The Digital Transformation Agency’s third permanent chief executive wants it to be “a start-up that operates effectively in government” and acknowledges it still has to work to do convincing people it is up to the job.
Not everyone agrees with the idea that part of the Australian Public Service should take its cues from Silicon Valley, as former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull suggested when he established the entity, but Randall Brugeaud is sticking to the script.
The DTA’s first chief recruited from within the APS says he is “incredibly grateful” to his predecessors Gavin Slater and Paul Shetler for building “fantastic foundations” and some fine-tuning is all that is required.
“And this is the discussion I’ve had with the entire DTA,” he told a packed IT industry lunch in Canberra yesterday.
“We need to be disruptive, we need to be innovative, but we need to be able to be effective in government. We need to plan, we need to be able to provide confidence that we have this under control. And that’s going to take some time for us to build up.”
His plan is to do less things, but do a better job of them, he told members of the Australian Information Industry Association, an industry group that enjoys formal ties to the DTA thanks to his predecessor, Gavin Slater, who departed only 13 months into a five-year term.
“There are lots of things the DTA could work on. The reality is though, that we need to do a small number of high-impact things, really, really well.
“So we’re reducing our focus to a smaller number of things that we will deliver, that we will demonstrate the value that we have to offer. And we’ve aligned our capabilities to those priorities, so we have specific groups of people now who work on those priorities.”
This realignment of the small agency’s workforce to “deliver more, support less” involves reductions in corporate services and the establishment of specific branches to focus on specific work programs, such as support and improvements for myGov in collaboration with the Department of Human Services.
He said he simply aimed to fulfil his administrative orders, nothing more, an attitude that staff found “refreshing” according to an AIIA member who introduced the speech.
“We’re not fiddling with the DTA mandate,” Brugeaud said. “There’s no point us looking for new or different things to do if we haven’t demonstrated that we can do the things that we’ve been asked to do … through our administrative order, well.”
As he told Senate estimates this week, Brugeaud is actually the fifth digital transformation chief if you count interim CEOs David Hazlehurst and Nerida O’Loughlin, but he is the first with significant experience as a chief information officer in the APS. He also ran his own local consulting firm for a decade and is relatively well known in the Canberra IT industry, as well.
He said the Minister for Digital Transformation, Michael Keenan, would soon release the government’s new Digital Transformation Strategy, which builds on the DTA’s existing “roadmap” and looks out to 2025.
The strategy will outline how the government plans to become easier to deal with, informed by more citizen input, and “fit for the digital age” although Brugeaud was light on details.
The AIIA lunch guests heard the new strategy would provide the “strategic vision” that had been “absent for a while” and “advice as to how the APS needs to change to deal with the transformation agenda”.
Along with responsibility for the upcoming whole-of-government strategy, the DTA’s priorities include building APS IT-related capability and working with the public service commission to determine future skills requirements, continuing IT procurement reform, rolling out “platforms” like the digital identity system, and oversight of certain IT investments across the government.
“We have been engaging with security, identity, privacy experts to ensure digital identity is safe, secure and reliable, and we’ll be doing digital identity pilots which commence in the next few weeks, and the purpose of these are to prove the capabilities before release,” Brugeaud said.
“We’re being very deliberate; security and integrity are completely non-negotiable. We’re doing consultation now, we will do more consultation and that will be supported by broad communications.”
On investment oversight, he said the agency received updates every two months on 63 digital projects and offered advice to keep them on track. “We know that projects will invariably experience difficulties, but the DTA is helping agencies to improve their chances of success.”
‘Digital transformation is hard’
Four months in, Brugeaud is already finding it tough going. Concluding the speech, he thanked staff and contractors for “their commitment and support during a really tough time” and noted there was still an enormous job ahead. “But overall I think the vision is bold; if we do our jobs well, we’ll leave a strong and enduring legacy for the benefit of all Australians.”
