Gavin Slater’s digital dispatch: don’t just collaborate for the sake of it

By David Donaldson

Tuesday March 20, 2018

Gavin Slater at TTBC event

Part of the job of the Digital Transformation Agency is to bring clarity to government’s digital ambitions, says CEO Gavin Slater.

So don’t put the cart before the horse, he told a Trans-Tasman Business Council event.

“Just to say we’re going to collaborate, we’re going to collaborate on everything, doesn’t make sense,” he said.

“You’ve got to recognise that every individual is being held accountable for outcomes they have to deliver and they’re busy.

“I use the swim line analogy. I do a lot of swimming. When you’ve got your head down following the black line, sometimes it’s hard to look left and right all the time. The role of the DTA is to help them look left and right on those things that matter,” he told the lunch in Melbourne on Friday.

Those things that matter include digital identity, whole of government procurement, whole of government platforms, and “tell-us-once” measures, he said.

Not that Slater — who has been in the role 11 months now — dismisses the importance of collaboration once you’ve worked out your priorities.

“Certainly the first six months in the role I spent a disproportionate amount of time building relationships at the most senior levels, with all the secretaries and their executive teams,” he said.

“I needed to have strong relationships and buy in to our role as the DTA.”

The ability to work together is key to getting things done.

“Will the taxpayer be better served by us working together on some things, or by us each doing our own thing?” he asks.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Slater is often told by enthusiastic people in government — and politicians in particular — “we’ve got to be doing more! we’ve got to be doing more!” he said.

“And I say, ‘fundamentally what business problem are you trying to solve? What outcome are you trying to achieve?’ You’ve got to be clear about that because that will then inform how you go about it, how you leverage data as one aspect of the solution.”

He outlined three main ambitions for the DTA.

The first is enabling citizens and businesses to engage digitally with government more often.

Second is creating a better digital experience. With 1200 websites and 50 million pages of content online, it’s hardly surprising dealing with government isn’t always as easy as it should be. He suggests using four lenses to consider how useful your own website is: “Is it easy and simple? Is it safe and secure? Is it accessible? And importantly is it personalised?”

His third priority is helping government better understand where it should invest its money to have the biggest impact in digital.

Leadership and culture matter

Improving services for citizens isn’t just about bringing in better technology. Culture change is often needed within organisations to really make improvements happen — and this is often the hardest part.

“We talk a lot about the technology and there’s some really cool technology out there and really smart people who can very quickly find a solution to a business problem with an outcome you want to achieve,” Slater said.

“But as always, it’s more about culture than technology. It starts with a mindset in the most senior levels of an organisation — what is your orientation around change, what is your natural risk appetite or risk aversion, how much are you prepared to experiment, how much are you prepared to allocate some investment money and say, ‘come up with some bright ideas to solve some business problems that we have’ and be prepared to fail.”

There is “definitely an appetite for change at the secretary level”, he added — but senior leaders in the public sector are suffering from a digital skills shortage. The DTA is working with them to figure out what the behaviour and attributes of a digitally savvy leader look like.

And that’s not to downplay the useful initiatives that are happening. Slater thinks it’s unfortunate that there isn’t much of a narrative around the good things public servants are already doing in digital. The Australian Tax Office is one agency that has been working hard at improving the customer experience, he said, pointing to the use of pre-populated data and voice biometrics to make life easier for people doing their tax returns.

He sees the impetus for change coming from a few directions. Citizens want better digital services, and tight budgets require money-saving fixes.

But Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is also “very, very interested in this space”, Slater said. He “puts a lot of pressure on his ministers around what are they doing in their respective portfolios and the leadership they’re showing around digital transformation”.

“They say what your boss is interested in, you’re passionate about — and politicians are no different.”

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