Digital chief Nerida O’Loughlin on building Turnbull’s new ‘PMO’

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday November 15, 2016

It’s called the PMO and could even be said to carry the Prime Minister’s imprimatur, but unlike most ministerial offices, the Digital Transformation Agency’s new program management office will take a very consultative and co-operative approach.

The establishment of the new office within DTA is the final phase of the government’s plan to widen and deepen the role of the agency formerly known as the Digital Transformation Office. The central program management office will come after a government-wide strategy for rolling out new digital service platforms.

“In the early discussions that I’ve had with agencies over the last three weeks, I sense a real alignment with government’s ambitions for digital and ICT, and a real enthusiasm to achieve those ambitions,” said DTA’s interim chief executive Nerida O’Loughlin, speaking publicly for the first time since taking on the new role at the GovInnovate conference in Canberra Monday morning.

“My aspiration for the new Digital Transformation Agency is that through close collaboration and the significant expertise in the DTA that we can make available to you, we can help you achieve your ambitions.”

The overall goal of DTA is the same as it was for the former DTO — “simpler, clearer, faster public services for all,” explained O’Loughlin. “However, the remit of our work has just got much bigger,” she added.

O’Loughlin repeated a line spoken recently by the PM’s assistant minister for digital transformation, Angus Taylor, who recently decided there was only a “false divide” between digital policy and information and communications technology, but no material difference.

“What the government wants is a capability that is able to look at both ICT and digital from end to end,” she said.

“The government also recognises the benefits that come from the new way of working that the DTO has embodied. But it wants that thinking, quite properly, to now extend to strategy, delivery, investment and procurement.”

Paul Shetler, who led the DTO until the recent changes, continues in a senior role at DTA as the government’s first Chief Digital Officer, helping ensure leadership continuity and the success of existing projects.

Much of what distinguishes DTA from its predecessor are high-level, strategic responsibilities. One of its first new pieces of work is to draw up a Digital Transformation Roadmap, including details for specific departments, to help co-ordinate the Turnbull government’s serious ambitions in the space.

“High level principles and strategies” for the roadmap will soon be prepared, covering everything from cybersecurity to procurement and project management, said O’Loughlin. Such strategy work would help the government make sure it had “the right set of tools” in place to proceed with its big plans.

Another important early job for the newly empowered DTA is the development of a whole-of-government strategy for building and governing digital service delivery platforms.

O’Loughlin explained that as well as locking in user-focused standards to improve convience and accessibility, the strategy will also need to define how such platforms are funded and who is accountable for them.

“And these are issues that are familiar to many of us working in government, and we will need to think creatively and collaboratively about them to provide solutions,” she said.

It seems the first outcome DTA wants to achieve is a “sustainable delivery pipeline” for these digital service delivery platforms. “And then we’ll move into the second phase, which will deliver a set of initial platforms under those revised arrangements,” O’Loughlin said.

The program management office will be the final phase of DTA establishing itself with its newly widened remit. O’Loughlin explained the government wants “greater confidence” that it has a complete view of all the risky, high-value digital and ICT projects its agencies are pursuing.

O’Loughlin said Cabinet wants the details: “What are we spending on them, how are they progressing, and how are those benefits being realised?”

“The government also wants to know that if those projects are going off track, there is a mechanism to provide the help those projects need to get them back on track quickly,” she added.

“We’ve started developing our thinking around the right model for the PMO. I’m keen to make sure that we build a PMO based on a cooperative approach to the development of reporting and performance frameworks, and governance frameworks with key agencies.”

“We’re also keen to pick the brains of those agencies about reporting processes to make sure that we’re not reinventing the wheel and that the DTA adds value in the process.”

O’Loughlin confirmed her PMO would acknowledge “the project owners are ultimately accountable for the projects that they lead” in a message targeted to Commonwealth public servants attending the conference.

“We’ll also be looking at our own capability within the DTA to make sure that we’ve got the necessary technical, analytical and commercial capability to operate as an expert PMO that can help agencies succeed in their projects,” she said.

“And we’ll be developing that co-operatively with agencies over the coming months, so we’ve got a lot to do.”

The transfer of other bureaucratic functions from the Department of Finance to the DTA will be completed over the next few months, and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is setting up a new expert advisory panel for Assistant Minister Taylor.

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