How is Australia tracking with the digital transformation agenda?


Women use tablet

Billed as Australia’s first public sector digital transformation conference, Transform 16 last week brought together leaders in the digital space from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand to talk about developments in government service design and delivery.

As director of a digital agency, I was interested in understanding the level of depth of transformation in each country. Overall, global efforts were similar, with two core principles missing from the discussion. Firstly, the global themes of #Transform16:

1. Simplicity

According to Leisa Reichelt from the DTO, there are over 4100 government websites in Australia and over 55% of users do not understand how to find the information they are seeking. The DTO has an audacious goal: to merge these sites into one entity, under the gov.au domain.

Looking internationally, each country had big, bold statements around digital transformation like “Better public service” and “Making transactions easier”, but at its core, the underlying message is the same: make government websites easier to use.

2. Transactions are the success metric

The ultimate ‘success’ metric for most countries revolved around transactions between government and its citizens. For example, if someone was to apply for a Permanent Residency visa success would be a much shorter processing time. That way, revenue would come in sooner and staff have to deal with less complaint calls.

However, as Reichelt pointed out, research has found that people feel anxious and scared when dealing with most parts of government because they want to be compliant to procedures but don’t understand how. If this is the main concern of so many users, the ability to find and easily understand information should also be a metric for success.

3. Culture change is a priority

Despite lengthy presentations on building user-first websites, each speaker articulated that culture change was the most vital element to success. This meant having supportive leadership, allowing freedom for employees to explore new ideas, encouraging public servants to build empathy with users rather than make assumptions of their needs.

4. Staffing is a challenge

Across the globe, digital transformation projects have been pioneered by staff members inside the government rather than external vendors. This explains the DTO’s approach in providing secondments for government employees into the DTO, with bootcamp-style training to be re-deployed back into their own agencies.

However, even with this head start there are challenges with bootcamp graduates returning to their agencies and working with teams that do not have required training and skills. For instance, after a six-week secondment, Monica Ritz, the Digital Manager of South Australia, is kicking off their first transformation project in July 2016, however she will be seeking external support. Our assumption is that this is the gap the DTO seeks to fill with its digital services panel, allowing government agencies access to a pool of skilled individuals to deploy — rather than outsourcing entire projects.

But critical parts of this work are still missing from the conversation. In digital strategy, audit and transformation work with government agencies, two pain points that come up again and again were noticeably underrepresented.

1. Prioritising culture change

When asked directly what the US digital service did to facilitate the needed culture change, there was no answer; no distinct process, workshop or even internal success metric. This was a common experience across from Australia and the UK.

However, our neighbours in New Zealand were leading the way and doing things differently. Their ICT strategy included a focus area on leadership, which included building workforce capabilities that encouraged innovation and meaningful industry partnerships to leverage learnings.

2. Digital communications

Broadly, digital channels outside websites weren’t considered: no search engine marketing, social media communications or even email marketing — despite the conference being sponsored by an email marketing tool. This is a significant gap, because it lacks a holistic view on all the touchpoints from which citizens could communicate with their government.

The current approach is also limiting in that it is reactive rather than proactive. It focuses on serving users once they know they have a need, rather than innovating how the government can proactively communicate with this audience via social media, email even partnering with online influencers. This limited focus could be reflective of recruiting staff with service design capabilities, rather than recruiting staff with digital marketing skills.

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Innovation replication — with one exception

While global efforts appeared to be similar, there’s a great deal of replication. This may be caused in part by the fact that many of the staff are shuffling between these offices — many of the DTO staff are from the UK’s government digital service. This means that we are leveraging their big wins but it may mean we are missing out on new and as yet uncharted opportunities.

However, our neighbours in New Zealand stood out from the rest. Their approach considered broader metrics than transactions: it linked better digital initiatives with better quality of life, improved employment rates, less dependence on welfare and a decreased crime rate. They are truly considering the impact of culture and the need for strong leadership.

As director of a digital agency, I’m interested in visiting our kiwi neighbours to better understand their approach. They appear to have leveraged the lessons from other parts of the world, but are forging their own path and a true whole-of-government approach to digital transformation.

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