Nerida O’Loughlin: DTA now has all the levers to push the pace after slow progress

By Stephen Easton

Thursday April 6, 2017

DTA Cadet Program

Malcolm Turnbull’s Cabinet recognises its efforts to make dealing with government “simple, fast and easy” have turned out more complicated, slow and difficult than hoped, according to interim Digital Transformation Agency chief executive Nerida O’Loughlin.

It’s not that there hasn’t been some progress, but the expansion of the DTA’s role is an attempt to speed up and smooth out the process.

With the changes last October, the government aimed to “put all relevant levers into one central agency to accelerate the delivery of its digital transformation agenda,” O’Loughlin said at the AIIA Navigating Digital Government conference on Wednesday.

“It has created an agency that is involved end-to-end across the lifecycle of all ICT and digitally enabled projects across the Commonwealth government,” she added, shortly before announcing her permanent successor will be Gavin Slater, formerly of NAB.

“This means that the DTA will be working with departments and agencies to make sure there’s a co-ordinated and seamless approach taken to user research, design, procurement, development, policy and implementation.

“These changes … reflect the government’s impatience at the pace of change and inconsistent outcomes on major projects.”

O’Loughlin noted that “sub-optimal outcomes on ICT and digital projects have the potential to dent public confidence”, both in government and the ICT industry.

“Government is increasingly frustrated with the rebuild of capabilities over and over again in different ICT projects.”

As interim CEO, she has continued building productive relationships with the big departments, which involves translating the DTA’s focus on quick, incremental improvements and user-centred service design into the language of large-scale public service delivery.

It has taken a while to work out exactly what the DTA can do for various organisations in the public service, some of which are giants with their own ideas about where they are going digitally and how they are getting there.

Even the opposition’s chief DTA critic, Ed Husic, who also spoke at the conference, agreed that banks are a good role model for big government agencies trying to slowly improve their service offering and chasing efficiencies through technology at the same time.

There have been some successes, O’Loughlin added, pointing to the myTax system, which is, despite an early teething problem, a vast improvement on both paper forms and the previous e-tax program.

“But it’s fair to say collectively, government has struggled on many occasions to meet public expectations,” she said, noting the AIIA’s recent research showing the public is itching for more and better examples of e-government.

She said the focus on digital platforms that can be used across government was also born of increasing frustration with the old ways of doing the same things over and over again in each public sector fiefdom.

“Government is increasingly frustrated with the rebuild of capabilities over and over again in different ICT projects,” O’Loughlin said. “We want to avoid duplication, be more cost effective and allow better integration of services across government, which ultimately, again, means better services for users.”

The prime example was the new GovPass program, the latest iteration of the agency’s attempts to create a new way for citizens to prove their identity digitally without raising the ire of privacy advocates and fueling concerns about how much data government has about individual citizens and what happens to it.

For some agencies, DTA’s role in helping them build capability in ICT project management is welcome, and its advocacy of a shift from “big waterfall project management and bespoke software to more flexible, agile approaches” will continue. For evidence of why a group of small steps are better than a big leap, O’Loughlin cited the Standish Group’s 2016 Chaos Report.

The DTA will use its major new lever, ICT procurement responsibility previously vested in the Department of Finance, “to make sure agencies are making the right decisions” about technology, she said.

“This ensures that a project has realistic milestones and a staged approach that allows adjustments to be made when needed and reduces the risk of an unrealised investment.”

On the new Digital Investment Management Office, she noted: “This will be first time in my memory where an agency has been asked to continually oversight the whole ICT portfolio of investment for the Commonwealth government.” An initial review of all ICT projects worth over $10 million, or which affect a large number of citizens, is due in June.

“These changes … reflect the government’s impatience at the pace of change and inconsistent outcomes on major projects.”

With another new lever, the ICT procurement taskforce from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, DTA is expected to open more contracts up to the market and make it cheaper and easier for small-to-medium enterprises to vie for them. This involves moving away from standing offers and panel arrangements, and making project management guidelines more flexible.

“All these changes are designed to address the ad hoc approach the government has historically had to ICT procurement,” O’Loughlin said to the industry audience, acknowledging that “we’ve all been here before” and referring to the 2008 Gershon Review.

“What we want to do with this taskforce and with the strong support of the current government is to try and break through on these issues because they’ve been holding many [ICT vendors] back and government service delivery back for many years.”

User research to the front

The digital transformation agenda has also put user research “front and centre” in the public service, the outgoing DTA chief said, acknowledging it hadn’t been used enough in the past. The new aim of the game was “customised” experiences for people living different lives.

“Transgender people say that they would prefer to do their business online as they don’t want to face the stigma or judgement they sometimes experience dealing with people face to face,” said O’Loughlin, in one of several examples.

People with disabilities, in particular, want more of this kind of consultation in general before services are designed, and everyone wants consistency between what they are told over the phone, in person, and through a website or digital app.

Apparently, citizens would also like progress updates after they submit an application, request information or are waiting on some process to be completed. Realistic or not, the DTA has found “a common fear” that asking for updates might annoy someone and, much like the fear of a cook spitting in your food, this could affect a decision or the outcome of a process.

“Perhaps the most common message we hear in user research is that users shouldn’t have to understand government to use a service,” she added. This is another point that has been made loudly and consistently by the agency since its beginnings as the DTO, and had rarely been heard uttered by public servants before.

“Users don’t distinguish between governments and government departments — local, state, federal, ATO, DHS, DIIS, DTA — we’re all simply government to our users and they don’t need, or care, to know the difference,” said O’Loughlin.

“Users want a simpler and seamless experience where the onus isn’t on them to read and learn all those details and explanations about the tiers of government and who is responsible for what.”

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