Simon Cooper on the new public sector skills needed to match the speed, scale, and intensity of Australia’s digital transformation

By Peter Debus

Thursday December 12, 2019

City set up with Internet of Things capability. Getty Images

Simon Cooper is now the co-author with Martin Stewart-Weeks of an independent book that has got a lot of people in the public sector talking. Here, he talks about the challenges thrown out by ‘Are we there yet’, and the digital transformation of government and the public sector in Australia.

Peter Debus: Having Peter Shergold, Terry Moran, Sarah Pearson, and Martin Hoffman launch the book surely tells us something about the importance of the topic. What do you think is resonating with people that is prompting people of that level to give their time to talk about it in the ways they have?

Simon Cooper: I think it links to the purpose of the book, which is to elevate the topic and get across the core message. The discussion has been around the need to accept that both human and customer experiences are at the centre of everything you’re doing. Some of the other conversations have been about sharing the frustration of why we’re not there yet, technologically. Generally, everyone has agreed with our top message that in this country, ‘digital transformation’ has been about digitalisation software and technology — which is only half the story. In order to get there, we first need to define where ‘there’ is, and then have a wider conversation around what the public service of now is seeking to do in the future, and how it can do that. That means working out what digital tools will be needed, what techniques need to be developed, the ways of thinking to be calibrated, and what the very purpose of public service itself is. All of those things seem to resonate at the top level.

Whether everyone’s agreed with us — possibly not — and while we set out a manifesto of ideas of how to get there, we’ve been careful not to suggest specific projects. That said, some of our ideas subsequently are being considered at both the state and federal levels. Now, you and your readers can decide whether they are original ideas!

You define ‘digital transformation’ as being more than just a series of electronic transactions on a higher plane. Could you talk about what you’re actually saying digital transformation is.

In the 18 months we spent crafting, researching, and writing the book, we kept going backwards and forwards as to what some definitions of ‘digital transformation’ are, and we give some examples from well-known thought leaders like Mike Bracken and others. For us, digital transformation is a way of seeing and rethinking the entire business of governing, government, and the work of the public service. The purpose of digital transformation is to create systems across all levels of government that better serve customers in a democratic society.

“Digital transformation is a way of seeing and rethinking the entire business of governing, government, and the work of the public service.”

In the book itself, we only talk about digital technology about 150 pages in. The book’s main point is how the rationale for the public sector should be focused on how designers and administrators go about solving the real and wicked problems that affect systems and impact businesses. Our contention is, if you change your mindset to “How am I going to solve this problem for people or businesses?”, then digital-transformation tools and techniques rise to the fore. Are We There Yet’s message is: you won’t get there by only looking at your challenge from a cost-reduction or “Let’s digitise our existing processes” perspective, but by recalibrating your service-delivery thought processes.

It’s really, really important to us to note two things. First, there is a deep, deep respect for everyone and everything that has happened in the public sector relating to digital transformation. I think we are optimists in the book, but it is a challenge and opportunity to think about how services are delivered in this country. These are some of the topics that we expect the forthcoming review of the Australian public service to cover, along with other reviews and things that are happening at the moment, so none of this is happening in a vacuum. It also won’t surprise you that when we were writing the book, we had to rewrite and change things on the go in light of things that happened whilst we were writing, such as the changes in the NSW government as they went to eight clusters, and the announcement of the creation of Services Australia. We were madly scribbling and thinking, “How are we going to change that?” because it linked to some of the things we were advocating for.

You’ve created a digital transformation ‘diamond’. Tell us about this framework.

One of the points of the diamond is understanding digital tools and techniques. Generally, we advocate that this is stuff the public service needs to understand or think about. No longer do we want to hear anyone saying, “I don’t do technology”. You might not like technology, you might not be a technologist, but a broad understanding is needed. We say in the book that saying you don’t do technology would be a bit like saying you don’t write. So that’s one element.

