New Zealand or to open up a business. What do they need to do and how can we map it out for them.

The problem in New Zealand is that the team has no authority, all they can do is propose and it depends upon other people saying 'oh, that's a great idea' although there's been a lot of great design thinking coming out of there and it difficult for that being translated into practice.

While the experiences in New Zealand and the UK are interesting, Shetler agrees with Oracle's Mark Hurd that the United States has suffered from a lack of digital leadership  and that currently presents the biggest opportunity for reinvention as a new Administration takes office.

The US right now is a mess, they don't really have a digital strategy, I do think the new administration is more likely to do something big to fix things than perhaps the Obama Administration was, because they are talking about national infrastructure.

If you to the United States it's shocking, the physical level infrastructure is falling apart and on a digital level things are pretty much the same, if you look at the government websites many of them look like they are from the 1990s and they all look and act differently. They are very much like the UK before Britain started the digital transformation and they've had several years to fix it but there's been no concerted effort because no-one really owns it.

The USDS which operates out of the White House gets really great talent in to do fix something but they don't have the authority across the government. They also have 18F who operate on a cost recovery basis who act like an internal consultancy... they have some extremely talented people there and we've learned quite a bit from them. But there's no vision or strategy that guides it all.

Vision and strategy is a theme Shetler keeps coming back to and he believes the real challenge for anyone leading a government digital imitative is getting the political support to overcome public service managerial resistance. A lack of leadership was something cruelly apparent in his Australian experience.

One of the things I learned here was you can have all the great ideas and talent but if you don't have the political will and authority to drive it then a recalcitrant bureaucracy will not going along with it because their interests aren't in alignment with their users.

In Australia we did a terrible job of working with human nature. This idea we could get Australian government to magically transform itself because it was told to, that I could come here and put up some pretty pictures and say some nice words and everyone would say 'hey we never thought of that.'

That's not going to happen when you have entrenched interests, habits, structures and groups who are committed to doing things a particular way. It's not going to happen and it's vary naïve to think you can do it, it's just not how people work.”

One of the major reasons why the UK was a successful as they were was because Francis Maude was the minister for five years... It became clear he was going to see this through and if you were going to fight, you were going to lose. People got into line.

In the UK, we didn't focus on consensus we focused on getting things done. When I first met with Francis Maud he said 'this is not a change management process – this is transformation.'

When we talk about change management it's often about appeasing people who are throwing up obstacles, this isn't about appeasing them, it's about them doing their job. Too often here there was too much appeasing bureaucrats which I think comes down to a lack of political will and perhaps cowardice.

Shetler puts the Australian Federal government's retreat from digital transformation as being due to a lack of political will, structural flaws in the way the Digital Transformation Office was setup and its relationship with the public service, things that the UK GDS avoided or anticipated.

When the DTO was set up, they had to make a series of trade-offs. It wasn't GDS, it didn't have the powers of GDS. It didn't have the powers to mandate or block.

GDS had both, the idea you could kumbaya your way to transformation, no-one there believed it. That's why they set up GDS the way they did. They could stop you from spending money, even if you had the budget approval or not, so that was a massive stake in the heart for a number of zombie IT projects.

It's particularly hard for IT managers in departments to admit that a long running project was a failure so GDS was great. That ability to do the right thing  and to have it sanctioned by auhoritiy was brilliant. The years of ass-covering were over.

When asked by diginomica where he intended to go to next, Shetler was playing his cards closely,

I've spent sixteen months banging my head against a wall so I'm not in a hurry, I'm looking at some opportunities in Australia and a few elsewhere in the world.

And with that we finished our coffees and went our separate ways into the Sydney summer. Among the tourists and well heeled, many of them likely holidaying Canberra public servants, no-one was kumbaya-ing.

My take

Transforming any organisation is hard so Paul Shetler's experience with two national governments' attempts to drag their public services into the 21st Century is instructive although it comes as no surprise to those of us observing the progress, wins and false starts in this sector that leadership is the key to success.

As diginomica has been pointed out over the last years, there's distinct lack of appetite for changing public service structures as recent political events increase their already high level of risk aversion. Sadly, as Shetler found, that timidity means there's little chance of successful digital transformation initiatives.

Shetler's view that the Trump administration may rekindle that appetite for change in the United States is fair given the President-Elect's promises to reinvent government. How that pans out will depend upon the calibre of people appointed to key roles and the support they get from the White House.

It's also notable that much of the focus in the commentary around the digital transformation of government has been on service delivery and not the underlying infrastructure or the cultural issues within public sector organisations. We may well have to wait for another generation of leaders to drive change in our governments

Image credit - via search

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