Recently re-elected Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, has sworn in his Ministry and in the process announced a new federal organisation that is going to (once again) be focused on the transformation of government services. Services Australia is going to be modelled off of a similar organisation that has been running in New South Wales, which has turned some of the worst customer satisfaction scores in government into some of the best in just a few short years.
Services Australia has also been given its own dedicated Minister for Government Services, with Stuart Robert taking up the role. Putting a Minister in charge of the organisation is a smart move, as it will give it the political teeth it needs in order to get things done.
Speaking at a press conference, Prime Minister Morrison said:
A key focus for all of my team will be on lifting and improving service delivery for all Australians, for services that Australians rely on. I spoke about it when I brought together the heads of the public service. I want to see congestion-busting not only on our roads and across our major cities; I want to see congestion busting when it comes to bureaucratic bottlenecks and regulatory bottlenecks, so Australian can get access to those services in a more timely and efficient way for them, making better use of technology and better integrating service delivery across portfolios.
The goal is to make it easier to deal with services that Australians rely on. And so today we will also be establishing a new organisation called Services Australia, built on the Human Services portfolio. Services Australia will pick up it’s lead from a similar organisation established by the New South Wales Government called Services New South Wales, which I think has been a very important reform in New South Wales and made dealing with government much easier.
That’s what we want government to be for Australians, we just want it to be much easier. There are services they rely on and we want them to access those services, as easily as they can and in as informed a way as possible. It’s also about driving better use of information technology and apps that can assist Australians to better access services they need.
Mixed success to date
This isn’t the first attempt by the federal government in Australia to improve service delivery. It has an ambition to become one of the top three digital governments in the world and has largely been carrying out its work via its Digital Transformation Agency (DTA).
However, the DTA was last year slammed in a report released by the Senate, following an inquiry into its progress, where a committee found that the government had not demonstrated the “political will to drive digital transformation”. It added that the government needed to adopt a holistic approach. The committee said:
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.
The DTA was broadly modelled on the work of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the UK, where it was initially led by Paul Shetler, who was previously CDO of the Ministry of Justice in the UK.
However, Shetler left after a short 16 months and publicly outlined the challenges facing the Australian government, including a fear of digital, a need to upskill public servants and an over reliance on consultants. Commenting on the creation of Services Australia, Shetler tweeted:
"We will see how serious they are by what teeth they put behind those administrative orders.” Service Australia will need similar controls over government IT projects as the department overseeing Service NSW has to radically improve services. https://t.co/LiIeyBhlfY
— Paul Shetler (@paul_shetler) May 31, 2019
What’s promising about Services Australia is that it was announced by the Prime Minister himself and is getting that political backing. As we’ve learnt in the UK, nothing really gets done and things don’t change unless there is that drive from the top. This isn’t really a technology problem - the tech is there. It’s a people, organisation and culture challenge. The old ways of working and the current structures of government and service delivery are so embedded within the system that they’re hard to change. It’s not impossible, but it requires some courageous ambition and a desire to not change services within the current system, but to break the system as it currently operates.