Repairing relationships: Gavin Slater does not want to be carried out in a box


The mass exodus of top staff is just one symptom of the challenges facing the new Digital Transformation Agency. Its new CEO has begun a goodwill tour to find a new place for it among the squabbling APS heavyweights.

A lot of key people have been swept out of the Digital Transformation Agency in recent months and the new chief executive Gavin Slater says he will be working hard to “repair relationships” and build new ones within the Australian Public Service and the IT industry.

The former banking executive explained why he took on the job, what he has been doing since he started on May 1, and his five key priorities, at a lunch event hosted by the Australian Information Industry Association. His first semi-public appearance came just two days after his predecessor Paul Shetler was in Canberra arguing federal departments should start by fixing the basics, like answering phone lines in a reasonable length of time.

Slater did not mention the polarising former CEO — several sources say he is now persona non grata in much of the APS  — or the subsequent exodus of staff including Rachel Dixon, Leisa Reicheldt, Cath Thomson and many others, which some see as a deliberate purge.

But he did speak to the importance of good working relationships built around “fact-based conversations” and said he had spent the past three months trying to build and repair these.

“I learnt this in the Army, you can have the rank, you can have the structures, the accountability, the authority, the performance frameworks, [but] that matters nothing if you can’t build productive relationships,” said Slater, who served with the South African military in Angola.

“That doesn’t mean always having the same point of view, but actually relationships based on mutual respect, understanding, listening, having fact-based conversations to reach those key points of intersection on the things that really matter.”

Since starting on May 1 he has met with hundreds of people — “ministers, secretaries, dep secs, CIOs, staff, industry groups, advisers, small business owners, and the list goes on” — mainly to listen and learn, he told the industry group. As well as resetting relationships, he’s been working to get a handle on “where the government is at in terms of its transformation journey — what it’s trying to achieve and why” as well as “where the DTA is at, and it’s role in that, and how it’s going”.

Slater was asked to compare his leadership style with Shetler’s after the speech but politely declined, saying he believed one should always “respect the past”. Perhaps inevitably, the new CEO made several of the same arguments as the old CEO about where the government can improve its digital services, although he did not labour the points.

Four elements of ‘customer centricity’

Slater framed his new role and the purpose of digital transformation in government in terms of “value creation” and said this could only be achieved by combining “customer centricity” with the right technology platforms. In his view all people and organisations broadly want four things from a service provider.

“Just make it easy for me to get stuff done,” said the new DTA chief, using a phrase with a familiar ring to it.

“You want it to be safe and secure… you want to do things when it suits you, however you want to do it and whenever you want to do it — you know, 24 by 7,” Slater continued. “And at the end of the day, in a world of mass digitization, we still want to feel valued.

“We want to feel that we matter, and that you understand who we are, and you know something about me that’s relevant. And those themes, that whole customer centricity, I think, transcends everything now, all industries.”

This customer focus has little to with technology. It requires a culture where senior executives think about every decision from a customer’s point of view and this is built into their performance framework, according to Slater. At NAB, he claimed not a day went by that he didn’t think about the customer in the course of his work.

“And every executive meeting that I had once a month, I had a customer come in for the purpose of sharing their story and tell us how they were experiencing NAB.”

The available technology platforms, like the creation of ecosystems with APIs allowing information from big systems to flow into and out of third party applications, or the role of data analytics and how it feeds into artificial intelligence, are the tools to serve this purpose.

He contrasted the successful service design of Uber (which is notorious for putting the user before anything else, including the law) with the Melbourne taxi industry, arguing it could have made better use of the same technology like maps, online systems for booking and feedback, and customer profiling with data analytics.

“They had access to all that technology as well, but the two experiences are vastly different. It begs the question: why?”

Slater firmly believes that customer-centric services not only pay off for companies, but also for taxpayers.

“In the case of listed companies… it’s about shareholder returns,” he said.

“But from a government perspective, it’s about the taxpayers, because if you get this right, not only do you deliver a better outcome for individuals and businesses, but you actually deliver a more cost-effective outcome, which from a taxpayer point of view, I care about.”

Less websites, but still more than one

Slater also quoted some of the same research as his predecessor that shows how many people struggle to quickly and easily find the information they want from government websites, and give up in frustration.

“I have personal experience,” he told the AIIA members, describing how his tech-savvy teenage daughter had wanted to know a simple fact — the rate of the minimum wage for someone her age — but struggled to find the information “in a way that she could understand” after looking through several websites.

As such, he will continue the DTA’s push to reduce the Commonwealth’s sprawling digital property portfolio but he emphasised that did not mean replacing them all with a single website.

He said this was part of one of his five priorities — more rapid and continuous upgrading of “key platforms” like myGov and myTax, to improve functionality and user experiences — because people often need to find out various simple facts in order to complete their various transactions with government agencies. The Tax Office, for example, has done a lot of work to make the complex rules of the tax system easier for ordinary wage earners to understand when they file their tax statements.

“There’s an element of rationalisation of web pages – there’s over a thousand, and close to 50 million different unique pages of content,” said Slater.

“What I’m not saying is a single web page, OK? But there’s no doubt there is a case for some degree of rationalisation, and being thoughtful about that, and improving the content of that.”

From trepidation to optimism

Slater candidly told the AIIA members he “took this job on with a degree of reservation” but said now, three months in, he was filled with optimism and hope: “I can see it; there’s a massive opportunity here and I feel really privileged to be the CEO of DTA.”

He said he took on the role because he didn’t want to work for another large bank, and was looking for “something with meaning and purpose” to do in his next role.

“And in all the conversations I had with the Prime Minister [Malcolm Turnbull] and Minister Taylor, other ministers and colleagues across the APS, three things kept coming up around the government’s ambition, which is firstly to see more government services being client-driven.

“Secondly, in doing so, to significantly enhance the experience for individuals and businesses in using our services.

“And thirdly, better outcomes for our money — taxpayers’ money — the billions of dollars that gets spent every year on transformation projects… you want to make sure that for that level of investment the taxpayers are getting a better return.”

He said these three objectives “really resonated” with him, and he couldn’t think of any job he was likely to do that seemed more important for the nation.

“To me it’s a compelling vision that transcends, in my view, the political boundaries.”

He does not want it all to end in tears — the way it did for the first iteration of the agency, which clearly ran into a range of bureaucratic barriers and personality clashes, leaving behind an underwhelming record of achievements, especially compared to the expectations set up in in 2015, when Shetler made his first public speech.

“So when it’s all said and done there’s only one way I want to leave this job, and that’s not ‘shots fired’ – because I want to be successful and I want the DTA to be successful, and I want government to be successful,” Slater said.

“The DTA has amazing people working in it, from my senior executive all the way down – very talented, very passionate, very capable people who actually want to do a really good job and … we have a mission to attract more talent and train more talent.

“… I want a culture within the DTA that’s respectful of the culture of the broader APS, but that’s fun and dynamic – that we don’t just say we’re the Digital Transformation Agency, we behave like it, but we’re respectful, we value relationships and we deliver real outcomes.”