The big unknown in Stuart Robert’s grand designs for Services Australia: how much will it cost?

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday December 3, 2019

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One major thing was missing from Government Services Minister Stuart Robert’s big update on digital transformation and the plans for Services Australia on Friday: what it’s all going to cost.

Robert revealed seven streams of work on the service delivery reforms, and two cross-agency taskforces that are respectively working towards whole-of-government information architecture, and new funding models for government IT purchasing better suited to subscription-based cloud services and agile, iterative projects.

“The Treasurer would be very, very unhappy if I spoke about funding prior to MYEFO coming out,” the minister said after his speech to the Australian Information Industry Association. The mid-year fiscal and economic outlook is due at the end of January.

One of the IT industry group’s lunch guests asked how he was going with “removing barriers to getting funding and creating opportunities for agencies to get started on exploring ideas, innovating and driving those quickly and iteratively across government, so that we get the best opportunity to see what succeeds and what doesn’t”.

“I’m not overly concerned about government’s capacity to fund this agenda,” he said. “That’s, in short, the dividend of a strong economy. The budget is … moving into surplus, and because of that there’s actually spare capacity for us to lean in and fund things that matter.”

Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert at the National Press Club in Canberra, Thursday, November 14, 2019. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Of course, the claim that the economy is strong is quite debatable and the predicted surplus might not happen. The government’s opponents have also pointed out that a lot of savings have come from Robert’s portfolio, through a controversial underspend on the National Disability Insurance Scheme and cuts to the department he hopes to transform into a shining example of digital transformation that delivers “delightful” customer-centric services.

The Community and Public Sector Union responded to the speech by saying the government should hire more public servants and use fewer consultants, contractors and labour-hire employees.

“When you pull back the minister’s jargon, what we are looking at is a minister that wants to continue a reign of privatisation and jobs for mates,” said acting national secretary Melissa Donnelly. “If the Morrison government was serious about providing a world class customer experience, they would stop chasing short lived budget wins, and invest in the staff and ICT systems.”

The minister said his five joint taskforces of public servants and consultants were moving at “extraordinary speed” and he would crack the whip to make sure there were no hold-ups due to concerns among public servants that services were not ready to roll out. He said the Services Australia team now knew his response to this would often be: “Everything’s awful until it’s not.”

“And the legal tail will not wag the customer-centric dog, in delivering services to Australians,” he said.

Robert says his department’s officers have also realised that he is “really tight” with the ATO’s chief information officer Ramez Katf, and not averse to directly calling senior public servants, even about relatively minor issues. He also like dropping into shopfronts unannounced to talk to customers and staff.

At one service centre, a staff member told him they weren’t using a particular piece of software because it wasn’t working. “I said, ‘Really? Let’s call the CIO about that.'”

Services Australia CIO Michael McNamara snapped into action and the issue was soon fixed. According to Robert, the same story played out another time, but when McNamara picked up the phone he was on holiday leave, overseas in a very different timezone, and it was his birthday. Still, the CIO called back the next day and played tech support to a lucky service centre employee.

“We want to connect with our staff and tell the message to our staff, ‘You’re valuable. You’re important. What we do matters to Australians. If there’s problems, we’re going to fix it.'”

Robert added that he was keen to see some of the thousands of ideas submitted by staff to an internal “innovation platform” implemented.

The minister said his completely unannounced inspections of the frontline troops would continue weekly and he would also not be afraid to get on the blower and demand answers from tech industry suppliers and ask their chief executives hard questions when things go wrong.

For a limited time, new annual subscribers to Mandarin Premium can get a free copy of Martin Stewart-Weeks & Simon Cooper’s ‘Are we there yet? The digital transformation of government and the public sector in Australia‘.

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