Parkinson cautions APS culture must change for DTA to have effect

By Ashley Carolan

Friday August 18, 2017

The very public de-radicalisation of the Digital Transformation Agency has continued in earnest, with Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, cautioning public service chiefs culture must change to make new technology deliver.

Speaking at the Institute of Public Administration Australia breakfast in Canberra this week to introduce new Digital Transformation Agency chief executive Gavin Slater, Parkinson delivered a candid reappraisal of the DTA’s mission that was recently rocked by the spectacular departure of former chief Paul Shetler — who has continued to unload on agency performance since leaving the public service.

“Reaching for the closest piece of new-fangled technology will never add value unless you also think about your organisational norms,” Parkinson told the room.

“Digital transformation is really about culture. It’s about how we transform ourselves and the process of transformation and not the end point.”

Parkinson’s comments come as ministers and senior bureaucrats bunker down for a major grilling after the Oppostion and minor parties succeeded in standing up a fresh Parliamentary probe into “Digital delivery of government services” that is anticipated to provide a very public autopsy of some of the Commonwealth’s very public IT hiccups.

Run out of the  Finance and Public Administration References Committee, the probe is set to report by 4th December and is certain to dig into the DTA’s activities and progress.

Having largely maintained radio silence for the first three months in the DTA’s top role to go on a listening tour, Slater — a former National Australia Bank tech chief — was at pains to stress he was there to help the public service rather than turn it upside down.

“An important outcome of that has been to repair relationships in many instances and to build new ones,”” Slater said.

“I have restructured the agency to give us and our staff greater clarity around what their responsibilities are and what they are going to be held accountable for.”

Parkinson also made a point of stressing that the DTA’s inter-agency relationships would be less directly challenging.

“After three months in the role it’s clear that Gavin has no interest in stepping on the toes or yanking the digital reins of departments or agencies,” Parkinson said.

“What he is interested in is capacity building, lifting the digital expertise of existing APS staff and embedding a culture of design thinking in the way we solve problems.”

With the NSW public sector already well known for raiding banks for leadership talent, Parkinson also threw the increasingly governance challenged Australian banking industry a modest compliment in their hour of need.

“The big four banks, whatever you might think about them in other contexts, are some of our best digital transformation role models,” Parkinson said.

Diplomatic niceties squared away, Parkinson also managed to give the occasionally earnest IT crowd a tickle in terms of their career aspirations.

“We have all heard these stories about the data analyst who secretly write code that effectively does their job for them, except much faster and with less human error,” Parkinson quipped.

“Think [of] the ambition of Wally in the Dilbert cartoons … sorry Gavin, that’s not really an analogy we may want to push too far… Gavin has exactly that story.”

Not to be outmatched, Slater provided some observations of the culture of government and its recruitment process.

“There have been times over the last three months where I was not sure whether it was good meeting you or not … whether you sold me a pup,” Slater told Parkinson before reflecting on his own accidental attendance at partisan dinner engagements.

“It was only my second week in Canberra and I was excited,” Slater conceded, comparing Canberra to a the dazzling effect a theme park has on children, saying he just “wanted to go on all the rides.”

He noted that after a trip on the “roller coaster” the enthusiasm had been tempered.

“Lesson learned,” Slater said.


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