Paul Shetler: forget high tech fantasies if you can’t answer the phones


Government service delivery agencies that can’t “answer the friggin’ phones” should not be spending time and money exploring exciting new areas like big data analytics, artificial intelligence and gamification, argues the Commonwealth’s former chief digital officer Paul Shetler.

The former chief executive of the Digital Transformation Agency Paul Shetler still thinks gov.au was a good idea, cut down by federal bureaucrats who felt it wasn’t exciting and cutting-edge enough.

“Now, when we came forward with this thing called gov.au … every single user-facing department was actually in favour,” Shetler said at the Technology in Government conference yesterday.

“Some non user-facing departments had a few people in them who weren’t, and they felt that … it wasn’t really innovative enough. [They thought] we should have been focusing more on big data, artificial intelligence, dancing holograms, and all that kind of stuff.”

“Now my view is that you can’t do that other stuff till you fix the basics first. You’ve got to first understand what the user journey is.”

 “The original sin of the DTO was having been torn out of Finance, because all it did was complicate governance. ”

All the best digital services are designed by focusing on the user need, he said — something simple like wanting to start a business. In contrast, hundreds of separate government websites are often about fulfilling each agency’s assumed need to build a brand and an online presence, and demonstrate public “engagement” in its own right “as if it’s terribly interesting”.

“But really, you know, newsflash: people don’t want to engage with y’all.

“Nobody wants to engage with government. Nobody cares about the DTO, ATO, DHS, DSS — the whole alphabet soup — nobody cares about any of that. Nobody really wants to engage with it, because people just want to get stuff done.”

Shetler was dispensing a list of frank “lessons” from his recent years at the federal government’s digital agency and the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service before that. He followed New South Wales government chief information and digital officer Damon Rees, who recently expressed the view that sites like gov.au are not worth the effort.

Shetler said under his leadership the DTA had only made “a start” on exemplar projects, whole-of-government platforms and delivery hubs but still had a lot of work left to do, pointing to over 1524 federal government websites, lots of “broken customer journeys” and “repeated IT failures” over recent years as the proof.

The former DTA chief refrained from rattling off a list of high-profile tech wrecks or even comparing the extremely long wait times for Centrelink call centres with the notoriously meaningless average figures often trotted out by the Minister for Human Services and the department’s senior executives in denial of an obvious problem.

Instead, he gave a positive example, pointing out that reducing call waiting times was one of the first things achieved by the highly regarded ServiceNSW as part of its successful efforts to improve service delivery through digital transformation.

“They fixed the call centres. They made it so when people called the phone … they were picked up within a minute. Not 45 minutes, not one hour, not two hours. One minute.”

Shetler said ServiceNSW was doing “absolutely brilliant” work — so good he heard about it in the UK — and improving the call centre was one of its most important achievements. “And that bought them a huge amount of political capital. Because even though it wasn’t strictly digital, it was service and it was a radical improvement on the service they offered,” he added.

Experimenting with the newest and most exciting technological advances is important, he said, but should not come at the expense of the basics.

“And I say that because actually we have been spending a lot of time and money on things like big data, holographic interfaces, gamification, artificial intelligence. I just want to know, how’s that working out? Seriously guys, how is that working out?”

“Because users still can’t find what they need when they need it. Information is still out of date, private data is still being published [by mistake], and major services are still failing.”

DTA should have been in Finance all along

Shetler left the DTA shortly after the major change in direction that was marked by a name change from “office” to “agency” and saw its primary official role change from hands-on delivery to providing a kind of whole-of-government oversight, leadership and advice.

The agency has had far less impact than was hoped in either the DTO or the DTA phase, and there are countless different views and mutterings around Canberra about what barriers it has run into and why.

In Shetler’s view, it faced several systemic barriers that also came up in the UK and will dog any country that tries to bring its public services into the digital era.

The task is not as simple as just copying Uber or Amazon — the scale of government service delivery can be mind-bogglingly huge, democracy produces constant uncertainty and regular change, and there is a lot of complexity hardwired into the system through legislation that isn’t easy to change.

Government is not simple, and making it more so is a radical reform task — not just an exercise in making better websites and online services to replace paper forms.

First up, Shetler named the old “iron law of bureaucracy” that says big organisations tend to work towards maintaining, expanding and replicating themselves at least as much as their actual core purposes.

He later argued the simplest governance structure possible is best for whole of government digital transformation.

Shetler said the federal agency should have been in the Finance portfolio and stayed there all along, rather than take responsibilities from Finance to the Communications portfolio, and then later into Prime Minister and Cabinet. He believes this created a rival when there didn’t need to be one.

“I think the biggest mistake, the original sin of the DTO was having been torn out of Finance, because all it did was complicate governance. We should have a simplified governance. We shouldn’t have different teams to try to say who owns what. We should have a simple governance structure and work within that and empower that.

“… You don’t need blocking behaviour from central departments. You need to work together to make this happen.”

Build in-house capability, in-source core business

He said Australia also has a wide but shallow digital talent pool, which made it hard for the DTO to recruit the team he wanted, and a general deskilling of the workforce across government and large, longstanding “brownfields” corporations, but said this could be turned around.