Another point of the diamond is what we describe as a ‘new theory of the business’, re-orientating around collaboration, collective intelligence, and convening a role and purpose of government. We talk about understanding the changing nature of the world and the forces impacting people’s willingness to remain in public service, and we talk about a democratic trust deficit. We talk about inequality and other social factors so that you can think of traditional digital transformation within that frame and not just in the transaction frame.

And then the final part of the diamond is the understanding of the skills and capabilities. If you accept our notion that you need to understand digital technology or have an interest or understanding of it, you need to think about reframing what the public service is for and you need to think about it in the context of the changing world. This is the ‘new public work’, as we coin it. That requires different skills and capabilities in the public service and in those who work with the public service. It’s a bit more than just, “Let’s digitise this paper form” — as important as that is in some cases.

How is digital transformation different in the public sector to the private and not-for-profit sectors?

In many ways they are similar. In the past five years, we’ve seen in Australia and also around the world a pivot towards thinking about how to meet customer needs. Arguably, the government has always done that, but now it is really thinking about human-centred design and platforms that enable consistent conversations. So that is similar [to the private sector].

The big difference, the fundamental difference, comes to the part of the reason as to why we’re not there yet. It’s this: if the government gets something wrong, you really, really feel it. If the roads and hospitals don’t run, the buck stops with government. These big public goods and services make it a bit more challenging [for governments] when it comes to innovating and thinking about things differently.

As a former public servant of 10 years, I know that this is the service bit of public service, of knowing how important it is to get things right. And that’s a bit different to the kind of start-up culture I’m seeing, here in Sydney and in other places, where it’s, “We can experiment with this thing for a year and if it goes wrong it will be in the dustbin of start-up ideas.” Governments can’t quite do that. So, in the book, we talk about changing from this horrible phrase about ‘failing fast’ to slightly more of an ethos of ‘trial, test and learn’. Generally, private sector organisations are a bit keener and can do that a bit faster as well.

People in government departments are there to solve big problems, yet are constantly being told: “Don’t hold on to power, don’t keep it to yourself”. In the context of using technology, there’s a danger that if you’re too loose with your regulatory control, the big tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon will take advantage.

The way we see it, government is, by its very nature, always going to have power. One of the things we argue in the book is the power of convening and collaborating. If you look at things like some of the AI leadership summits, some of the strategy documents, the power of government to get people together — be they big players or small players — to discuss an issue and start to think about how you might be able to do that in a safe, sustainable, trusting way that’s going to meet citizen expectations of friendly common decency, trust, and ethics, I don’t see that power going anywhere.

What I do see, and what we are hearing is that you need to understand the technology and its potential if you are to understand the power of platforms and data. If you’re looking to engage in a commercial transaction or regulate what some of these companies are doing and what they’re not doing, big and small, Australian-based or not, it’s really, really important. What we advocate deep in the book is that anyone at any level needs to be able to understand and think about technology, so that, for example, if you’re talking about algorithms or artificial intelligence or website status, you can have an informed discussion and think about whether you’ll be writing policy using the tool, or not.

Simon Cooper (background) and Peter Debus (foreground)

What do you think is the main reason why Australia has stalled on digital transformation? Is it a combination of political, administrative, and cultural factors, or is there one big blocker?

Our general argument is that there needs to be greater urgency and focus on digital transformation in the broader definition that we’ve described. Not just from a technology perspective, which has tended to be focused on reducing costs or digitising transactions, but more about the power and potential of digital tools, technologies, processes, and the underlying people changes that are required to make the most of, for example, moving towards more of a platform-way of doing government. Until you reframe it with that lens, you’re unlikely to get there. So, our book is a call to action, with our manifesto of 20-odd things that we think need to happen whether it’s an install or an acceleration, or at least to have the stuff on the agenda.

“This stuff is hard. It’s wieldy, it’s complex. You’ve got three layers of government, and also until very recently, some of the tools … are still relatively new.”

I mentioned deep respect earlier — this stuff is hard. It’s wieldy, it’s complex. You’ve got three layers of government, and also until very recently, some of the tools, particularly around platforms and software as a service, are still relatively new. Cloud computing is still relatively new — the last five-to-seven years — so there is a time factor. The private sector is still actually thinking and working through a lot of these things.

