Untethering engineering teams

Best intentions and best efforts don’t always translate into the best citizen-facing outcomes and experiences, writes Robert Frendo.

It’s an unfortunate reality of public sector life in 2022: Australian citizens often do not see or experience the best output that government IT and software engineering teams are capable of producing.

This is apparent in the numbers: research by PwC Australia “found that citizens are less likely to agree that Australian government institutions are exceeding expectations than they were 18 months ago (22 per cent, down from 30 per cent in June 2020).”

But the research shows Australians want to interface and interact with all levels of government digitally. And, as a separate study notes, citizens want to engage with services that are easy to access, simple to understand and that save them time.

Operational constraints

Oftentimes, these attributes and benefits don’t necessarily materialise because the technology teams charged with delivering the experiences are too operationally constrained themselves to produce their best work.

These constraints take a number of forms.

  • Too much operational red tap

First, there’s a fine line between protective guardrails and operational ‘red tape’. Engineering teams are subjected to more compliance regimes and frameworks than ever. When compliance is in order, teams sleep better at night, but it may come at the expense of citizen experience. When, at the end of every sprint, the accompanying software release notes are dominated by compliance and regulation, citizens see only a fraction of what the engineering team is really capable of offering them.

  • Legacy systems

Complexity acts as an additional constraint. Whether due to poor architectural decision-making, lack of documentation, or staff turnover, engineering teams are often dealing with legacy systems and long-term technical debt that limits their ability to advance citizen experiences in the way they would ultimately like to. Even agencies that would be considered ‘digital native’ can build up extensive technical debt if their trajectory into the cloud and modern environments is not well managed.

  • Access to skills

A third constraint – and indeed the largest faced by agencies in Australia today – is access to people and skills. Ambitions to deliver the greatest citizen experience will go under- or unrealised if there aren’t enough engineers to execute on the vision and innovation. The talent market in Australia is enormously competitive, with organisations (particularly in the private sector) that have pressing needs paying over-the-odds to secure staff. This is not an insurmountable challenge for agencies – but it’s one that may require some cultural changes that align with engineers’ motivations and interests.

Realistically, all teams operate with some constraints, but when the constraints are allowed to dominate or overwhelm the ideation and development process, they become unhealthy – and ultimately everyone loses.

Technologists lose their sense of purpose; governments of all levels are unable to present new experiences to citizens; and citizens lose because the digital government experiences they have are unable to keep pace with expectations or with what they see elsewhere in other parts of their lives.

Overcoming constraints

To arrest this trend, federal, state and local governments need to understand what constrains their technology teams face, and how they can untether these teams and refocus their time on citizen-facing outcomes.

We need to work towards a future for engineering teams that is, to the maximum extent possible, free from constraint.

Culture and technology

Two of the key ingredients are great technology and great culture.

To a large extent the technology exists. The hyperscale public cloud operators and enterprise open source ecosystems around data and governance have levelled the playing field on technology. Harnessing these services and tools means engineering teams can exercise their ability to serve citizens faster.

The culture piece is more of a work-in-progress. The end goal needs to be a high velocity engineering team that has the capability to build modern environments to power the citizen experience.

The starting point is to increase speed-to-value. We need to see tangibility quickly. Rather than deploy large teams at large cost from day one and drip feed iterations of work, teams must work to deliver impact and value back to the department and citizen quickly. Change something that will generate significant value in a short period of time.

In addition, agencies need to be more citizen-led in their experience design. Start with the employee, customer or citizen experience and work backwards. Cross functional teams that bridge business, technology, commercial (where applicable) and citizen interests are most likely to drive towards success.

And finally, there needs to be a mindset of continuous improvement. Experiences are dynamic: they change with citizen appetite, and the more citizen needs are fulfilled, the more appetite is – and can be – generated for change.

Across all levels of government, Australia has the makings of world-leading citizen experiences. With some tweaks to the approach and to development models, digital service fulfilment that meets citizens’ expectations in the near-term is increasingly possible.

*Robert Frendo is Managing Director Services at Versent 

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