Tom Burton: Slater’s digital challenges


Probably the most critical question about the appointment of ex-NAB banker, Gavin Slater, to lead the federal government’s multi-billion dollar digital transformation program, is: what city is he going to reside in?

Canberra’s infamous insularity was among the key factors that led to the demise of his predecessor, Paul Shetler. Shetler preferred to tap the dev and skills of the vibrant Sydney start-up community, centering the neophyte agency away from the huge, largely independent agencies it was meant to be reforming.

The model was to build a highly capable digitally centric agency, that would rapidly build beautiful front-end services based on real citizen need.

“The world may be embracing cognitive solutions, but in Canberra the basic issue is a whole lot of major systems that operate in statutory and technical silos.”

For years Canberra had been spending billions on ICT with not a lot to show for it, with survey after survey describing federal (and many state) government front-end services as something between bad and totally awful.

Then Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, openly stole the idea of a new disruptive agency, acting like an agile start-up, from the UK, where Shetler was hired from.

Shetler was not shy in denouncing just how bad many of the government services were, fingering the entry portal myGov as an exemplar of some thing that was beyond reform.

Shetler’s plan was to rebuild the government’s main service offering, through a brand new portal, gov.au and sidestep the 1500 other fed sites with a mega-site that would look and operate like the large exemplar US tech platforms.

Easy to create powerful adversaries

Shetler’s miscalculation was not to appreciate that myGov had been the child of some smart work to bring the three massive service players — the Tax Office, Medicare and Centrelink — into one consistent identity framework. The front-end was a poster child for government’s notorious disregard for basic usability, but strategically it had been hugely successful with over 10 million accounts now registered to use the back-end services from the Big Three of Canberra service delivery.

Shetler’s plan to replace it put his small agency immediately in the firing line with these powerful agencies.

Similarly the proposal to shut down the Department of Finance’s www.australia.gov.au portal in favour of his shiny new gov.au site, created another powerful adversary.

This was ratcheted up by Shetler’s very public disregard for the big vendors, who Shetler claimed had captured the big agencies, with large lumbering waterfall projects that failed to deliver front-end changes.

It all ended in tears last year when new digital transformation minister, Angus Taylor, was appointed to give much needed political leadership to what has blown out to be a near $10 billion a year transformation program.

Taylor bought Shetler’s transformation strategy but not the man, and the Digital Transformation Office was shuttered. The DTO was replaced by an agency with a mandate to stop building new sites and instead strategically lead the reformation of the notorious legacy systems that have till now stymied the digital transformation program.

Building a rich data ecosystem that speaks the same language

Slater’s primary initial challenge is to make these systems talk to each other, so citizens can deal with government through a consistent well designed experience. The world may be embracing cognitive solutions, but in Canberra the basic issue is a whole lot of major systems that operate in statutory and technical silos. This is the world of APIs and consistent rich data exchange taxonomies and technical formats, plus a truckload of information architecture and regulatory change to support it.

Identity becomes critical to this program and while work is continuing to create a verification portal, in many ways this is a distraction. Unlike the states, the Commonwealth already has two robust IDs that can largely fulfil the need to ensure the integrity of the data that seamless digital services require. The ATO’s Tax File Number and the Department of Industry’s Australian Business Number are both of a quality to power and link the vast majority of government services.

The second challenge for Slater is also tied up with these legacy issues — driving major back-office reform to automate these services. As Slater knows only too well from his bank experience, creating unified processes that enable straight through processing of the vast majority of your standard service requests, enables simple and effective front-end service delivery.

“DTA’s role lifting capability has nothing to do with technology and much more to do with people and processes, otherwise known as old fashion change management.”

It is also absolutely the space where large scale cognitive solutions offer game changing intelligence to be embedded into back office systems. Built well — and there are many cases studies of banks who have done it badly — this foundational tech offers a powerful and flexible base to innovate from.

Enter the bankers’ state, AKA New South Wales. NSW had the dubious advantage that it had a burning platform, after years of bureaucratic feudalism had left nothing to protect. Then Premier, Mike Baird, also brought in two ex-NAB execs, Mike Pratt and Glenn King, to drive the reformation of NSW’s service offering.

Culture trumps technology

ServiceNSW was set up as a greenfield agency and over the last five years has been seen as an exemplar of large scale service transformation. Two lessons for the Feds: first, building the correct culture and capability, completely trumps any technology play. Pratt and foundation CEO King focused on building an agency where power sat at the edge and where there was a relentless effort to improve the core offering based on feedback from the front line service agents. First rate customer care was the business objective, and the technology piece was a secondary enabler. In fact the initial tech was a simple piece of Salesforce middleware to tie together the disparate systems into a unified front end offering.