The other thing is that we take aim a little bit around a culture of ‘government needs to be like Uber or Netflix’. That’s all well and good, but they’re fundamentally different business models and they don’t have the underlying need for trust and security and good public administration and all the things you’d expect from government. You can’t just run off and start to act and run government like a start-up — there needs to be seriousness in order to cover the sector properly but in a way that is also aligned to the deep values of public service and what the government is here to do.

I suppose there’s a clash with the deep values of the public service that revere hierarchy, process control, and risk management, so that does make it hard for them to be start-ups, doesn’t it?

It does. When I worked in the UK and digital became a ‘thing’ in government around the Government Digital Service, we saw this clash of cultures. You’ve got the people who have 20-25-year careers and are at director-general or deputy secretary level, and then others may be coming in from the private sector going, “Hey, why haven’t you done this already? It’s easy!” What I’m starting to see here in Australia is an acceptance on both sides that they both can learn from each other. Then it becomes one side, and that side is united around the cause, so to speak, of meeting citizens’ needs. One of the key things we feel so passionately in the book is that when interacting with government it should be as good as, if not potentially better than what you’re enjoying in your personal life; a lot of that stuff’s only come in in the last three or four years.

Do you think Australia has an ‘IT Crowd’ problem in government, whereby people are almost ‘ghettoed’ in IT as a service function? Is there tension between what it means to be a ‘digital transformer’ and what it used to mean to be an ‘IT person’?

I’d say yes, and we’re seeing that borne out in private and public sector organisations. We went through a period where everyone had to be a specialist in IT or HR or Operations. Now, the skill set is around collaboration, convening, collective intelligence, working within a so-called ecosystem, and within all of that, fundamentally putting the customer at the heart. If you reorient an organisation around the customer and user needs and start to think about building off a platform — be it a technology platform or just a business platform — that’s a different way of working.

Where I’ve seen it work most effectively is when you have individuals, like technologists, for example, who are able to understand and relate to some of the skills of the future, such as emotional intelligence and an office that can understand where a policy person is coming from when they say, “I can’t just do that with your app”. You have to have some of the legal contexts, for example, in the same way that the policy person is taking the time to understand where the digital technology person might be coming from when it comes to speed of release. Over time, we’re starting to see that mutual collaboration particularly where there have been successes. People look at that and say, “Well, if they’ve been successful, it looks like they’re all collaborating,” it’s not “Just chuck their requirements over the fence to the IT crowd” anymore, and that requires a new mindset. I won’t use the word ‘agile’ but that’s part of that mindset. It’s about getting stuff done.

In the book, you talk about the Logan Together project. It has three different levels of government and a not-for-profit sector working together using shared data sets, trying to come up with solutions. Is that a shining role model of some of the things that we should be doing more of?

The book is littered with examples from Australia and internationally of organisations we think are doing well. What I’d love to see happen in Australia is more celebration of where project outcomes, particularly using digital tools and technologies, are celebrated. Particularly those coming from not just the digital or IT Crowd as you described it earlier, but from all of government. It’s not a digital recognition prize anymore but a public service prize. And then, the flip side of that would be, where possible, the celebration of where we stopped something that we thought was going to go wrong because we’ve learned from it — rather than the scenario of someone committing us to a program 18 months ago and we’ll carry on spending until the auditors or someone else tells us to stop.

“It’s not a digital prize anymore but a public service prize.”

This concept of learning fast and making calls is really important when it comes to the effective use of public resources. In particular, you’ve now got tools and techniques (Cloud and others) where you can get stuff done, building products in a fraction of the time that it used to take, so it makes sense to stop doing the things that you think aren’t going to work faster. And to celebrate that cultural mindset where people feel it’s okay to experiment but it’s also okay to say “Hey, we’re not sure this is going to meet the needs that we’ve identified about users.”

I’ve had conversations with people in the SES across a range of governments and who are getting towards the end of their careers. In their unguarded moments, they’ll say things along the lines of, “I was happy to get through my career without having to engage with this sort of digital transformation stuff. But unfortunately, it’s grabbed me just before I retire.” Do you see that in your experience around the public sector, and is that a problem?

