Text size: A A A

Tom Burton: Shetler’s challenge in the court of the mandarins

Malcolm Turnbull’s new star recruit for his $250 million digital transformation play, UK tech bureaucrat, Paul Shetler, will have some interesting challenges when he arrives from London in a few weeks.

For those of us who have drunk the digital Kool-Aid, the tech revolution will take no prisoners. But many of Canberra’s hard-nut career bureaucrats remain to be convinced.

The bright star that was Gov 2.0 flamed out, partly because it had no ministerial patron after then Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner retired. But that movement also waned because the promise of open government and personal democracy is not something that interests the top end of the federal bureaucracy.

If any thing the opposite. The slow, quiet and largely unprotested death of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, which had a remit over freedom of information, is a good reminder the culture of quiet and private decision making, runs very deep in Canberra.

Ditto the mantra of citizen first and its related chant of citizen needs. In the UK GDS office where Shetler resides, staff run-around with stickers on their laptops — Macbooks of course — declaring “citizen, not government needs.” In the Vatican City like politics of Canberra, government definitely comes first.

Apart from the obvious public facing agencies like Medicare, Centrelink and the Tax Office, most federal agencies typically deal with industry stakeholders. They are represented by well-paid lobbyists, who work the hill where parliament and the executive reside. Unlike the state government agencies, service delivery to real people is not typically practiced in Canberra, and the closer to the centre of power you get, the more opaque and political it gets.

A big challenge will be that the main legislation that governs accountability makes the head of each agency personally responsible for its deliverables. This also means they can manage their affairs as independently as they desire. In the UK most of the agencies have folded their web sites into a huge portal called gov.uk. Something similar has occurred in NSW where over 400 agencies front end transactions have been brought into one portal, Service NSW.

Good luck with that federally, where the big portfolio agencies have long resisted any such notion. There has been some movement around a single entry and authentication system — MyGov — and there is a just-redesigned mini-portal, called australia.gov.au.

“In a country where we can’t even celebrate the Queen’s birthday on the same date [centralising] will be a challenge.”

In any case the jury is still out if centralising and creating one consistent user experience is the way to go. Using australia.gov.au to try and apply for a birth certificate took me eight clicks to get to the right form in the relevant Victorian site. Google took me two clicks.

The portal advocates would say that is why it all has to be brought into simple and easy to use system. In a country where we can’t even celebrate the Queen’s birthday on the same date that will be a challenge.

Moreover some would argue that this is why they invented Google. Rather than being obsessed with a neat and orderly Swiss-like informational architecture, the real efforts should go into optimising for Google’s bots.

Australia.gov.au is run by the good people from the Department of Finance. Until Turnbull came along and snatched the lolly tin, Finance ran the ICT show. They still have a remit over procurement and while it seems inevitable australia.gov.au will end up in the DTO, Finance through its oversight of the $6 billion annual ICT spend, will continue to be a powerful player.

The divide between the digital whizz kids and the more beige ICT professionals is not unique to government, but there is definitely a risk the quite traditional agency level CIO’s will find many reasons not to play ball.

In the GDS, there has been an overt campaign against “big IT” and what is seen as a far too cosy relationship between the multinational vendors and agencies with the big heavy-lifting systems. Managed as traditional waterfall projects, the big ICT projects have too often ended over priced, over scoped and hopelessly over time.

Because of this problem, Turnbull wants the DTO to adopt the same agile and prototyping model of the GDS, which Shetler is also a big advocate for.

Threatening to ruin the party are the procurement rules and more accurately practices that most agencies are required to follow. By its own nature prototyping means the end cost is not well known, which means it is very difficult to tender for, or get expressions of interest for.

Creative leadership can deal with these issues, but a few rounds in the meat market that is Senate Estimates quickly tends to see most agency CEO’s decide it is not worth the public pain.

This highly atomistic system points to another problem. The Brits are several years ahead of its former colony and are starting to seriously consider the whole notion of government as a platform. This powerful idea says you only need say one transactional software for all of the government, rather then every agency developing and maintaining its own.

This makes a lot of obvious sense, but really needs a chief architect that can start to lay out the pieces in a system wide view. There is a CTO for the Australian government, John Sheridan, who has driven the open source govCMS project, the development of australia.gov.au and also has a remit around procurement efficiencies. Shared service centres are slowly emerging, but no one has the authority to think about the design of the system as a whole.

Digital has quickly emerged as the pivotal piece in the technology stack and needs to be integrated with a load of legacy and other systems. This requires a highly strategic view. Otherwise the risk is the digital solution to enable say all grants to be applied for online, quickly becomes a point solution when the underlying enterprise system changes.

“If Shetler sets up his shop in Sydney … the DTO risks being an outsider to the mandarin court of Canberra.”

Also lurking in the back ground are the security agencies — long a road block for the fast take up of the cloud based applications favoured by the digitalerati. Go to a technology meeting in Canberra to consider say using a US based cloud case management system, and you will soon here talk about the Patriot Act. That is the law that enables US authorities to demand access to any data that touches the US. Add in unofficial eaves dropping as revealed by Edward Snowden and the very real risk of cyber breaches and there is plenty of reason to defer.

The location of the office is also vexed. If much of the rationale of the DTO is to be an evangelist for transformation, it will do that much more successfully from Canberra. Building relationships with the big agencies like Tax, Human Services and Defence will be critical to driving change and mixing with them around the bureaucratic “drinking holes” of Woden, Civic and Kingston is part of that game .

But if Shetler, as is expected, sets up his shop in Sydney — to be close to the vibrant start up and fast money crowd — the DTO risks being an outsider to the mandarin court of Canberra.

Finally, the leadership politics will matter. Turnbull is the undisputed patron of the digital movement. But he remains tightly checked by incumbent Prime Minister Tony Abbott and a phalanx of ministers who are tied to Abbott’s political fortunes.

The lack of trust is daily on show to the beltway insiders and makes it difficult to build a powerful all-of-government push for revolutionary change. In the UK the GDS is part of the Cabinet Office and is strongly supported by the Prime Minister. Abbott is dismissive of the “electronic graffiti” that is twitter and has shown zero interest in the digital world.

If Turnbull ascends, then you can bet your house deeds the DTO will be incorporated into PM&C and the revolution will be on for young and old. If there is an unsuccessful tilt this side of Christmas, and Turnbull retires hurt to the back bench, then there is no obvious candidate to lead Shetler’s merry band of digital wizards.

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.