In early 2015, Paul Shetler received a phone call from Australia. Was he interested in a new role heading up the then Digital Transformation Office (DTO)? Shetler, who at the time was a director in the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), didn’t hesitate. A few months later he was on a plane to Sydney, just the latest in the never-ending human conveyor belt that moves back and forth between the two countries every day of every year.
It was hardly the first time that Shetler had upped sticks. His 20-year career as a technologist and entrepreneur, primarily working in financial services and digital, has taken him on something of a global tour – New York, Rome and San Jose are just a few of his pit stops – and the opportunity to revolutionise customer-facing digital service delivery in Australia’s federal government was too good to turn down. He quickly discovered, however, that there was to be no soft landing.
“Although there are some similarities between Australia and the UK – they are both Westminster-based systems and the structure of UK departments is not that dissimilar to what they call ‘Portfolios’ in Australia – there are plenty of differences,” he reflects. “The states in Australia add another tier of government through which an awful lot of services are delivered. This creates a certain amount of complexity for end-users and also makes it harder to understand the impact of policy on people’s lives. This doesn’t exist in the UK and so it makes the challenge a bit harder.”
Aussie rules for delivering digital change
Shetler was based in Canberra and he soon found that recruiting a team was easier said than done. “Australia is a very large, geographically dispersed country and the digital talent pool is also wide – but shallow,” he admits. “By this I mean digital product managers, user researchers, interaction designers and so on. It’s difficult to find any city with a critical mass. But there was an intense interest in working for us. They’d heard about the work in the UK and they’d heard about me and the people coming over to work at DTO – so there was a lot of buzz and we did hire some really talented people that way in the initial waves of hires. But it still wasn’t easy – and very unlike London, where it was just like turning on the tap.”
Once the team were through the door, they found there was much to do. Reporting to the then communications minister and now prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, Shetler and his colleagues – numbering 70 in total – quickly got down to work. Over the next year or so, new products and systems flew thick and fast, including six exemplar services; common online platforms; the Digital Marketplace to transform ICT procurement; a Performance dashboard to make it easier to see how government services are performing; and cloud.gov.au to facilitate use of the cloud to operate digital services.
It’s quite a list, and one that reflects the lessons that Shetler had learnt during his time at the GDS and while serving as chief digital officer at the Ministry of Justice. “For real impact you need small teams delivering in a very lean and agile way, and a clear minimum viable product which can be iterated on very quickly,” he explains. “Maximum transparency is also very important. You’re dealing with stakeholders outside of government all the time to build up an army of support outside your organisation. We saw how important this was in the UK, and we wanted to make sure we did the same in Australia.”
He is keen to stress, though, that it wasn’t all plain sailing. “A common problem in both countries – although it is much worse in Australia – is the split between policy and delivery,” he points out. “Typically in the UK, people in policy and delivery will be in the same department, whereas in Australia they have split out policy departments and delivery departments at the federal and state levels. This means you have very poor or non-existent feedback loops to understand what the effect of your policy is. And in many cases, many states further outsource delivery to NGOs. I don’t know why this is the case. The public service jealously guards its independence, but the decoupling of politics and policy, as well as policy and delivery, is very strange – especially when you add in the layers between federal, state and delivery NGOs.”
Shetler believes that this divide can lead to failures which not only damage people’s trust in government but also, by extension, the DTO itself. “An opposition MP has called it ‘nothing more than a think tank’, which is a slight exaggeration, but that is the danger because the original buzz was about us delivering things and making things,” he says. “If you don’t do this, then you lose that capital and legitimacy. But this plays into the issue of how can a small agency get a bureaucracy to work the right way when it doesn’t want to.”
Going forward, Shetler believes that artificial intelligence (AI) is likely to mitigate this kind of system failure, but only if it is deployed in the right way. “The thing about AI, at least in Australia and perhaps I’m being uncharitable, is that a lot of people are looking at it as a way to avoid a lot of the questions which are involved in service design. We have a tendency to look for the technological fix, but actually many of the problems we’re dealing with now are still design problems – at least in Australia. There is a strong role for AI, but it needs to be seen as a tool in the delivery of something which is human-designed and around human needs – not as an excuse for failure.”
Looking back, looking ahead
Shetler stepped down from the Australian government late last year after a very brief period serving as chief digital officer at the Digital Transformation Agency, which was created out of the DTO in October 2016. Currently pondering a variety of job offers in the private sector, Shetler remains a passionate believer in the power and potential of digital to transform government for the better. He does admit, however, that if he had the chance to do his 16 months in Australia over again, he’d make a couple of changes.
“I’d probably slow down the pace a little bit,” he concedes. “We took on a huge amount of work and we weren’t able to get the headcount we thought we would be able to, so I would reduce the pace a bit just to make it more sustainable. And more importantly, I would insist that we get control over a number of things that we only got control of in August of last year. This meant we were spinning our wheels, and it would have saved us a lot of effort and a lot of time if we had got them when DTO was first set up.”
Asked what these were, he cites the overall IT and comms procurement strategies. “We burnt up a lot of cycles trying to get basic information about what the departments were doing,” he says. “This meant we were constantly surprised by stories in the media about something which wasn’t working and then not having the ability to intervene – like GDS could – to fix it. This damaged morale and meant we had to work three times as hard as we really needed to. You can’t do digital if it is only the front end – you need to own it from end to end to do it right.”
And doing it right is what it’s all about, believes Shetler. “Governments are there to provide basic services – that’s what we pay taxes for,” he concludes. “Digital has a hugely important role in helping government do this well, quickly and at cost. It doesn’t always happen, but if government can deliver what it is supposed to, and do it to a standard that compares well with what citizens are used to in the rest of their everyday life, then that gives them a huge amount of legitimacy. The priority now – or it should be – is to make sure it has the capability to turn this vision into real day-to-day delivery.”
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