I know of such a person in the UK. They’re now in a very senior position, and they reorientated themselves when they saw the difference it was making. This guy was with criminal justice and was very frustrated they were hearing all the staff concerns and from practitioners. They saw that some of the digital changes, such as with appointment bookings, could be used as a tool to solve the problems they were working on and had been agitating and hearing about. So rather than think “That’s the thing that technology folks over there do,” or “I don’t want to go near that because it’s not my career” — as soon as they started thinking of it as another lever to get stuff done in the same way they thought about policy and legislation and announcing grants, their mindset changed. It pulled on the heartstrings of good public service and all the other things that have kept that person in a career for 40 years. So that would be my message.

“What I love about public servants … is their ability to be generalists and pick this stuff up quite quickly.”

My other message would be: part of the reason we’ve written the book is for the audience like that to say this stuff. It meant they got to engage and think about it — and it’s not too hard. We’re not saying that a person suddenly needs to write algorithms and learn to code, interact with big vendors — just to think about it as another tool in the toolbox. What I love about public servants, including when I was one, is their ability to be generalists and pick this stuff up quite quickly.

The other thing we explore in the book is the concept of digital leadership. Not digital leadership in terms of chief digital officers — more like the concept of someone who might not want to engage and understand this themselves but who wants to know the authorising environment through which they can give. There are different degrees of digital transformation, so it might be that a person starts with something small and then builds out in the same way we would, by advocating the building of a prototype, then scaling, and not diving in and then suddenly they’re in charge of a $100 million IT program.

How does Australia compare with other developed countries around the world?

It’s really important to understand the context when doing international comparisons. Australia generally gets a good rap around immigration systems, tax, marketing, and tourism as a country. I don’t think we necessarily give enough credit to that — I’ve been lucky to live in a couple of countries and travel a lot, and our stuff is really good. I think a more helpful comparison is one that you can relate to. I can’t relate to what it would be like living in Estonia, for example, in a two million-person country, but I can relate to the experience I have with Commbank, Qantas, and others. So, thinking around those day-to-day experiences, specifically when it comes to saving time, is a good comparison. Looking at it from the government or digital-rankings perspective: they use digital and E-government rankings — measures that deliberately put technology and digital in focus.

The argument we’re making in the book is about good government. So, when I think about comparisons, I’d be thinking about: how does Australia compare to other countries in their public services and the quality of service provision? Not, “Are they better digitally?” What I’ve seen a lot of since I’ve been in Australia is an increasing willingness to learn from some of those other countries. I know people have been over to the U.K., Estonia, South Korea, Denmark, Singapore, and others to learn, and increasingly they’re starting to come here and look at what we’re doing. It would be great if Australia gets accepted into the so-called Digital Ten of nations.

The other angle of international comparisons that comes up a lot is artificial intelligence. That, for me at least, would be one to watch — AI strategy and how that links to digital transformation and the amount of money that’s going into that.

So, in summary, there’s a lot to learn from others. Indeed, it’s the stated government ambition to become a top-three digital government compared to our global peers, and I love that ambition. What that definition is, I think, will change, and for me, that needs to be one prepared to say what it means to be a good government and public service, and then what it feels like for the average person in terms of their day-to-day experiences, be they a small-business owner or citizen.

You touched on the fact that some countries have more streamlined or easier governance structures than Australia. Do you think our three tiers of government is a stumbling block for rapid uptake of digital transformation?

You need to compare like-with-like. So, the countries of two million people with different systems of government — it’s just not like-to-like. What those countries do have is stated top-down focus around using digital transformation not just from a government and public service perspective but for economic competitiveness. So, one can look at Estonia with E-residency, or Singapore’s 50-year plan — they are linking more closely the economic side of things.

“The average person sees it as ‘the government’, and that’s their experience when they’re navigating websites or services whether you have the three tiers that sit underneath it or not.”