“They don’t necessarily have the skills in-house to do what needs to be done. But they do have people who understand the problems, and they do have people who have empathy with the users. They always do, and the trick is to pull them out, train them up, raise them up.”

He said Australia should copy the UK civil service, which has just trained up 5000 frontline customer service staff in new digital skills.

“They’ve taken people who worked in call centres, they’ve taken people who worked in shopfronts — the people who have the most empathy with the end users, who know the situation best, who know where things break and where people need help — and turned them into the product managers, designers, developers and so on and so forth that they desperately needed to digitise their business.”

Shetler sees almost all these big old organisations stuck in the “square of despair” — a term coined by his old boss Mike Bracken — where inappropriate funding leads to inappropriate governance, and inappropriate procurement leads to inappropriate IT infrastructure.

“All these things stand in the way of an organisation, whether it’s a government organisation or any other brownfield, from taking charge of its own destiny and responding to its environment in real time.”

He concluded with some “friendly advice” for public servants, starting with: “in-source the core business”. “Some things can be outsourced but dealing with your end users and understanding your end users is your core business,” Shetler said.

Where appropriate — where the agency is iteratively building something new and trying to understand the user needs along the way — he said drip-feed funding should be used to keep agile digital transformation projects under control.

He acknowledged that agile, iterative and experimental digital projects are not the right approach for everything and that some things should definitely be outsourced. But wrapping everything to do with service redesign up in big tenders, including the ongoing job of understanding and serving citizens’ needs, is not the right way to go.

Procurement methods need to be changed to support new approaches, like the DTA has done with its digital marketplace, which Shetler sees as one of its best achievements.

Harness public service rivalries

Governments also need to “expend political capital to make the change” instead of listening to the naysayers that inevitably emerge because any change involves some “pain” for some people.

“Ministers tend to be captured by the departments they are the minister for, and sometimes that causes problems,” he added.

Another lesson from the UK was that having a very powerful senior minister in Francis Maude leading the project for five years was “massively important” to making changes stick. It would seem the current Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation Angus Taylor doesn’t fit the mould of Shetler’s ideal champion.

“We need somebody senior who is at the end of their career, not the beginning,” he said. “Somebody who doesn’t need to please anybody but who knows what needs to happen.”

Next, there needs to be a recognition that in some cases, change management will mean you have to literally change the management. Purge the unbelievers and counter-revolutionaries.

“In any kind of change like this there will always be people who want to come along and those who don’t. And as long as we have a clear vision of where we want to go to, and the political backing to do that, then we can’t allow things to stand in our way.

“We know what we must do and we have to move forward. Sometimes that will mean changing the management.”

Shetler also urged government leaders to “work with human nature” in the sense that the tribal, competitive nature of public services can be turned to support transformation.

“There’s a lot of talk about collaboration. Kumbaya. All very important. But also, keep in mind that when you’re dealing with the highest levels of the public service, the SES, you’re dealing with highly competitive individuals,” he said.

“Make that competition work for us. … In the UK they had a group in the civil service, they were the directors-general, they were next in line to become the permanent secretaries; they were called digital leaders.

“And the message was given out very clearly from Francis that if you want to become the next perm-sec, you’re going to do some great stuff for your department in digital. So they competed with each other. This was not about collaboration, this was about Darwinian competition.

“You need to know how to use both. And just understand that people are driven by fear and greed as well as more altruistic motives, and we need to use all of them to make the change you want to get to.”

It’s early days for the new CEO, Gavin Slater, but he has an exodus of skilled practitioners including some of the agency’s most valued staff to deal with, and needs to answer one question that is increasingly being asked around the bureaucracy: what is the point of the DTA?

Murmurings of increasingly strained relationships with other agencies, stalled projects, a rapidly declining reputation among IT contractors and a general loss of direction continue to filter out of Canberra, as the agency increasingly resembles the Australian Government Information Management Office it has largely replaced.

Shetler told the conference its original purpose was illustrated by the fact that more than half of all the working age people who go to look up a government service online run into trouble and end up calling a phone line or heading into a physical shopfront.

Nearly three years on, that is still the case.

  • Anon Coward

    The DTA did not NEED to recruit any team – they just needed to buy the working off-the-shelf solutions that Australian providers offered to the DTA during the tender – but no – DTA chose to hire people to re-invent wheels and re-write/copy existing technology instead. The problem is not the people you can’t get, it’s the people you’ve got who refuse to consider no-risk, working, commercial solutions in preference to building their empires.

  • jm

    There are plenty of times that off the shelf software is not adequate for the service that people want to have, so may be not…. I work in a place which has required lots of rewriting its off the shelf software – and the software is often worse than the stuff we used 10 years ago.

  • So many issues here, but still the unresolved problem with the “gov.au” concept is that even if all front facing agencies in Canberra had agreed to go ahead, it would still have been a whole of Government portal that didn’t include anything about driving licences, births marriages and deaths, business licences and the hundreds of other transactions managed by State Governments. Which defeats the object, surely.