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Geelong’s two public worlds in digital change race

I found myself in two worlds last Friday at the IPAA Victoria Digital Delivery conference in Geelong. One world was a panel of researchers and seasoned observers concluding Australia was middling when it comes to public sector uptake of digital and everything that goes with it. The other was a group of agency leads and digital executives exploring in great depth and nuance the rollout of the digital phenomena in their space — and everything that went with it.

Two years ago such conferences would have been preoccupied with who approved the tweets, and how to comply with the requirement to archive Facebook posts. In Geelong the discussion was about anticipating the first driverless cars in 2017, and if Uber’s rideshare recommendation system meant the need to licence was redundant.

There was palpable energy in the room to want to get on with the big job of delivering digital change at scale. From Australia Post to the taxi commissioner, we heard sophisticated stories of digital transformation — migrating whole agencies into the unpredictable world of digital delivery and technology intelligence.

Dr Claire Noone, former executive director Consumer Affairs Victoria and now a principal at the Nous Group, queried if the emergence of data-designed services meant the functional structures of government needed to be challenged. In her mind the traditional separation of policy and regulation and service delivery was questionable in an age where data and citizen feedback was now so readily able to inform government decisions.

We also heard about the concept of privacy by design — building privacy into the foundation design of services, rather than as an academic bolt-on in unread terms and conditions — particularly given Facebook’s lax approach has forced it to tack on a remedial Privacy Checkup.

Equally impressive was the Service NSW story where CEO Glenn King detailed a relentless and urgent push to bring almost all of NSW transactional services online, in one unified portal so citizens can enjoy the sort of customer service that is now expected in the commercial world. Using a light middleware layer (Salesforce) King has stitched together over 400 different services and has an ambition to make live the dashboards his staff use to show key metrics of delivery — good and not so. Central to the success has been to create a culture obsessive about customers and how to improve their interaction with government services. Not digital magic — just plain focus on end users and their journey through the often daunting government maze.

The conference was partly sponsored by the City of Geelong and with its Twitter obsessed, former paparazzi mayor, Darryn Lyons (pictured) — @geelong_mayor and @darrynlyons — in the audience and through the panels, you could not help but feel the enthusiasm and desire by local councils and regional towns to get on board the digital train.

Many are making it up as they go, which is exactly what digital agility and experimentation is about. Ballarat chief executive Anthony Schinck spoke candidly about his council’s attempt to get ratepayers to directly decide how best to spend a $4 million capital fund. Schinck is no digital native, but said the worst that could happen was that ratepayers would ask for their money back!

If there was an elephant in the room, it was procurement and its deathly grip on agency culture and risk taking. As Tim Orton, the Nous CEO observed, it was more correctly procurement practice rather than the actual rules which was smothering innovation and prototypes. The topic kept rearing itself throughout the panels and former Victorian Department of Health secretary, Fran Thorn, made the same point when presenting Deloitte research on digital readiness late in the day.

Outside the conference hall, in the informal discussions, there was one another elephant also evident: a still dominant leadership clique and SES group which nods to the necessity to embrace change, but either out of ignorance, traditionalism or timidity remain wedded to the public sector model of the ’50’s. It was these laggards, staff complained, who are relegating the public sector to middling irrelevance.

More at the MandarinGovernment not ready to respond to digital says Deloitte study

Author Bio

Tom Burton

Tom Burton is publisher of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has served in various public administration roles, specialising in the media and communications sector. He was a Walkley Award-winning journalist and executive editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and as managing editor of smh.com.au. He most recently worked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.