What we’re starting to see in Australia is the Digital Council between the states and territories. They’re starting to meet a bit more regularly. And there’s a suggestion that the COAG has an official secretary for that. It probably needs to be backed with some other joint investment, because essentially the money talks in terms of how you’re going to get stuff done across different layers of government, and then three layers of government. The average person sees it as ‘the government’, and that’s their experience when they’re navigating websites or services whether you have the three tiers that sit underneath it or not. It’s that overall experience that definitely can be designed to, at the same time, respect the democratic institutions and governance that has years of history.

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In the book, you’ve been fairly blunt about some of the challenges of the Digital Transformation Agency. I’m wondering if you want to elaborate on that.

The earlier Digital Transformation Office and now the Digital Transformation Agency are two of a number of so-called digital central units. In the book, we go through a dichotomy of what they’ve done and not done. It’s important to understand that all of [such initiatives] globally have a mixture of successes and learnings, depending on where they are and why they were set up. Understanding the mix and appetite for some of the slightly more revolutionary ones (and the Government Digital Service in the UK was on that side) — some are more encouraging of evolution, and others have been set up to get stuff done and to deliver.

In Australia, the digital central units have been a mixture of all of them. Some of that has changed depending on the politics of the day and the level of interest. The digital central units are really useful as a starting point and to either encourage a reaction across the sector or within departments. I think about when I was in the UK, where the department I worked in — the Government Digital Service — was set up. Part of the reaction was, “We’re not going to let them tell us what to do, we’ll set up our own capability,” and that was actually a fantastic outcome because the central unit got the department to do something that perhaps they wouldn’t have done.

If you are trying to get something new done in institutions via digital transformation, it’s important to have criteria for success. So, political support — both big P and small P; individuals willing to use social capital to get something done that probably is going to go against the grain; the processes in government to do that; building funding and governance; holding people to account; and an outright focus on platforms so you are building things once only — collecting websites, notifications, digital marketplaces, identity.

I appreciate [digital transformation] is a particularly contentious topic. Having architecture and plans set out and the rationale for doing it — but not in a way that suggests the world is being taken over. The biggest element of this is having people with the skills, understanding, and mindset that we’ve talked about a lot in this discussion, and having those people in the digital central unit who can do the stuff, agitate and grow others to think and work like that — that is really important and is what will actually lead to progress. In the case of what’s happened here in Australia, all of that’s been mixed for a variety of reasons. The whole point of the book is to get this stuff on the agenda.

DTA having struggled could be partly because it was given too wide a brief to try and cover too many things, but also, I’m sure, the high turnover of CEOs didn’t help either.

“CEOs are not going to be a six-to-10-year tenure — it just doesn’t work like that anymore.”

I would imagine so, like with any organisation. That’s important, but one of the great things I’ve seen in digital central units is you generally have a real mixture of people coming and going. That’s helped the stock and any team I’ve worked in where we’re trying to get stuff done. You need to use that social capital. They are not generally going to be a six-to-10-year tenure — it just doesn’t work like that anymore. And don’t think that in the book that we are not really, really clear on this: the government of the day makes these choices, public service decides how to work with them to enact that. So, if there have been political changes, you have to consider all of that.

I suppose there is a certain convenience to blame-shifting if you are a large Commonwealth department involved in big, complex programs and you’re not successfully implementing digital transformation yourself. Do you think there’s an issue there?

In the book, we talk about how to get stuff done in government. Part of that is how you break some of these things down into less of the big programs that I believe you’re referring to — a bit more into the iterative, more agile way of delivering value, through minimum viable products and prototypes in a way that lets you learn faster and demonstrate progress. In my experience of every time that I’ve talked to a minister or someone senior and shown them a big plan, the conversation is very different when you’ve shown them a working prototype because they then get excited. The conversation is, “How do we scale this?” and you’re able to bring in user insights and other quantitative data points. So, present your pitch for digital transformation in slightly more of those bite-sized chunks. That’s easier for customer-facing stuff, but do not underestimate the task of modernising some of the systems and platforms that sit underneath the big systems, because if you get it wrong, people don’t get their benefits, you don’t collect tax properly — this is a challenge.

