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Shergold sees a ‘gulf between rhetoric and reality’ of innovation and digital government

Key points:

  • Advice: under-promise and over-deliver; senior public servants often do the opposite.
  • Key example: the advanced chatbot promised to NDIS participants, still not delivered.
  • View: the eventual aim of public sector innovation and digital government should be deliberative democracy.

Senior public servants fuel cynicism among citizens and staff if their ambitious rhetoric about innovative new approaches does not achieve the promised outcomes, warns government administration guru Peter Shergold. 

Delegates at the Public Sector Innovation Show in Canberra got a morning reality-check from the former head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and former APS commissioner, who warned that much of what they would hear could easily be dismissed as “managerialese” and mindless cliches.

“Certainly I think that many innovations in public policy design, public policy delivery, do not meet the expectations that we ourselves create … [and] that the expectations often disappoint, that they don’t meet the ideas that we espouse,” he said.

Shergold told delegates to remember, while listening to speakers discuss potential benefits of new ideas and the latest technology, “it is imperative that their benefits are made concrete — not just in theory but in practice”.

“The focus has got to be on achieving innovation in a manner which considers why good intentions are often — too often — not delivered. Why bold ideas so often founder in their implementation.”

There is a “real danger” of going overboard with the optimistic language of innovation and transformational change that flies around at such a conference, according to the energetic national president of the Institute of Public Administration Australia, who is also chancellor of Western Sydney University.

The common words and phrases that describe new approaches or promising technology in the public service are “too often worn as a rhetorical cloak of ambition … but too rarely live up to the hype” in his view, and that has created “scepticism and even cynicism” among rank-and-file public servants and citizens alike.

“There has been, from my perspective, a gulf between the rhetoric and the reality, a chasm between the experience and the excitement and the enthusiasm and the energy of the speakers you’ll hear from today – the sort of passion that I’m trying to exude – between that, and the day, to day, to day reality of the public service workforce that many of you will return to tomorrow morning,” said Shergold emphatically.

“Already we face a danger that much of the language being used — the substance of which I strongly support … is becoming regarded as a cliched fad. Or, worse, regarded by our colleagues as just the latest managerialese — hollow words that lack substance.”

No more Nadias: instant riposte to AI anounceable

Shergold’s prime example of a disappointing let-down was Nadia, the digital human voiced by Cate Blanchett that was supposed to help people navigate the National Disability Insurance Scheme but still hasn’t arrived.

It was an interesting choice, as he followed directly after the Minister for Human Services and Digital Transformation, Michael Keenan, who mentioned Nadia in an address focused on AI and his department’s work towards next-generation digital assistants. He said DHS had begun user-testing for PIPA, the Platform Independent Personal Assistant, who is “being considered” for a debut in the Centrelink Express Plus mobile app.

“PIPA will be able to ask customers what they’d like to do and then help them to complete tasks, such as lodging an online claim form, or updating their income and other data,” the minister announced in a later media release.

“PIPA will also be able to personalise that support and tailor it to an individual circumstances and needs. For example, it will be able to translate documents into other languages, or offer plain English interpretations of correspondence sent to a customer’s online mailbox.”

Existing customer-facing digital assistants have answered over 2.3 million questions in two years at the Department of Human Services, Keenan said, and digital staff assistant called Roxy had cut about five minutes from the average claim-processing time. The way he tells it, the next generation will be all things to all citizens.

“In the not-too-distant future, personalised digital humans will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, able to speak the language of the customer, be attuned to their cultural values, tailored for their abilities and be able to use the data provided by he customer to deliver a personalised service time and time again,” the minister said.

But where, Shergold wondered aloud, was “the chatbot with the beguiling voice of Cate Blanchett, the intelligent and self-learning avatar that, or who, was meant to be by now the exciting new face for helping clients of the NDIS navigate the complexities of consumer-directed disability care”?

There’s a fairly limited official explanation for the project being kept on hiatus and Keenan said in November she would appear when the government felt she was ready. Shergold suspects this was a “failure on many levels” — possibly in terms of risk and project management, design, and understanding the needs of users — not just a decision made because the technology was not mature enough.

“So let us say … at the start of this conference, ‘No more Nadias.'”

He told the public servants at the conference to keep their eyes wide open “not just to the exciting possibilities, but how often those possibilities have failed to eventuate” in the public sector.

“Let us take a vow today to under-promise and over-deliver, rather than [as] so often in the past, the reverse. Let us espouse the ethos of the 2015 report that I submitted to the Commonwealth, called Learning From Failure.

“Let’s find out what not infrequently goes wrong in public services, especially when it comes to delivering on major projects.”

Listing a range of specific failures, Shergold said they were useful in one way: to compare with successful projects and spot the differences.

As the chairman of Opal Aged Care, he has been following the current Royal Commission into the sector and noted there’s a lot of negative views from consumers about the federal government’s My Aged Care website.

“They’re not comparing it to another Commonwealth or state program,” said Shergold in a typically animated speech. “They’re comparing it to Tripadvisor! They’re comparing it to Booking.com! And the fact is, My Aged Care, against those standards, doesn’t stack up.”

From co-design to deliberative democracy

Shergold gave delegates a familiar formula for improving success rates and getting runs on the board that counter cynicism, noting it was easy to say and much harder to do. Inflated promises, in his view, have to be replaced with the “active engagement” of people outside the public service in design and delivery of programs and services.

He split this into two categories: more genuine “human-centred co-design” — and importantly, seeking out the people most likely to be affected by the policy or program — along with more meaningful collaboration with other government agencies, levels of government and organisations in other sectors.

“We need, not to consult; consultation is so passe. We don’t even need to just listen, though important listening is.

“We need to actively engage the clients of the government services that we provide. And through that process to articulate, what is the help they actually seek? What is the means the and form by which they prefer to receive those services?

Citizens also need to be “involved in testing and evaluating new programs and services before they are rolled out to scale” and said it was only really “OK to fail” if you can do it quickly and learn from it.

Grandiose concepts are not much use without a clear understanding of exactly how they will apply in a given situation, said the IPAA president.

“[The phrase] ‘Don’t sweat the detail’ is bullshit. Sweating the detail of new initiatives and widening participation in their creation is important.”

In his view, the eventual goal should be “deliberative democracy online” — not just digital service delivery — and it can be built by Westminster-style public service organisations if they can evolve to help moderate declining confidence in democratic governments and rise to all the other often-quoted challenges of modern times.

Shergold feels enduring government bureaucracies should pursue innovative ideas that allow them to constantly bring the citizens further into their work and play to their main strength, the “situational authority” of their unique position. They should mainly facilitate policy discussion between governments and every other group in society, helping to encourage a “shared sense of purpose” in the general population, where possible.

This, he added, required emotional intelligence on the part of public servants.

“We can allow and enable citizens to give feedback on programs, to suggest improvements in services, to identify policy priorities. If we get this right, and it’s a lot to get right, then public servants can become the central point of ensuring citizenship comes to be regarded as more than being required to vote every three or four years.

“We can, through our efforts, give citizens a real voice in the decisions that mould and regulate their lives.”

“Our challenge, our exciting prospect, is to retain and publicly espouse the traditional principles of a non-partisan public service by imagining innovative approaches that, through wide-ranging collaboration, restore the confidence of the Australian people in the value of democratic governance.

“That is a very, very big thing to do.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.