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DTA chief lists five priorities, but digital identity ‘the one that really matters’

A national digital identity solution is the single most important project for the new CEO of the Digital Transformation Agency, who set out five key priorities yesterday afternoon in a speech hosted by the Australian Information Industry Association.

“There’s no silver bullet to anything but all my head, heart, gut, tells me that if you want to significantly increase digital uptake and significantly improve the experience, we have to solve for digital identity,” he said.

“This will require cross-agency collaboration, and it will require help from the private sector. And the role of the DTA is to work with all those parties and be very clear about what it is we’re trying to achieve, what success looks like and how we go about it for that benefit.

“If we can do one thing only, I think this is the one that really matters.”

Slater reiterated that the DTA could not achieve much on its own several times throughout the speech. He said the five priorities were not just for his team; they were for the government and his APS colleagues.

“Because the DTA alone can’t deliver this. It’s impossible. There’s no single agency that can deliver on the government’s digital transformation agenda. It requires us to do it as a team and to have strong alignment around digital.”

One year ago, the former head of the agency’s digital identity projects Rachel Dixon explained some elements of her plans and announced she was ready to launch a prototype. Then suddenly something happened — the inevitable privacy concerns were raised, but instead of responding to them confidently and publicly, the agency abruptly cancelled the launch and the project seemed to stall. Dixon left the DTA in May this year, taking a lot of knowledge with her.

A lot of other key people have been swept out in recent months and Slater also said he would be working hard to “repair relationships” and build new ones within the Australian Public Service and the IT sector.

A roadmap

His first priority is to create a clear “roadmap” of the government’s digital transformation “journey” over the next 12 and 24 months, starting from a “clear, pragmatic picture” of all the digital channels and services provided by the government, and the many millions of transactions and interactions they facilitate every year.

Slater said the DTA’s advice would help the government “focus money and effort and capability on the areas that will have the biggest impact” – like finding a solution to online identity verification.

“We’ve got to have a point of view on this stuff… to inform the investment choices that inevitably the government has to make. Government is no different to the private sector; capital is scarce. We can’t just keep spending taxpayers’ money, or shareholders money. We have to make choices.”

Rapid, continuous improvement of key platforms

Slater listed the digital identity framework that he sees as the most important individual platform for the government to deliver as part of a more general ambition to increase “the rate of change” by doing a lot more work on “key platforms like myTax, myGov, myHealth [and] business-facing platforms” that form the pillars of the current digital offering.

He wants to identify the most useful bits of digital government and “focus our collective efforts across the public service to improving the core platforms” that handle the bulk of federal service delivery, to continuously improve their functionality and user experiences.

“There’s an element of rationalisation of web pages – there’s over a thousand, and close to 50 million different unique pages of content,” he said, hastily confirming he wouldn’t be resurrecting gov.au.

“What I’m not saying is a single web page, OK? But there’s no doubt there is a case for some degree of rationalisation, and being thoughtful about that, and improving the content of that.”

Slater said he met with CIOs from the “top ten agencies” on Wednesday to discuss the issue and all were “genuinely interested and willing to collaborate” with the digital agency.

Innovation labs and capability uplift

Slater plans to set up two new innovation labs at the DTA offices in Sydney and Canberra, as part of a focus on “capability uplift” — supporting efforts to turn around the major IT skills shortages that hold back digital transformation both in the public service, and in Australia in general.

He invited other APS agencies to send their staff along to either of the DTA’s new innovation labs, once they’re set up, and get help with the problems they are trying to solve.

Slater said agencies need to keep going with the innovation methodologies, like starting each new project by looking at the problem through an initial “discovery” phase, then using techniques like user-centred design, rapid prototyping, agile methodology and sprints to find a solution.

The new CEO is very keen on innovation labs, to the point where he encourages anyone across the APS with any spare floor space to convert it to one.

“We can’t have too many,” he said, adding that he saw a role for the DTA in helping smaller agencies build capability.

The DTA now has joint responsibility, with the public service commission, for the expanded entry-level ICT employment programs that used to be run by the Department of Finance and these would be vehicles to contribute to the capability piece.

But Slater also wants to work with industry partners to skill up as many public servants as possible, he told the AIIA members.

“I have this vision of a capability uplift program that staff from across the APS can participate in, and some of the companies that we partner with have access to the best facilities in the world – innovation labs, ways of working.

“And consistently, in all the conversations that I’ve had, I’ve said: ‘If you want to talk about a partnership let’s put cost aside for a second; how can you contribute to capability uplift?’

“One thing we are all clear on is that there is a significant shortfall of digital skills across the Australian economy, and within the APS that’s no different. So [there is] a real opportunity I think for the DTA to play a big role in uplifting that capability.”

Slater added that he sees it as “vital” for the government to work with the IT industry more closely. He said the APS had thousands of good people but “the reality is we need help” — and to that end he plans to set up a memorandum of understanding with the AIIA, to “make it a little more purposeful around how we can drive that collaboration” — but he is not sure yet what the content of the agreement will be.

“You might say, ‘What does that practically mean?’ I don’t know yet, other than I want to show intent that we can work on some stuff together, and try… If it fails, great; we’ve learned something.”

Portfolio monitoring

Another priority for Slater is to ramp up “all-round portfolio monitoring” — flexing the oversight responsibilities the agency gained in February. He wants to take a hard look at all of the government’s IT spending to find out which programs are most efficient and effective, and which are the biggest money wasters.

This process would lead to some programs getting shut down and “remediation and intervention” for others. The new CEO said that “might be politically sensitive” — the minister’s office should be able to deal with that — but in his view it is more important to stop “throwing good money after bad money” and eliminate duplication.

This, he said, was no different to when fund managers or venture capitalists demand performance information and keep an eagle eye on all their investments, to distinguish the “dogs” from the good performers.

Procurement reform

Another of the government’s five new digital priorities is procurement reform, which Slater understands as making sure the government gets good deals, and helping smaller IT industry players get a look in.

The traditional processes are also a key barrier on the government side, according to others trying to bring government services into the digital age. On one hand, these rigid frameworks promote value for money and probity, but they can also slow down digital projects that require experimentation and the flexibility to try out innovative offerings from a range of vendors along the way, without making a big commitment upfront or having to run a whole new tender round to scale up when things are working well.

The AIIA crowd was obviously very pleased to hear Slater’s plan is to “level the playing field” between the big incumbents and small-to-medium enterprises through more transparency around contracts. He also wants to reduce the complexity and cost of breaking into the public sector market. The new Digital Marketplace is “a great piece of innovation” in his view that demonstrates government is moving in the right direction.

One of the big challenges the APS needs to overcome, in the former bank executive’s view, is the difficulty of truly “thinking differently” — taking more leaps of faith into the unknown, when it is often quite rational for people and organisations to rely on “what they have done in the past” to manage risk and uncertainty.

“It gets harder, maybe, the older we get … to maintain that curiosity, that propensity to want to learn and to discover new ways of thinking – or to change your risk appetite,” Slater said.

This risk aversion was one factor behind a general reluctance to take a chance on smaller IT vendors, he added, and said he believed the DTA “should have a point of view on matters of emerging technology” and encourage other agencies to increase their risk appetite.

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Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.