Martin Stewart-Weeks (left) and Simon Cooper (right)

Early on and later in the book, you talk about the ‘new public work’. Can you elaborate?

The way in which we describe the new public work aligns with our suggestion of a new theory of the business for governments — why public service is there. We are advocating for the role of the public sector in Australia to increasingly be centred on how you convene to collaboratively solve wicked problems. It’s done by integrating collective intelligence and with a bit less of governments feeling they need to do everything themselves. Take the Premier’s priorities in NSW — that’s an example of individual departments on their own being unlikely to come up with the idea of reducing homelessness by half, so those are ways of working that would be an example for us of ‘new public work’. I see that as hugely exciting.

‘“Simon, dear boy, I don’t care if anyone reads it, we’ve done it.’ That’s the old public work.”

I remember when I started my career in the UK — I’d gotten to the prestigious Fast Stream scheme and six months in they got me working on a new piece of policy advice, which was grand. We published this new brochure across three departments. Everyone’s very proud about the collaboration, and I asked the question, “Well, how are we going to get people to read it?” And my boss said, “Simon, dear boy, I don’t care if anyone reads it, we’ve done it.” That’s the old public work; the new public work would be: “We’ve only just started; how do we get that out, how would you measure the impact in this particular case?”

Is there anything especially digital about collaboration, or is it more a case of being able to solve problems through digital technologies so much more easily now by collaborating with people who we wouldn’t have traditionally collaborated with?

Certainly, the digital aspect can help solve the problem. If you’re considering platforms, in some cases you can build it once and share it rather than have multiple departments doing their own. We talk a lot about leading in the open, with transparency, and about having seen the past 18 months many people blogging on LinkedIn, etc., talking about what they’re doing. That’s important for two reasons. One, it encourages people to go, “Wow! I’d actually like to work in the public sector,” including senior people who may be thinking about switching careers. Tim Reardon in New South Wales recently was saying that he encourages his senior team to spend some time in the private sector for cross-pollination of ideas. Two, it sends the visible signal across all levels that it’s okay to say, “Hey, I don’t know how to do this. Has anyone else done this before or have an idea?” And you don’t have to rely on establishing a steering committee or put some forms up, or formally meet once a month. So, you’re getting the kind of speed to value a lot faster.

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In Canberra, there’s a bottom-up organisation called One Team Government, part of a similar global community. encouraging people who are all ages (but it tends to be people who are at manager level and below) to get together and debate problems relating to service design — how you have quality human relationships in how things are done, including policy development and convening of collective intelligence. No one has gone, “Let’s set up as a network of people who have somehow got the authorising environment” — they are just getting together and they’re exchanging ideas. That breaks down silos across organisations and departments. It’s great, and it’s happening across states and the feds.

If you were to take a couple of points out of the book, what are the key positive messages for public servants?

There is an opportunity to consider digital transformation with a new speed, scale, and intensity that matches its national significance for Australia. In particular, there’s a message around the need for what we describe as ‘public digital infrastructure’ — to think about that infrastructure and platforms in the way we think about building bridges and other visible public infrastructure. It should be less of, “It’s the IT department building a thing” — it should be, “These are the things that will enable the business of government that we’re talking about.”

The other main message (and the thing we got a lot of positive reception for) is how, across the public sector, public servants take responsibility for their own individual learning. We’re a bit dramatic in the book because we call it ‘the dramatic reskilling of the workforce’. It blends the enduring skills of government — so, not throwing all of that out — and then combining with what we describe as the ‘new public service work’. In the book, we articulate in as clear language as possible what some of these things are. What AI is, what robotics is. What I’m starting to hear in the so-called Learning Academies — and instead of digital learning academies we feel they should just be called Learning Academies — is encouragement of public servants to kind of lean into this and understand some of the basics, thinking about these tools and techniques, ways of working around platforms, and thinking about how you can apply that to the work you do, to have even more impact on the citizens and businesses of Australia. That opportunity and the tech is there, the economic circumstances and generally the political support is there.

Thank you very much for your time today, Simon, and for sharing your thoughts from Are We There Yet?

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