Put the human back into human services: Paul Shetler

By Stephen Easton

July 31, 2015

“Simpler, clearer, faster and more humane public services” is Paul Shetler’s goal as the federal government’s digital transformation chief, he said on Tuesday at a breakfast hosted by the Institute for Public Administration Australia, ACT Branch.

Those first three comparative adverbs almost go without saying — they’re all about cutting costs — but the need for “more humane” public services is a less familiar exhortation in the Australian public sector than in the UK, where Shetler was last employed in a similar role.

“In many ways, ‘more humane’ is why we’re in government — serving the people,” he explained.

Director of UK government digital service Paul Shetler
Paul Shetler

The new Digital Transformation Office CEO also explained with an anecdote about a “a well known technologist” who told him about a not-so-humane experience with the front end of government, after welcoming a new baby into the family.

The couple were filling out the appropriate government forms online after this life-changing event, and one of them made a mistake which meant they ended up getting a lot more money than they were entitled to. They went back to the relevant agency of the Department of Human Services to apologies for the honest mistake — being busy and stressed with the newborn and all — and arrange to pay the money back.

“And the answer they got back was: ‘Why are you trying to rip off government?’ So there’s the injury, and then there’s the insult,” said Shetler. “This is why we must do better.”

Public servants must start from a position of “humility and empathy” and look to citizens to tell them how to improve services.

Shetler also touched on another home truth about government service delivery that is rarely spoken about publicly: most of the time, people only deal with government agencies because they have to.

“People are often under stress … when they’re dealing with government. It’s not something that people actually seek out, it’s something that people usually do when something change in their life, or it’s a chore, like paying their taxes,” he told the audience.

Shetler sees an “absolutely immense” opportunity to completely rethink informational and transactional services — joining up different federal services and also across state, territory and local council lines — because the cost of ICT has “gone through the floor” in recent times, particularly with the growth of cloud services.

“And we can now focus our attention … on the actual services, on the redesign, on understanding what people actually need and then designing services around that,” he explained. “That’s where we can and that’s where we will be shifting our attention, and that means we can actually radically redesign our services.”

Customer needs first

The best customer experiences are created by businesses who consider their customer’s need before their own convenience and profitability. Shetler made the point that in the most competitive markets, these are the only businesses that survive. Despite the rise of contestability, governments do not have competitors in the same sense as the companies that create the best services, but citizens still hold frontline government agencies to the same standards.

“There’s absolutely no reason why government has to fall short,” said Shetler. Of course, as consumers themselves, public servants already know what good service is intuitively.

His former employer, the Government Digital Service, managed to get some parts of the UK government to beat the top private sector service delivery standards, and again he sees “absolutely no reason” why Australian governments can’t do the same.

In a “how do we get there” section of the speech, Shetler said that thinking of government needs rather than user needs would send agencies back down the “rabbit holes of big IT spending” and they needed to recognise that the kind of transformation he will lead can’t happen in one “big bang”.

“If you do, it’ll be another train wreck and another disaster,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that you deliver in slices, you deliver iteratively, you start with an idea, take it from the user, you develop it, you iterate it, and you keep on going from there.”

This approach would allow simple, working services to be rolled out quickly — on “human timescales rather than geological ones” — and then built upon gradually to add more features and improvements. “Iterate wildly, constantly,” Shetler said, referring to the “JFDI school of government” favoured by one of the UK ministers he used to work with.


That includes making digital products freely available as open source software and building on existing open source software, including some of the work he was involved with in the UK.

“We shouldn’t forget the taxpayers have paid for the work to be done, and they should be free to reuse it, absolutely,” Shetler said.

Partner, not command and control

To succeed, the DTO has to work with other parts of government, not above or beside them.

“I see DTO working very closely [with] departments and agencies, scale them up, hold them by the hand and bring them over the line as they start delivering their digital services,” said Shetler.

“In some cases we will deliver the lighthouse ones, so people can look at that and see, this is a really great service, this is what we mean. But in many other cases, we have to work really closely with departments and encourage them, nurture them to do the right thing.”

For agencies of states, territories and local governments, the DTO would provide access to the same “core platforms” for them to deliver their own services, making it easier for all Australians to deal with whatever manifestations of government are in their area.

UK mandarins were hostile to the shift from big IT projects to rapid product development at first. But, after listening to their concerns and assuring them that their own knowledge and experience was not being debased by a bunch of hipsters armed with little more than the latest buzzwords, some of the harshest critics of the GDS became its biggest champions.

“It’s not about the technology, about changing the hearts and minds,” Shetler said.

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