In Canberra, the eye watering $10 billion plus annual tech spend has been very much driven by the powerful CIO community, to repair and replace creaking systems, move to the cloud and build urgently needed cyber resilience.

What has been lacking has been clear business outcomes, developed and owned by these agencies. The billion dollar welfare system rebuild should be underpinning what we want our welfare system to be. Instead it is largely replicating the current spaghetti of benefits and morass of rules, driving massive system cost, and essentially replicating the current analogue frameworks.

Australia Post is a good example of a government agency that has done the hard strategic work and is now building its systems around its vision as a trusted data manager.

It is the difference between doing digital, rather than being digital and the risk Slater and the DTA have is they simply become a second version of Finance’s AGIMO (the office which oversees the $10 billion per annum ICT program).

The DTA can provide some top line assurance of these mega projects — and has an effective “gold” veto right over any Cabinet level ICT investments — but the reality is the line agencies have to own and assure these projects themselves.

The recent series of high profile and damaging problems with eCensus, Centrelink robo debt recovery, Veterans Affairs, NDIS  and the ATO site outages, reveal major gaps in capability and DTA can play a big role in leading a major lift in capability in the big line agencies. Much of this has nothing to do with technology and much more to do with people and processes, otherwise known as old fashion change management.

Hopefully done in a modern user centric manner, rather than falling into the trap of solving the government’s own problems.

Set and forget doesn’t work anymore

The second lesson from NSW experience has been the relentless focus on product improvement. In the wider internet world it has been businesses that have consistently improved the feature set and usability of their products that have been most successful. AirBnB, Uber, Google maps, Watsapp are examples of product driven growth. Twitter an example of a product that has not developed and has seen its user base stagnate.

This focus on problem solving also gives direction and clear KPI’s to measure success, rather than being drowned in a morass of project deliverables and process complexity.

In banking, telcos and many utilities, linking consumer satisfaction to executive remuneration has been a key to driving a user centric, product focussed culture and consequent turnaround in consumer brand reputation. Major tech change, without this type of deep reform and leadership, risks simply cloning the current mish mash of poor services.

At a higher level there is a desperate need to articulate a system level architecture that will enable the data driven transformation now ripping through businesses across the world, a giant tsunami of disruption.

“…as the banks have already shown, bureaucratic processes are ripe for large scale automation.”

This does not have to be done isolation. Governments across the world deliver similar services — from dog registration to passports — and so many of the applications that support these services, can be brought as cloud based offerings that can be “rented” till the next best app comes along.

Getting government out of the business of building front-end apps — and leaving that to focused providers in the fintech, healthtech, edtech, civitech world enables government to tap the innovation and speed of providers.

This is classic ecosystem development, and well done would see the big mega agencies acting as tent poles to these ecosystems, driving platforms that enable providers to play and innovate on. Think for example of an app like store for payment providers connected to the ATO’s revenue collecting platform.

This implies a very different collaborative development model than the highly centralised, command and control model that still infects much of the large Canberra delivery agencies.

It also requires an system architecture that is built to promote this type of large scale reformation and integration. Whether that needs the development of a purpose built government operating system, (android for gov if you like), that can support this data-centric approach to government, is something that needs deep consideration. The two biggest governments in the world, India and China, are both contemplating heading that way.

An eye on the future

Coming big time is the explosion in internet connected devices, known as the Internet of Things. Sometimes referred to as the network of networks, it demands government major collaboration. And again in an environment where government is both a user of the massive data that  will come from these devices, but also a critical player as infrastructure provider and rule maker.

Advanced economies like Germany and Japan are light years ahead of Australia in their whole of country embrace of what is termed Industry 4.0.  Governments in both these countries are actively driving major collaborative agendas to reap the economic benefits of a totally connected economy.

The DTA is not going to be able to drive this bigger picture strategy, which is largely going to have to come from strong political and central agency vision about modern 21st century government.

Without jumping into politics, this requires an acceptance that disruption is coming big time to government — as the banks have already shown, bureaucratic processes are ripe for large scale automation.

It also requires some bi-partisanship about the acceptance of a hybrid model that has government and providers — big and small focused on solving problems together. The Medibank scare campaign — where a sensible look at how best to rethink the payments platform was high jacked for political purposes – suggests both major parties need to deeply consider what is the base government model they want to move to.

Accepting government will be significantly smaller, more productive and hopefully highly intelligent and innovative, will be necessary if the massive investments now being made in transformation are to reap the deep economic benefits from reforming what accounts for around a third of economic activity.

Finally, Shetler has not been making friends in the thin skinned world of Canberra with his post departure opinions, but as a wise reflection of his learnings, this speech on government transformation is well worth a read.

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