Where next for digital transformation in government?


My timeline earlier this week was dominated by the news that Paul Shetler, founding chief executive of the Digital Transformation Office, had written a farewell blog post describing his sixteen months in the Australian government. The DTO has since been renamed as the Digital Transformation Agency and relocated from Sydney to Canberra, but imagining what lies ahead is as fascinating as the many insights revealed in his post.

It’s surely no coincidence that following the launch of the innovative DTO Digital Marketplace, we’re now seeing long overdue announcements about more agile approaches to procurement in Canberra and across state governments. Big tick.

“Overnight, the DTA could become a truly innovative centre of digital excellence for all Australian governments…”

It’s also true that a legacy of the DTO is the way the notions of ‘digital transformation’ and ‘digital first’ have emerged as a hot topic at all levels of government in Australia. From discussions of the merits of open data, to hackathons and cybersecurity, I’ve lost count of the numbers of conferences and papers published in the last sixteen months. While some of this may have happened without the DTO, it was certainly at the forefront of the public messaging.

At state level meanwhile, the green shoots of digital transformation are very much in full bloom. For example, the clear trailblazers in the engagement field, the South Australian government, have recently dedicated a fortnight to their innovative Open State initiative. Over in New South Wales, Service NSW continues to transform the way customers do business with government, with the introduction recently of the first digital licences.

This year, each of the states has also announced their own innovation initiatives and it’s clear that change is very much under way. Back in Canberra, the excellent GovCMS initiative has quietly powered ahead with over 100 websites now hosted on a common platform, including some state government websites.

I can speak from experience about how valuable a service that must be. The time and effort needed to select a back-end system for a new website can be a massive drain on resources, especially when repeated across multiple departments. And alongside the clear benefits of a shared approach, the cost efficiencies of having a ready-made solution like this on tap will no doubt be keeping Treasury colleagues very happy.

And elsewhere in Canberra, the frontline work that Gary Sterrenberg’s team at the Department of Human Services are doing in customer service promises to be truly transformative. In every sense of the word.

Still a catalyst, but now also an insider

The future of the DTA then is bright, and definitely one of continued opportunity. Done well, digital tools can streamline complexity, allow 24/7 access and significantly reduce the cost of operations.

Having a central team leading the charge has to be a good thing. Across government, where departments face many common challenges, a central agency like the DTA can play a key role in facilitating access to shared approaches to the back-end like GovCMS. There’s also a valuable role to be played as a catalyst for sharing best practice and approaches making sure that lessons, good and bad, are shared and mistakes learnt from.

But sixteen months on from the formation of the Digital Transformation Office, the key difference may be that these roles now need to be played from inside the business rather than outside.

With governments serving such an enormous diversity of audiences, the notion of an external agency driving the abstract corporate agenda of ‘digital transformation’ may actually impede progress rather than drive it. For departments large and small, each with different customers, the key corporate focus remains not on what ‘digital’ can do but on really understanding the changing needs of their customers (with the key word being ‘changing’). This will include considerations of customer ethnicity, language, age and other variables unique to their department.

‘Digital first’ thinking should never replace ‘customer first’ thinking. With a clear understanding of their customers, departments can design local solutions in the most secure, efficient and appropriate way to allow customers to get on with their busy lives. And if it’s 100% digital, so be it.

Next steps and beyond

Looking to the future, the DTA will play a key role as a consultant and best-practice expert on the IT aspects of the decisions departments take. There’s nevertheless an important and far larger role for the DTA in looking beyond the boundaries of Canberra.

Overnight, the DTA could become a truly innovative centre of digital excellence for all Australian governments simply by reaching out to people facing the same challenges in local and state governments across Australia.

Even if it just meant every government department in Australia having immediate, easy access to GovCMS, the benefits (and savings in time and money) in creating a single, Australia-wide collaborative network of government digital and communications teams would be clear. The separate opportunity for the DTA to become the subject matter experts on worldwide best practice in digital government service delivery and learning is attractive and would reap benefits for departments of all sizes across Australia.

My experience of running a similar ‘hub’ across something like 143 departments in NSW for government advertising was that rather than prescribing solutions, much of the value lay in simply connecting people from different departments. Once the hub was built, the people did indeed come. We provided innovative online access to key processes and information and hosted some great training and education events, but all the feedback was that the simple networking sessions were of the greatest value.

One single whole-of-Australian-government digital best-practice hub, run out of Canberra, uniting all digital and communications staff across all of Australia’s governments in serving the public more efficiently? Is that really that hard to do? It would certainly be transformational.

Alun Probert is a media veteran and former head of strategic communications for the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet.

Top image: Digital Transformation Agency.

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