Turnbull tech chief warns Digital Transformation like “Eating the Elephant”



Paul Shetler, the high profile chief executive of the Federal Government’s new Digital Transformation Office imported from the UK isn’t your typical public servant.

If there’s an elephant in the room, he looks willing to take it apart and dine out on it.

It’s less than a month after his appointment was announced, but the man charged with the huge task of reforming government services across Australia so they resemble something like an experience on Amazon rather than Windows 95 is already dropping a mammoth hint about what he doesn’t want to see from the public service in the future: more of the same.

Passionate, direct and charismatic, Paul Shetler makes no bones about being a change agent, though he’s clearly a realist. Don’t expect the dry, cautious risk shy approach to government technology that was delivered in the distinctly underwhelming Gershon review.

“I’ve refined an approach to eating the elephant of service transformation. I like to keep things fast and simple, by starting small with things that provide real value to users, by delivering them quickly and then by continuing to rapidly improve them,” Shetler says in his first official DTO blog, before throwing to a YouTube post of a presentation by him to a UK conference.

If Canberra’s public servants are looking for an “instructable” on what’s coming down the line, Shetler’s speech succinctly and robustly sets out what needs to change, what’s going to change and why in terms of service delivery.

Made a few months ago when Shetler was still with the UK government, the first big takeaway is that when it comes to using digital tools to deliver public services, it’s the availability and easy access to services that counts first and foremost rather than any technology.

The second is that the public sector can’t just transplant the kind of sales and marketing driven approaches to customer delivery because governments, despite spin and buzzwords, don’t really have customers.

“In government, typically, we don’t have customers,” Shetler says. “So all of the marketing stuff about customers and audiences and all this kind of stuff flies out the window.

“Because, actually, people who use our services have no choice. They have to use us. And we have no choice in who they are . We can’t be like a bank and say ‘you’re not profitable enough, please go away’.”

That positon founded in hardened realism is likely to have many digital sceptics inside the public service quickly sitting up and listening. It implicitly recognises from the outset the kind of resentment and cynicism that annoyed service users can generate when difficult or malfunctioning systems are thrust upon them.

Melting the Glacial Methodology

Part of the problem to date, and not just in Australia, is that when services try go digital they often struggle or fail because they simply take on too much rather than dividing projects and process down into much smaller bite-sized chunks or components that can be rapidly prototyped and quickly iterated time and time again so that the rough spots and sticking points are thoroughly chased out.

To get to this point Shetler advocates what he calls “de-scoping” so smaller projects that deliver tangible benefits – and easily repeatable lessons – come out right in a shorter amount of time.
Shetler’s other big bureaucratic bugbear is clearly the amount of time it takes projects to be delivered. At a time when it’s still normal for most government projects to be scheduled in years, Shetler is pushing hard for projects numbered in weeks.

“Don’t talk about stuff that’s going to take two years or a year” he cautions.

“We can start delivering really world class services within human timescales, not these glacial civil service timescales,” Shetler says.

The ‘glacial’ reference is more pointed than it might first appear, especially to technology practitioners used to working on big, sequenced, multi-year developments that have a tendency to drag out or provide a very rough user experience on launch.

Think back to Customs’ Integrated Cargo Management System, Immigration’s ‘Systems for People’, Health’s attempt to develop a Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record or any of the Department of Defence’s attempts to modernise its payroll systems.

Most of those projects were based on what is colloquially known as the “waterfall” methodology that relies on one big release of code to stand up a new system, but severely constrains any ability to by users to make modifications easily once a system is up and running.

Shetler maintains it’s imperative to give stakeholders in a project or development a clear view and understanding of how things can progress quickly, be test driven and then modified along the way so that the final product has got all the right ingredients.

“We show people what we mean by iteration because many of the people in the agencies we’ve been dealing with have been traumatised . . .  I think by the fact that they have had systems delivered in the past done in a very waterfall kind of fashion,” he says.

Shetler cautions that when ‘waterfall’ systems are finally delivered, users may have quite different expectations about what they’re going to see. Further modifications become a matter of “you can’t have any more it’s finished.”


Feeling IT from the inside

Another highly noteworthy aspect of Shetler’s approach is that he’s clearly out to demolish any notion that the kind of digital delivery offered to those working inside the public service can be a lesser user experience than that provided to the outside public.

They both need to deliver, he argues.

“Digital is all about public facing services and also the internal facing services. If a user uses it, then it’s developed with the same care and ethos as something we’d design for the public. It doesn’t matter if it’s a public user or an inside user; we don’t say inside users don’t count because inside users are doing their work to serve the public,” Shetler says before unambiguously issuing a challenge.

“If they are not, they shouldn’t be there.”

As for where to source the needed digital talent, Shetler asserts that in-house capability is a must.

“You have to have your own [development] team,” he says.

This is where things could get interesting.

While there’s undoubtedly strong development talent within the public service, attracting or accessing those smarts for the DTO could yet prove to be a real challenge given recent hiring limitations and a clear disparity between public sector technology pay scales and those offered by banks or retailers.

Shetler candidly admits that in his role at the UK Ministry of Justice, the digital arm had to build its own recruitment team because the existing human resources function “weren’t able to handle that.”

It’s clearly an international problem.

In the US, President Barack Obama has taken to personally pressing the nation’s top technology talent to take a pay cut in the national interest to come and work for the equivalent of a government start-up to fix many of the nation’s glaring legacy challenges in harnessing technology to get the government to deliver better, faster and more cheaply.

Closer to home Malcolm Turnbull might not be Tony Abbott’s favourite Cabinet minister, but given the PM’s occasional technological reticence, he’s clearly needed if things are to progress.

Paul Shetler has his work cut out for him.

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