Digital agenda's first revamp: welcome to government as a platform

By Tom Burton

October 14, 2016

EXCLUSIVE: In one of the biggest administrative shakeups of a generation, Digital Transformation Minister Angus Taylor is pushing through a new government-wide approach to major systems. Centralising control of technology platforms in PM&C, a new agency takes over from the Digital Transformation Office.

After fifteen months of disruption from the Digital Transformation Office, the hard heads in Canberra have decided there is a much bigger game than shining up the front end of the Commonwealth’s many poor websites.

In a raft of announcements Digital Transformation Minister, Angus Taylor will today unveil what could be the biggest shake up in the architecture of Canberra’s technology — and with it the underlying  departmental relationships that have prevailed for the better part of half a century.

“… this approach tips Canberra’s famously balkanised departmental and agency architecture on its head.”

The changes will also have major implications for the large technology and consulting firms that have been supplying, integrating and advising on much of the largest agency’s technical infrastructure.

After a year in the job, Taylor — a former management consultant from Port Jackson partners, the same boutique firm of brainiacs ACCC boss Rod Sims came from — has embraced the concept of government as a platform. This thinking says that rather than have agencies build multiple payment and services off their own infrastructure, the aim is to build these services off a common core.

For example, rather than multiple systems to collect licence fees, customs and taxes, you have one core web system that services the Tax Office, Border Force and the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Ditto for payments, identity management, soft and hard service and case management, engagement (the alpha being the prototype) — and arguably too for security and emergency services.

It is where the UK has come to after several years of pushing much needed user experience (UX) improvements. And is exactly where leading digital jurisdictions like Estonia are at.

In a world where the vast majority of government services are, or will soon be, powered by web technologies this approach tips Canberra’s famously balkanised departmental and agency architecture on its head. The organising model moves from agencies running their own set of verticalised services, to essentially a horizontal model. In this architecture the engine room for driving say payments is a common system, with agencies providing the front end applications and services.

This requires a far more co-ordinated approach, which in essence is what Taylor will unveil today at a AIIA briefing at the Press Club in Canberra today.

Agencies as customers, not necessarily owners of systems

Like any good consultant Taylor wants to get much more bang for the nearly $6 billion per annum the federal government has been spending on technology projects for many years. In Taylor’s mind this requires a much more strategic approach to how the federal government deploys its considerable digital, ICT and technology procurement efforts.

And at a time where web technologies are being commoditised and commodifed through large scale cloud delivery, there is a real chance to materially lower the Commonwealth’s technology spend, while getting much faster deployment.

In major shift to system thinking, this co-ordination will come through a new Digital Transformation Agency, headed by a new CEO, to be drawn from the APS and housed in Prime Minister and Cabinet. The interim CEO is to be Communications veteran Nerida O’Loughlin.

The Department of Finance — which recently took over the government’s new super Shared Service Centre from the Employment and Education departments — loses its long held central technology procurement role.

Taylor’s model has lead agencies as primary customers of these platforms, but significantly not the owners, as this arguably leads to capture of the platform. How the powerful behemoths of Canberra — the Department of Human Services, the ATO, Defence, and Immigration and Border Protection react and behave to this very different organisational model is to be seen. Each have their major billion dollar technology plays well under way.

But in a pointer to how serious ministers are about making a step change in government delivery, governing the whole show is going to be a powerful advisory board. It will be chaired by none other than PM&C chief Dr Martin Parkinson, and will include CEOs of large private sector utilities and financial service organisations that have taken big steps forward in the digital game.

The DTA will also have a high calibre project management office, with a direct mandate to track significant ICT and digital projects and to intervene where necessary.

The disruption experiment evolves into something new

The DTO — after a controversial year of disrupting the conservative Canberra elite — iterates into the DTA. Current boss Paul Shetler, recruited from the US, via the UK, to drag agencies into the modern user centred era will be offered the role of chief digital officer.

Disruptors are never popular and Shetler’s brash and sometimes blunt style did not earn him many friends in the closeted hallways of power. Nor with some staff — there has been a revolving door of appointments — as the tyro agency battled to be effective in the bureaucratic jungle that is Canberra.

But in just over a year of hard work, his band of digital evangelists have driven an impressive citizen-centric approach to try to fix the many documented problems across a range of government services. Unlike customer facing organisations, government is notoriously inward looking and the push to seriously improve services through citizen co-design has been a breath of fresh air.

This work will continue, but with Taylor wanting to accelerate the digitalisation agenda, the DTA will have a far broader mandate to drive system wide design and to clone solutions that are know to be working well.

The push to deliver government off a set of core platforms, also opens the opportunity for agencies and non-government players to offer innovative services through applications built on these platforms. This is similar to how state transport agencies have opened their platforms for real time time apps.

These platforms also offer a major opportunity for governments to exploit both insights from the data these platforms capture as well as to offer powerful real time algorithmic services such as predictive security services (Immigration is a world leader in this space) and revenue fraud detection. This cognitive layer — using smart computers and powerful algorithms promises huge benefits for smarter and better citizen services.

The concept of government as a platform was first popularised by internet evangelist Tim O’Reilly. O’Reilly also originated the terms Web 2.0 and open source.

In recent times the concept has been promoted as a means of promoting industrial innovation in government.

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5 years ago

An important point here I think is that if the federal government takes an approach based on digital being all about a new technology architecture, then I worry that the opportunity to rethink public services and the organisations that support them will be lost. Digital is a combination of technology, new business models, new economics, new ways of working, and new ways to design and offer (public) services. Uber wasn’t created just by designing a platform – it started from creating a much better less frictionless point-to-point travel option. The DTO understood this I think, i have my fingers crossed the DTA will also.

5 years ago

Oh Dear. Every decade or so we go through the same old cycle. Centralise, decentralise, centralise again. This is a play by an agency to take over and be the centralising hub. It is driven by internal politics of power. They do it in the guise of efficiency and find another technology to justify the move whether it is towards centralisation or away from it. A platform is not a centralised system but is a way for decentralised systems to cooperate together for a common purpose. There is not one platform needed but many. Platforms do not require a coordinating body because that is what platforms do. Any agency can find a good way to do things and if it is better then, if there are mechanisms for cooperation rather than control, it will spread. It will not spread if there is are gate-keepers that initiate, approve and try to coordinate the introduction of systems and platforms. What a wicked waste of money.

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