“From here on in,” says Assistant Minister Angus Taylor, “the aspiration has to be bigger” for the Digital Transformation Agency, as it flexes the financial oversight function it recently acquired from the Department of Finance.
“And that aspiration has to be about reforming the whole of government’s attitude towards digital and IT,” Taylor told The Mandarin last week, as he prepared to announce the agency’s new Digital Investment Management Office would spend the first half of the year reviewing major federal ICT projects.
He sees the DTA as a “young organisation” that has only just come of age — two years after Malcolm Turnbull founded his digital “start-up” in the communications portfolio, and almost 18 months after it moved with him to the centre of government. A new chief executive should be announced soon and 2017 has been spent bedding down last year’s restructure, which wasn’t the kind of transformation that happens overnight, according to Taylor.
“I have built many organisations in my career from scratch … and the one thing I’ve learned is you’ve got to walk before you run as an organisation,” he said.
“But I think we can move quickly now. We have a much broader mandate and scope, and that breadth of mandate and scope is really needed now to get the best possible outcomes with a very significant IT budget.”
Taylor said things had to change because the Turnbull government had sunk a lot more into big public sector ICT projects than the previous government, which lost power over three years ago. But it took until late last year to act on a “growing realisation” that this meant more central oversight of IT investment and procurement was needed.
“And that gave birth to DTA 2.0, which is one that not only provides platforms but has broad oversight of the government IT and procurement agenda and can work collaboratively with government departments to get projects done faster, better, with stronger outcomes,” said the Assistant Minister.
Of course the DTA is still doing its original job, trying to develop new digital platforms for government and clean up the user experience of existing online services at the same time. Taylor said this task would become easier now that DTA had been given the “teeth” to influence investment, procurement and service delivery decisions.
But while its review program appears broad in scope, he said the agency would only intervene where he believed it could add real value. His prime example is a bundle of recent improvements to the myGov login process and other “more profound changes” that are planned to come next.
“That is an example of the DTA working in the form it’s in now,” said Taylor.
Asked how the changes affect Finance’s role, Taylor underscored the fact that the investment management team was effectively transplanted from the central agency into the DTA.
“The key with the way the DTA is working now, is it’s much more co-ordinated,” he said. “We have moved a number of people over from Finance into the DTA. That was an important move to avoid duplication and perhaps more importantly, to ensure that the DTA has this oversight role across all of government.”
The staff transfers from Finance have brought over “more organisational skills, and IT-analytical skills, to be able to look across projects and assess where they’re at, where we should be making investments, and provide strategic advice to the Digital Transformation Committee of Cabinet” — and Taylor is also keen to avoid the talk turf wars inside the public service.
He assures us he has not completely shelved gov.au, which is seen by some observers as a point of contention between the DTA and Finance, but has no further comment on his decision not to proceed with a proposed expansion of the site, beyond what his office told The Canberra Times in January.
Taylor says the project has a “particular focus” on the Department of Human Services at the moment, and would eventually become a standard “format … that would be used by all government” just like the other platform projects the agency is working on.
Imported from the UK, the original concept was explicitly based on the premise that government has too many websites, all arranged around its multifarious organisational structure rather than the needs of citizens. Finance’s govCMS, on the other hand, appears to undermine this vision by supporting the continued existence of a whole universe of separate government websites.
So far the most concerted attempt to dispel the rivalry story was a blog post jointly published by the two putative adversaries last year, explaining how the two products would complement each other, gov.au being a “service design approach” and govCMS a “common platform” that makes it cheaper for agencies to run their own websites. It seems the current plan is for agencies and even ministers to have both their own website and a gov.au version.
Taylor would prefer to focus on collaboration rather than conflict, for obvious reasons, and says he has faith that “magic can happen” if the right people with the right skills are brought together. The Assistant Minister is adamant the DTA has “the teeth” to intervene in future investment, procurement and service delivery decisions. “But we want the agencies to work with us, collaboratively,” he added.
“We don’t want it and we don’t need it to be an aggressive, cantankerous relationship. It shouldn’t be, because at the end of the day the DTA can actually help the departments and agencies around government to achieve their goals.”
Of all the ideas for new digital platforms, Taylor is most enthusiastic about the digital marketplace for IT procurement he launched to a select audience in Canberra shortly after taking on the digital transformation gig. He confirmed the digital identity project was “ongoing” as well but like gov.au, it was suddenly put on the backburner last year, possibly to avoid a clash with the digital marketplace launch or to put off a likely battle with privacy advocates.
How you go about it
There’s a key similarity between the resignation of Paul Shetler, who was demoted from CEO when the DTA was renamed and restructured, and that of Mike Bracken, his former boss at the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service, which has strongly influenced the Australian agency.
Both spoke about how they wanted to radically transform public services — to make them more understanding of individual circumstances and less computer-says-no; more common sense and less Kafkaesque — then claimed a hidebound, intransigent old-school bureaucracy stood in their way and frustrated their attempts all along.
Taylor says he does not underestimate how hard it is to change longstanding organisational culture in a massive web of organisations like the Australian Public Service, but is confident it can be done by the DTA under the new administrative arrangements.
“I accept, and I think everyone who makes an honest appraisal of the federal government’s IT recognises, that change needs to be made,” he said.
Taylor accepts that public service fiefdoms exist, simply by virtue of the resources and authority placed in them, but says that’s another challenge of all large organisations that he is prepared to work with.
“You will always have fiefdoms building; that’s the nature of humans and the way we organise. That happens, but that’s not a barrier to getting good things to happen, if you go about it the right way,” he said.
Going about it the right way means “building those collaborative relationships” to the Assistant Minister, who says he is “modelling that from the top” in the way he works with other ministers. The results of some of those discussions are clear already. Centrelink’s highly controversial online compliance tool is unsurprisingly off limits, but its main website is fair game for Turnbull’s digital disruption.
Of course the DTA was only ever going to go where the government wanted it, and that scope has not proved to be as grand as some — perhaps Shetler included — hoped it would be.
While Taylor said the new review program would cover every current ICT project costing over $10 million or engaging a large number of Australians, that doesn’t mean the DTA would necessarily get involved with them.
“We’re not into all of them, and it won’t be appropriate for us to be in all of them, but we are getting this oversight and selectively getting involved with projects where it makes sense,” he said.
“It made sense for us to get involved after Christmas in some revamp of the DHS Centrelink website. It needed to be made cleaner, more intuitive, easier to use. And we’ve been doing that work and we’ll be doing much of that work around government.”