Upfront, he commented that “digital transformation is hard” and acknowledged there had been a range of failures in IT projects and efforts to digitise Commonwealth service delivery, some of which involved him personally. He did not go into specifics, preferring to list a series of archetypal stories of public service tech failures.
“We’ve had within government some very well publicised failures and some of those are things the government should have done better, and some of those are where industry could have helped more.
“The reality is these things are hard, and we’re working through making sure we understand the reasons for these failures, and making programs more successful.”
However, he said the APS had also had some successes, listing the airport SmartGates that make immigration processing faster, the popular myTax program, and the recent growth in citizens signing up for myGov accounts (driven heavily by the utility of myTax and the fact that one needs a myGov account to use it).
“There has been frustration in progress though, I think, in relation to digital transformation,” Brugeaud added.
“There’s been, I think, a need for better collaboration, greater clarity, about what it is that we’re doing, the problems we’re trying to solve, how we solve those problems, breaking them down into smaller chunks and communicating that, to both people within government, industry, and the public more broadly, in a way that is easily understood.
“There’s also cultural and structural issues that we’re kind of working through when it comes to how to deliver these major infrastructure and transformation investments.
“The outcome though is that Australians aren’t necessarily getting the services they need and deserve. And so we’re looking to international counterparts, like Estonia, which is well known for digital government [and] Denmark; the minister had a delegation to Europe earlier in the year.”
The DTA also needs to work on “proactively sharing” its work with the public, according to its latest boss.
“This is quite often a challenge for technical organisations … so I’ve asked the team to activate the sales and marketing chip in their brains,” he said.
“There’s a whole lot of work that we’re doing which is excellent, but we’re just not telling people about. We’re not furnishing that to our respective masters to allow them to tell the story, so we’re going to be doing that.”
Brugead acknowledged that his priorities — focusing on delivering joined-up, citizen-centric services that are focused around life events, rather than the structure of government — sound a lot like those first espoused by Shetler when he took charge of the agency, then known as the DTO.
“You know, there was probably more delivery in the DTO than existed previously in the DTA,” he said, “and we’re kind of rebalancing it in that way, but I can’t re-write history.
“All I can do is look at what is in front of me and deal with that. So based on where we are right now, these things I think are important for the DTA. Also, there are some things that we’re not changing, so we’ll continue to focus on the way that Australians access government services putting people and businesses at the centre of everything that we do.”
The agency is continuing to map out “user journeys” with a view to simplifying various interactions people have with government — like accessing childcare or aged care, travelling overseas, taking on caring responsibilities, starting a business or registering that someone has died — but now there is a mechanism for cross-jurisdictional cooperation.
The new Australian Digital Council would allow ministers from states, territories and the Commonwealth to work together on joined-up projects across jurisdictions, such as a “tell-us-once” system for notifying government of deaths, Brugeaud explained.
He said the Digital Service Standard would stay, but signalled that some of its requirements would probably be relaxed. Accessibility, for example, is non-negotiable.
“A service won’t pass the Digital Service Standard unless it’s accessible, but criteria eight, though, talks about making source code open by default. If an agency doesn’t do that straight up then we’re probably going to be able to cut them some slack.”
Brugeaud and his colleagues were questioned by opposition senators in estimates about the agency’s high staff turnover, as reported by InnovationAus. An exodus of contractors and non-ongoing public servants occurred but was not reflected in the agency’s annual report, which only notes an attrition rate of 18% among ongoing staff.
“Stability in leadership has been the priority I’ve had to this point, and I’ve been successful in maintaining that stability in leadership,” Brugeaud told the committee this week. “It is unusual for the transition in of a new CEO to have all but one of your senior executive remaining.”
He pointed out the one SES officer that did leave, Lesley Siebeck, had already planned her move to the Bureau of Meteorology before he took up the CEO position.
Correction: this article mistakenly referred to Drew Clarke as one of the agency’s interim CEOs. In fact David Hazlehurst was its first interim CEO.