Australian government can be a leader in digital transformation. But agencies have a lot to learn — and must undergo their own transformation to keep up.
That was the message to technology chiefs and government leaders at an IBM-sponsored event in Canberra recently. With best-practice examples from overseas, and case studies from leading programs in Australia, managers heard why a customer-focussed strategy and design-led thinking is becoming increasingly important to citizen engagement and government practice.
Taavi Kotka has become a leading expert in digital government and engagement around the world through his work transforming systems in Estonia. As a special guest of the IBM/The Mandarin Public Leadership In The Digital Era conference, the awarded CIO outlined the country’s innovative approach to digital identity and recordkeeping.
From government mailboxes to e-residency and digital health records, citizens have embraced cloud-based government interfaces because they’ve learned to trust the security and privacy measures implemented, Kotka explained. In health, a national opt-in database allows users to see when health professionals access their data. If they don’t have a good excuse penalties apply — including up to three years in jail.
“We shouldn’t be so afraid … if you put some control over it,” he told attendees. While private enterprise can offer little visibility in what data they’ve collected on you, Estonia’s system is entirely transparent. “People actually trust it,” Kotka said.
Government has led the way, making its data freely available. Business now has more trust in doing the same. “We have proved they can be trusted,” Kotka said. “We’ve basically killed the black market in Estonia.”
Here in Australia, the Digital Transformation Office is an “incubator” in driving change in Canberra. Paul Shetler, CEO of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet unit, told public servants he was here to help — but departments and agencies must come to the table.
“DTO is doing it with you, not to you,” he said. “We want to work with every department and agency, we want to work with the start-up community, with SMEs and other suppliers and vendors, because we know we can’t do it all ourselves. This is going to have to be a team effort. Digital transformation is definitely a team sport. We’ve all got to be in this together.”
Shetler was appointed head of the DTO in July, after then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull set up the agency to drive technology change in government administration and services. Turnbull retains responsibility for the DTO within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Shetler, formerly an executive at Britain’s Government Digital Service agency, advised to think big — and small. “It’s not going to happen overnight. You can’t do a rip-and-release. You can’t take out legacy systems. We’re brownfield. We’d shut down for a year,” he said.
Be ruthless about delivering projects in tight timeframes, Shetler offered. Build an alpha site, open a beta site to the public then launch. Deliver something useful, short of a complete solution, and continue researching to understand the problem better and adapt the platform. It takes discipline to “not allow ourselves to be sucked into scope creep”.
“That is how we gain trust and transform the public service more broadly,” he said.
Shetler cited research that one in eight Australians over the age of 14 will access government services online in any four-week period — but more than half (55%) face a problem while doing it. “The steady drip of poor services leads to public distrust,” he said. “We have to do a lot better than that. We must do a lot better.”
People are generally accessing government services in times of stress. Public servants, Shetler says, “have an ethical obligation to make it as simple as possible”. Users have to be put first. Identify the pain points in the process.
The cost of systems has decreased, he says, and the scale of the task — compared to projects in the private sector — is actually smaller than many think. The opportunity, he says, is huge.
At workshops led by IBM, attendees were urged to look outside the box and put customer-focussed design thinking first. Citizens will judge based on what private enterprise is delivering in the digital space — not comparing other government interfaces.
Kerry Purcell, managing director of IBM Australia & New Zealand, said agencies must make it easy for customers to consume and transact. He asked: “How do you go from being policy driven and process driven and become much more customer centric?”
Case studies from Japan Post — where IBM’s partnership has seen the rollout of iPads loaded with IBM-developed apps and analytics to connect millions of seniors with services in an exercise to improve quality of life — and the innovative one-stop-shop approach of Service NSW reinforced the idea of putting the customer, not the business strategy or technology, first.
Kim Williams — the business director and former boss of News Corporation in Australia, a company at the vanguard of digital change — warned most government agencies aren’t ready for the “tectonic” shift from digital disruption.
“At a minimum,” he said on the day, “this paradigm shift requires enterprises to become more agile in applying technology, approaching customers and changing business and management models. The need for reinvented thinking by government — first to address the concept of customer and second to wholly reverse the process of management from a developed input based framework to one which is focused on outcomes and empowerment, requires huge commitment.
“They need to measure outputs rather than being input control obsessive. They need to look to the renewal in analysis of core purpose not to the vast prescriptive issuing of rules, mired in expensive inefficiency. Government has to confront enabling workforce empowerment within a framework of purpose and outcome.”