Text size: A A A

Sidelined and toothless, is the DTA no longer the disruptor some want for the public service?

Age-old arguments of centralised power versus the merits of devolution and coordination have bogged down an opportunity to get to the heart of why digital transformation across government is struggling at an administrative level.

The Senate report on the digital delivery of government services, tabled last week, has tried to confront another of the Australian Public Service’s elephants in the room ­–­ but with no likely prospect of making it go away.

That is the uneasy place held by the Digital Transformation Agency, which has just suffered the turnover of yet another chief executive.

Despite the usual party-political posturing, the Senate report of the long inquiry was a brave attempt to get a handle on digital transformation across government  ­– brave because it appears that no single body or person does, or perhaps can, have a handle on it.

Indeed, the first recommendation was for another review, a sure sign that much had to go into the too-hard basket.

Split along political lines

As reported, the finance and public administration references committee split on political lines on such questions as a centralised ICT authority and outsourcing.

There was consensus of sorts on the need for a specialist ICT professional stream in the APS, which is an old song resung given that the 2008 Gershon review suggested the same thing.

But as you’d expect, the committee also split on whether sufficient leadership and strategic focus on digital transformation was being brought to bear at ministerial and APS senior executive level.

And the government senators, in a minority report, hotly contested the majority’s position on the DTA.

Both sides hurled some slings and arrows.  The majority report said, among other things:

“The committee considers that the government has not demonstrated that it has the political will to drive digital transformation. This is much evidenced by the role it has given the DTA.”

Not necessarily. The DTA, and the DTO before it, was never intended to be a policeman on the beat. It doesn’t follow that the government has no political will to drive digital transformation. It might mean it is not managing it very well, but that is a different issue.

The minority report fired back:

“The majority report has incorrectly concluded that the DTA has no purpose or responsibility under its current remit. Nothing could be further from the truth. Government senators consider the position taken by the majority to be outmoded and reminiscent of a time when power was centralised in the central agencies …

Government senators consider the DTA to be achieving exactly that which it was intended to achieve at every stage of its mandate. The DTA is the government’s lead agency for the digital transformation of government administration. It has a whole-of-government focus for the development of strategy, policies and guidelines to assist departments and agencies to undertake digital transformation …”

And so on.

That is also over-egging the omelette.

Speed-dating turnover of leaders

Embarrassingly for the government, ever since the DTA’s predecessor, the Digital Transformation Office, was set up in 2015, there has been a speed-dating turnover of ministers and chief executives.

The ministers have been Malcolm Turnbull, Mitch Fifield, Angus Taylor and now Michael Keenan; the CEOs have been David Hazlehurst (interim DTO); Paul Shetler; Nerida O’Loughlin (interim DTA); Gavin Slater and now Randall Brugeaud. That is four ministers and five CEOs in three-and-a-half years, not to mention the machinery of government changes and high staff turnover. Functional leadership? You decide.

The majority report said, “At the time, the reorganisation of the DTO into the DTA was presented as representing an expansion of the agency’s powers. In reality, although the agency’s cope of operations did increase (for instance through the acquisition of responsibility for procurement) it was less empowered to take action.

“Now, two years later, the DTA performs a useful role in providing government standards and guidance. Its contribution is muted because its role is confined to the level of assistance with discrete projects and the operational level.

“Even there, its involvement is limited. At the time of its creation, it was intended to operate as a ‘powerful new program management office’ that would track ICT and digital projects across the whole of government stepping in to remediate where things are not working.

“In reality it had only a minor role in the case studies examined by this committee.”

It added unkindly, “The DTA has been sidelined in the new digital initiatives undertaken by the government”. Cyber policy, it said, would reside with the Department of Home Affairs; data policy with Prime Minister and Cabinet; and neither the Office of the Information Commissioner nor the Data Commissioner would be part of the DTA.

“Cumulatively, the evidence heard by this committee revealed an organisation that was not at the centre of government thinking about digital transformation, or responsible for the creation and enactment of a broader vision of what that transformation would look like. Troublingly, no other organisation is.”

“DTA has responsibilities but no enforcement powers; no last-resort whips to crack on agencies that do not make it easy for people to deal with government.”

The DTA is no longer a disruptor ­– that went out the window when the DTO start-up model was abandoned after getting up the noses of the rest of the APS.

The legal situation is that it is an executive agency under the Public Service Act with a list of whole-of-government functions gazetted by the Governor-General in October 2016.

As such, DTA has responsibilities but no enforcement powers; no last-resort whips to crack on agencies that do not make it easy for people to deal with government. From an outsider’s perspective, the performance dashboards are a good start, but they need prominence. And only 11 have been produced so far, which might prove the point.

Whether a Labor government would give the DTA any real teeth as a watchdog is moot, despite the tough talk in this report. Don’t hold your breath – the merits of devolution and coordination versus centralised power is one of those topics of endless debate in public administration.

Author Bio

Verona Burgess

Verona Burgess is a former Government Business Editor and senior columnist for the Australian Financial Review. She has been writing about the Australian Public Service since 1990. A former Jefferson Fellow, she was also joint winner of the inaugural Richard Baker Senate prize and won a Walkley award with The Canberra Times for team coverage of the 2003 Canberra bushfires.